Four Ways Brands Can Make The Most Of Cultural Moments

Wieden+Kennedy New York group media director Karlo Cordova on the value of our increasingly rare moments of collective engagement.

Four Ways Brands Can Make The Most Of Cultural Moments
[Photo: Flickr user David Torcivia]

Media fragmentation is accelerating. More devices, more platforms, more networks, and more content mean that there are fewer opportunities for brands to engage with an audience of any scale at any given time.


Those times and places of guaranteed collective engagement that do still exist are extremely valuable. More than ever, they are cultural moments–real-time events that captivate and galvanize an audience. Small windows of time where people are collectively turned-on, tuned-in, open-minded, and socially active.

These moments are obviously valuable to marketers, yet very few use these moments to their full potential. Cultural moments (including major movie releases and sporting events), offer an environment tailor-made for impactful messaging, with the potential for amplification through social media and the 24-hour news cycle. It’s a missed opportunity–and a disservice to the audience–for a brand to show up with the same message that they show up with at most other times, and in most other places.

At W+K NY, we’ve seen, firsthand, the value of those cultural moments–they give our message more impact per dollar spent, and create an opportunity for emotional connection that cannot be found elsewhere. Here are four ways to make the most of them.

Identify resonant moments

It’s critical to focus on an event where your brand plays some role in the participants’ or audience’s actions, and one that celebrates the values your brand stands for. We always start with opportunities that have scale, but a moment can happen anywhere–people just need to be open and engaged. Real resonant moments (and not just random news events) are valuable because they have a positive association for the audience, there are clear themes, and there’s an opportunity to create an opinion.

Photo: Flickr user LawrenceFung

Add to that moment

Product placement is usually just showing up (see: James Bond movies), or appropriating the device of the moment (see: zombies, droids). Making a statement built on the emotional theme of that moment is better (see: Olympics). And adding to that moment–giving something back to those watching and participating–is best.

Creating brand experiences that are meaningful to real people is the hardest thing to do in marketing. It requires a great creative idea or platform, an activation strategy that maximizes it, handcrafted planning, and the ability to execute in fine detail. In other words, all the elements of a campaign need to work together seamlessly. It’s hard to do, but, when it does happen the power is undeniable.


Last year, we created a campaign for Jordan Brand around New York Yankee Derek Jeter called “Re2pect.” It started with a strong creative idea and execution–giving sports fans a way to express their feelings for Jeter during his last season. The simplicity and significance of the message allowed us to harness the power of a true cultural moment–the 2014 All Star Game–to launch our platform in a way that added to people’s experience of that moment. And that’s the key question–what are you adding to people’s experience, beyond your mere presence?

A lot of brands manufacture conversation on social media by reacting to events in real time. To this, I would say you generally get out what you put in. It’s not easy to create an emotional connection via social posts. Oreo’s famous “Dunk in the dark” tweet at Super Bowl 2013 worked because the brand’s message reflected its identity–fun and great for social snacking. It also worked because that brand had spent the previous six months creating visually-driven posts riffing off news and cultural happenings (the brand’s “Daily Twist” campaign). In general, thoughtful, detailed expression is the most impactful.

As cultural moments go, there have been few in recent memory as big as the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The volume and variety of cross-promotion around the film’s release have been unprecedented. But there was still ample opportunity to add, thoughtfully, to the conversation. Verizon, an official partner of the film, created a multi-faceted campaign, “Force of a Better Network,” that didn’t just draft off of, but also added to, the anticipatory buzz. W+K created the campaign’s spot featuring Chewbacca and BB-8, but the sheer heft of the event called for more than just appropriating characters. W+K worked directly with The Force Awakens co-producer and first assistant director Tommy Gormley (and with the approval of film mastermind JJ Abrams). Gormley directed the spot and shot it at TFA location Pinewood Studios, using crew, wardrobe and sets from the film. The result felt like a mini-Star Wars film experience. Verizon also collaborated with Google and other agency partners to bring the project to a new dimension with Star Wars-themed Cardboard viewers (distributed by Stormtroopers in Verizon retail stores) showcasing Disney’s mini-virtual-reality experience.

And brands don’t have to wait for the next Star Wars or the Super Bowl to find their moments. There are many more everyday events that draw an engaged audience. During golf and tennis tournaments (sports that hinge on precision, pressure, and drama), for example, it would be great to see brands go beyond just branding the sidelines and clocks.

Be True to Your Brand & Consumer

The authentic connection between the moment and your brand’s role in that moment is critical to the positive impact you can generate.

When using these moments to alter or augment a brand’s identity, there needs to be a thread of brand relevance that people can grasp, or better yet, a direct explanation. Most brands are eager to appeal to younger demographic, for example, but so often the connection and relevance of the brand to that target is nowhere in sight. It sounds obvious, but that connection has to be there before embedding yourself in moments that are important to that target.


Even if brands don’t have a specific product to push during a given time of year, they should still scout for opportunity based on what is important to their audience. There could still be a big opportunity to create an emotional connection with the brand that will transcend the sales quarter.

Create an interaction

Lastly, we want to give people something to do. How can people take on and express the idea themselves? We want audience members to feel like they’re getting something out of their interaction, aside from a video they create to get an incentive (win a free trip!). When people can take an idea and make it theirs, your brand becomes part of who they are.

“Re2pect” gave sports fans a handle to express their feelings for Jeter and his career. When Powerade released its “Just A Kid From Chicago” spot featuring the story of Derrick Rose, the brand also allowed fans to order customized “Just a kid from” t-shirts, giving people the chance to wear the pride they have for their roots.

As the media world continues to fragment, taking advantage of cultural moments is a natural inclination for brands. But just showing up with a “real-time” message and expecting a place in the conversation is of limited value. Orchestrating custom, thoughtful and thorough activations creates impact for your brand by creating value for people.

Karlo Cordova is group media director at Wieden+Kennedy New York.