Is ‘culture’ the most overused word in marketing right now?

Is ‘culture’ the most overused word in marketing right now?

Probably. Is it at risk of becoming yet another meaningless buzzword? Not if used in the right way, says Colin Corbridge, group head of creative and strategy, Smarts.

In a crazy, noisy world, it’s hardly surprising that brands are fighting harder than ever to get noticed and chosen by consumers. The ask to agencies is often a variation on the theme of ‘help us show up in culture’. That’s an exciting brief, and one that has the potential to lead to brilliant work… in the right hands.

The challenge, however, is that the ‘culture’ that’s often talked about is increasingly short-termist. Cultural ‘trends’ have stopped meaning ‘a long-term direction of travel demonstrated, observed and proven over time’. Instead, they’ve been replaced by what social media giants highlight as ‘conversation or content’ that flares up for 24 or 48 hours.

Planning for brand building over the longer term is often curtailed by project-to-project budgets, making it harder to drive consistency in thinking. Meanwhile, reduced client tenure in roles means everyone is keen to make a new mark more frequently, which in turn leads to platforms, ideas and strategies being replaced before they’ve had any real chance at impact.

In reality, the ‘help us show up in culture’ brief is often reduced to a one-off tactical stunt, or a disposable partnership that doesn’t land any degree of cultural impact. 

These short-term, ‘spike today, gone tomorrow’ flashbulb moments of fame spark and burn out almost instantaneously.

And the impact seems pretty clear. Clients and agencies alike have, in recent years, acknowledged the decline in the quality of creative thinking and the establishment of impactful platforms that last… and just keep working.

A few years ago, WARC reported: “We have known for many years that creativity delivers very little of its full potential over short time frames, yet the trend to short-term, disposable and ultimately inefficient creativity continues” [1]. And in response to the question ‘what’s behind the collapse of creative effectiveness?’, Forbes wrote: “The decline in effectiveness among award-winning campaigns is largely attributed to the recent trend of favouring short-term, activation-focused, one-off creativity in award shows, and the strategic and media approach this has promoted. The data concluded that short-term ideas are around 50% less effective.” [2] They’re not new articles but their importance is no less relevant.

Given this, maybe it’s time to rethink the notion of just ‘showing up in culture’ and instead start thinking longer term.

Start thinking about the ambition to truly belong in culture and make a lasting impression, with consistency and focus. Nobody needs reminding of the brands who are brilliant at this. Gucci, Nike, Apple, Ikea, McDonalds define or redefine what’s hot, they impact popular opinion, they create work that gets noticed, shared, talked about, debated, adopted and adapted. Again. And again. (And again.)

These are the kind of brands that weave themselves into the fabric of social conversation and are more likely to be remembered and chosen. That’s how culture can work for a brand – getting that brand in front of consumers in the right way, with consistency and intention.

What if brand activations stopped being so short-term in their thinking? What if they were built with deep cultural insight and truths at their core; with consistent, resonant cultural thinking layered on top? And what if this core thinking was refreshed with a repeated injection of ingenious ideas that provide new energy and life, time and time again? What if – instead of disconnected one-off spikes of activity – there was connected thinking that all built back to, and reinforced, a single-minded thought and perspective in culture that could stand the test of time?

At Smarts we call this kind of thinking Cultural Endurance. The challenge as we see it is not just to fight for relevance, but to make an impact – and that can take more than singular executions. Our advice to clients is: don’t chase short-term trends, work out how to build lasting ones; don’t just tap into culture, work out how to make your mark in it… and shape it. Culture is a long-term play that requires intention, focus, discipline and consistency. It means understanding your communities and doing things that matter to them today, tomorrow, and the day after.

Why? Because all the evidence suggests it’s the smart thing to do. We know the opposite doesn’t work in the long run. What we’re seeing is that brands that embrace Cultural Endurance don’t just grab attention, they keep it. They turn instant impressions into lasting ones and – in a world of short-term thinking – they refuse to be forgotten.

So the question is pretty simple: is it time to rethink the short-term view on culture and start making it work harder?

We think so.

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