Culture and brands: how does this benefit brand identity and brand positioning?
Culture is notoriously difficult to define. There are tangible and intangible aspects of culture. Various uses exist for it, from describing everything to identifying a specific context.
Different concepts have been defined as culture over time. Historically, there have been two main ways in which this term has been used:
- Aesthetically and in relation to the arts.
- Anthropologically, in describing the lives and behaviour of people (although, anyone in business might expect ‘corporate culture’ as being the third of these).
Key Issue for branding
Culture is essential to branding. Anyone in branding or marketing would be familiar with many different tools and formats that organise brand positioning and management. The part of culture that a brand evokes is often overlooked and lacks clarity. It is often implied but not articulated. This is usually expressed cumulatively, across a positioning statement rather than explicitly as part of a brand’s meaning equity.
Why is culture important to brands?
Constancy and consistency are key indicators of authenticity and credibility in an increasingly fragmented world. Stakeholders and partners often add their own interpretations if it is not clearly defined. Consumers are often confused when different brand touchpoints are not aligned visually and their meaning.
At the core of culture are a set of assumptions that create a worldview. Strong brands have a clear worldview.
A natural challenge to this is that your brand is trying to market to everyone. Since it’s a national or big brand, it should fit anywhere. However, when brands try to be all things to all people, they lack clarity.
A brand’s identity is its single most important strategic tool, and it is formed within a specific part of culture. By aligning brand identity and positioning within a cultural context, meaningful distinctiveness and salience can be created.
This is not to say that a brand cannot be strong in more than one part of culture. Coke has a presence in ‘Summer’ and ‘Christmas’. While RedBull is united by extreme energy, the brand is engaging consumers in a wide range of sub-cultures, including sports, music, Formula One, et al. However, many iconic brands are anchored in one part of culture.
So, how can culture be understood?
Culture shapes how we think, act and view others.
Culture is difficult to talk about because its ubiquity makes it invisible. Its most meaningful features are enacted in life’s everyday routines. Culture is what is familiar, or as Raymond Williams expressed it, ‘culture is ordinary’. Since we are so deeply immersed in it, we often assume that it is natural.
However, culture is not natural, we learn it socially; we are not born with it. Culture provides us with an implicit theory on how to behave, think and interpret the behaviour of others. This is passed on from generation to generation. The result is that each culture is differentiated by their own unique characteristics.
What does culture look like?
Culture is stratified and not everything is observable. Much of what is observable in culture evolves faster than what is unobservable. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our interactions within culture are constantly changing. We no longer live in a world where high and popular culture are polarised. As a result, our culture is becoming more democratic or class-agnostic. The internet and social media have greatly increased our exposure to different cultures and viewpoints. Although, the presence of online ‘filter bubbles’ means we can self-curate ourselves into a less diverse cultural understanding and experience.
Semiotics of culture: mapping meaning
It is also possible to conceptualise culture as a map of meaning. This is often a powerful way to think strategically about branding since brands are meaning makers.
Semiotically, culture can be understood as human symbolic activity as a semiotic system using signs. Yuri Lotman described culture as our collective non-genetic memory. Culture is not just the content of our memory but also the process by which we create, share, and evolve this collective meaning.
Culture has also been described as system of connotative meanings that cohere as a ‘macro-code’. A code is a set of cultural conventions that can be used to communicate meaning. Being able to understand these codes allows members of culture to interact, communicate and think about the world from a shared perspective. Which is why cultures are different; they are based on different codes. In this way, culture allows populations to co-ordinate their behaviour without thinking.
It is within these maps of meaning that the semiotic value of brands is created. Brand equity comes from the sense we make of its meaning. Meaning is created within a cultural context.
What is the role of culture in brand identity management and positioning?
Using a metaphor, if we think of a brand as a painting, each brand is painted from a specific cultural palette. This means that the brand story, visual identity, and communications should feel like they are coming from the same place. The brand’s values and behaviour should also feel like it fits within the cultural frame.
The benefit of a consistent cultural context is that your brand is intuitively easier to understand and make sense of. Your consumers are adept at reading and inferring cultural and sub-cultural meaning.
Culture is big, how to focus.
An exercise: How hard is it to associate a specific brand to each of these different types of cultural frames?
Identifying your brand’s culture aspect can be difficult. However, the more specific you are, the stickier it is in the minds of your target market. An analogy is to visualise furniture. It’s tricky. If you’re more specific and furniture is a hypernym for a chair, it becomes easier. If you use a hyponym like beach chair, director’s chair or a bar stool, it becomes a lot easier to imagine the cultural context where it is positioned.
So, how do you know what part of culture your brand draws from?
Five steps for aligning your brand and cultural context
Step 1: Audit your brand. It’s often useful to review a brand’s history, focusing only on your use of cultural contexts to begin with. Identify how consistent the advertising, packaging, digital, innovation and marketing activities are. Where has the brand engaged or felt more authentic?
Step 2: Question where you currently are. Does your part of culture reflect the rest of your brand identity and positioning?
Step 3: How differentiating is your use of culture? Who are your competitors? How is your use of culture similar or different? What is engaging and relevant to your target market?
Step 4: Aligning your brand. Are there any parts of your brand that are not congruent with your cultural frame? If you personified your brand, does it fit in the cultural frame you’re aiming at? Do the other aspects of your brand identity align, such as colours, typography, naming, etc?.
Step 5: Keep an eye on cultural evolution. Brands also need to be responsive to changes in culture. Culture is also always evolving, sometimes incrementally and at other times, in leaps and bounds.