How To Elevate Brand Management To Cultural Relevance

It doesn’t matter whether your brand is the longstanding category leader, a new entrant, a trendsetter in fashion, or a household basic; maintaining relevance in culture makes the difference on the balance sheet and on Wall Street. A look at the companies that are doing it right.


Brand marketing has changed. The economy has changed. Consumer values have changed, as have technology, media and lifestyle behaviors. Yet the role of the marketing department is stuck in a rut, forced to remain the same as it ever was, often because of its own corporate structure.

And that’s not the only challenge. Marketing departments are under-resourced, given tougher objectives and are asked to deliver faster results, all within the new marketing landscape that they’re trying to figure out. And reimagining marketing is a high-risk strategy at a time when CEOs are looking for secure choices. 

So what’s the answer? If you look at the consumer brands that have performed best in recent years, there is a consistent theme unifying all of them: Always stay culturally relevant.

It doesn’t matter whether your brand is the longstanding category leader, a new entrant, a trendsetter in fashion, or a household basic; maintaining relevance in culture makes the difference on the balance sheet and on Wall Street.

British luxury fashion brand Burberry is testimony to growth through cultural relevance. The company’s chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, is credited with transforming the fortunes of the company by modernizing the brand to appeal to a younger international audience. Enjoying sustained growth of a luxury brand despite a broad slowdown in the global economy, the brand has innovated its cultural role through design, marketing, and progressive use of digital and social media. In fact, Burberry has risen to be Facebook’s most ‘liked’ luxury brand with more than 8 million fans. This relevant cultural standpoint also has delivered real brand value–according to Millward Brown’s 2011 BrandZ list Burberry has benefited from 86 percent brand value growth from 2010 to gain the No. 4 position in their list of fastest-growing brands.

In the sports category, Baltimore-based challenger brand Under Armour has leveraged its cultural respect and authenticity and its commitment to leading product innovation to see the company grow exponentially throughout the recession. The brand has seen 30.5 percent compound annual growth rate in the last five years, and with a clear roadmap for continued growth, has earned the support of stock analysts; Canaccord’s Camilo Lyon recently said that the “brand acceptance UA has earned is only strengthening.”


The Focus of Culture-Led Marketing

The role of marketing needs to be refocused, from brand management to cultural management. Marketing teams need to find authentic ways to be entertaining or useful to consumers within their cultural interests. In doing so, a brand becomes the prize to measure success by rather than a form of product decoration, manipulated in the hope of being perceived as more exciting. 

This shift from managing brands to managing the culture around a brand also requires a shift in marketing capabilities. The marketing department is no longer a brand’s promoter, but is more like its executive producer or curator.

Agencies, Too, Need to Change

Pressures on the client side are similarly reflected through agencies where there is confusion in how to define the right capabilities and competencies to meet a client’s changing needs.

To simplify matters, there is a single important change for agencies to make. It is critical that any agency responsible for advising a client’s brand strategy must evolve its capabilities to find ways to help brands increase their cultural relevance. 


This demands deep cultural insight and strategic rigor to help create a clear cultural role for the brand against which genuinely integrated creative and production resources can generate the diverse range of entertaining or useful platforms that will innovate and connect the brand in the cultural landscape.

The New Innovations and Insights

At WDCW, meeting this challenge meant the creation of a specific innovation and insight lab called Cultural Capital. Cultural Capital measures a brand’s value in culture, and through research and analytics, it provides a unique way of measuring a brand’s relevance within its cultural context. 

The most significant change we’ve seen immediately as an agency is the confidence this approach is giving our clients to make decisions. They can now clearly evaluate the influence an idea will have based on its core insight, creative and cultural impact.

At a time when marketing seems least certain, our aim is to help provide a secure process to build confidence in making innovative decisions, which drive performance–and this means innovating culture.

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About the author

Clyde McKendrick is founder of innovations and insights lab Cultural Capital -- based within WDCW-LA, an integrated advertising agency where he is also executive strategy director. A British native, Clyde has spent the last 15 years guiding brands including Pepsi, Red Bull and T-Mobile to develop their brand strategies and communications