Culture Works

29 May 2013|Added Value

Brands need to pay serious attention to how culture works. Books like Grant McCracken’s ‘Chief Culture Officer’ and Holt and Cameron’s ‘Cultural Strategy’ represent something of a tipping point. In the coming years it feels like ‘culture’ may well replace ‘consumer’ as the central subject for insight and brand development.

In space no one can hear you scream, sound waves need air to travel. Brand communications need a medium to pass through too – and that medium is culture. Culture has the reputation of being a fluffy term. However there are concrete, empirical ways to understand it, and a powerful business case for doing so. Whilst it isn’t worth being bogged down by academia, it is worth recognising that the empirical study of culture is well established.

Pierre Bourdieu is a person you should know about. He was a French Sociologist who set out to understand how culture played a role in society. In Distinction he reported the results of a large quantitative study that sought to correlate cultural consumption with social class. The consequence was a piece of work which established the term ‘cultural capital’.

Simply put this was the elevation of cultural knowledge and experience to the level of financial capital. His approach remains pertinent today, for instance in the recent Great British Class Survey; a collaboration between the BBC and academics at LSE and Manchester. In this survey the kind of culture that you consumed was seen as a central way of establishing your position in society. There has been plenty of debate about the results; however they show that cultural capital is at the heart of contemporary sociological thinking.


Take Nike, it’s a behemoth; it’s had some pretty rocky times in terms of its perception within culture. The nineties saw it become reviled for its ethical shortcomings. Yet the brand has sustained a strong position in culture because the brand watches it, responds to it, and creates it.

During the Olympics Nike’s #makeitcount campaign perfectly tapped into the gritty image that sport has today. Gone is the era of treadmills, instead today the aspirational image of sport is perfectly summarised by the athletes shown in the print campaign, their faces contorted in effort. And it paid off; though not a sponsor of the Olympics, 7.7% of all social media chatter related to the Olympics was also mentioning Nike by March 2012.

Added Value’s Cultural Traction survey aims to measure just this kind of thing, Nike in the UK sits a full nineteen places higher than Adidas. Adidas, by the way, was an official sponsor of the Olympics and was totally outplayed by its competitor.

Arguably the inheritor of Nike’s mantle, as the brand that plays the most forceful role in shaping popular culture, will be Red Bull. Its media power is such that the brand has spun off a separate company Red Bull Media House to drive this forward. As a brand, Red Bull owns the cultural context within which the energy drink market sits, such as extreme sports, endurance, adventure – and they make sure that wherever those things happen, Red Bull is playing a role.

At the moment these brands are the exception – they are forcefully taking the reins of popular culture and guiding it in a direction that benefits them. They can do this because they understand that culture is not only to be understood by poets, but by the business minded, the empirical researcher, and the hard-nosed. Culture is no tool for the soft, but a very real substance that must be understood in order for brands to communicate. It has been deconstructed and formulated and reconstituted by academics and now marketeers . Those that continue to consider discussion of culture the domain of those who do not have their feet on the ground may soon find that the opposite is true.


Written by Sam Barton, Project Manager, Added Value UK

Published with permission from Contagious Magazine:

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