How Agencies Can Hack Culture for Brand Insights

Agencies should approach culture not as a mysterious creative specialty but as a strategic, business issue, and see the data in cultural codes.

How Agencies Can Hack Culture for Brand Insights

Picture this: you’re in a meeting in which your team is challenged to come up with ideas that tap into trends and pop culture. Everyone at the table nods in agreement. Culture! Yes. Important. Check.


Two weeks later, only vague (if any) traces of cultural understanding can be found in the DNA of the work.

Sound familiar? As anthropologist Grant McCracken has said, “Culture is the great mystery for capitalism.” That can change if we adopt a hacker’s mentality. Marketers need to shift their approach to culture–from thinking of it as a curious abstraction to tapping it as a valuable source of intelligence.

Step one is to start simple and define the problem, literally: “Culture is the universal human capacity to classify and encode experiences symbolically and communicate symbolically encoded experiences socially.” Conceptualizing culture in this way can help shift the mindset of your organization, as it implies there are “codes” in culture, signals to interpret and act upon. This will appeal to right-brain types and motivate analytical (and perhaps more skeptical) thinkers to attack the problem strategically.

Cultural cues should be treated like other forms of information that play a key role in strategic planning or creative ideation. Do not go searching for some uber-creative guru who ostensibly has the magic touch because he always has his finger on the pulse of culture. Challenge your own innovative minds to treat culture like the business problem it is, exploring processes (old school!) to hack the information imbedded within through actual analysis. Developing culture intelligence as an insights competency will empower you to position the brand promise at the intersection of cultural and human truths, creating things for the mass market by speaking to individuals. The implications for community managers and brands as publishers are clear.

As a character in novelist Haruki Marukami’s 1Q84 says, “My specialty is cultural anthropology … one aim of my field is to relativize the images possessed by individuals, discover in these images the factors universal to all human beings, and feed these universal truths back to those same individuals. As a result of this process, people might be able to belong to something even as they maintain their autonomy.” Instead of attempting to manufacture social currency, it is possible to unearth it from the culture and apply creative resources to its distribution.

There are various modes of cultural anthropology in the digital age, including, just to name a few, cool hunting, trend spotting, meme tracking, and pattern recognition. The trick is to be motivated by the availability of this information rather than daunted by it. Although they may not always live as clean quantitative figures, it is time to think of cultural codes in congruence with Big Data.


So get scrappy. Devise a plan and start hacking: collect trends and memes in a catalog and dissect them for meaning and valuable data points (McCracken refers to this as “tracking tremors”); listen to consumers who compose the culture of interest; identify socio-economic patterns and begin to question their meaning as it relates to the brand. We’ve become obsessed with cultivating disruptive ideas, which can definitely be a valid approach; however, culture analysis can illuminate opportunities for aligning ideas that feed on the efficacy of powerful truths.

Let’s consider a basic, hypothetical hacking example through a look into generational culture:

  • Say your aim is to achieve relevance among a new Millennial segment, and social listening on this target uncovers that 20-something consumers who are talking about your brand tend to be independent creators, such as musicians, designers and artists. Great insight, but keep going; achieve depth through cultural context.
  • You connect this finding to an op-ed piece in The New York Times that suggests the emergence of Generation Sell, characterized by social entrepreneurship and fueled by platforms like Kickstarter, a social funding site for independent projects: “…the characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.” Awesome ethnographic evidence from a trusted POV. Now dive deeper and hack the data.
  • Further research leads you to another New York Times article, “Three Years of Kickstarter Projects,” which covers a review of nearly 50,000 Kickstarter ventures and reveals the quantity of successful launches by category (Film vs. Music vs. Design, etc.) along with their associated funding levels. Stemming from a target insight through online listening, you have gained an understanding of the Millennial mindset and social approach to small business, identified a key platform that is enabling this movement, and accessed data that can inform strategic, tactical or creative ideas to align with the flow of a generation.

Culture is the connective tissue–from insights and strategy to content creation–that can weave a stronger brand narrative. The framework above is less of a guide for how to culture hack as it is a call to action. It’s about seeing the opportunity, through cultural understanding, to create work that affects individuals with greater potency and resonates with scale. Marketers should design innovative culture hacking initiatives on their own terms and look to culture hacking as an investment in brand relevance and sustainability.

Marc Geffen is senior analyst, insights & planning at agency 360i.

[Prehistoric mobile phone Image: Lolloj via Shutterstock, Meeting Room Image: timy via Shutterstock; Richter Image: Oriontrail via Shutterstock]