Becoming Culture

By Carolyn Hadlock Posted on Sep 11, 2014

The Holy Grail for brands is to become a part of culture. The increased and sustained exposure can extend awareness far past a paid media campaign. How can a brand make this happen, though? How much is in our control as marketers—and what should we be doing to help our clients become culturally significant?
While some brands are iconic enough to actually drive culture, most attempt to become a part of culture by co-opting celebrities, and borrowing the excitement that surrounds their fame in the music, entertainment or sports industries—usually a short-term solution.
Others seek The Grail by becoming a fashion brand.
The Halo Effect
The most common way brands become part of culture is to associate the brand with a celebrity.
In the case of Samsung, for example, that celebrity was Jay Z. It’s still one of the most successful collaborations I can recall. Magna Carta, the album Jay Z released for download exclusively through Samsung, went platinum the day it dropped. The key to success was that they both had a shared agenda—Samsung was launching the Galaxy S3 and Jay Z a new album—so they both benefited. Dodge took it one step further, by bringing Will Ferrell/Ron Burgundy into the creative development process. According to Ad Age, Durango sales went up 50 percent.
Celebrity involvement can make an instant, visceral connection with a brand’s audience. It’s easy to see the allure. Thing is, it can also go wrong. The press loved it when Bud Light Premium named Justin Timberlake as their Creative Director, but sales actually slackened the quarter after they signed him on, according to BusinessWeek. The collaboration either wasn’t implemented well, or it didn’t resonate with consumers.
Another challenge with the celebrity route is the balance between brand and celebrity—which can get out of whack pretty easily, even when done well. How many spots have you watched where you’ve forgotten who the brand was?  Harnessing the power of celebrity to further the brand is key, but that’s incredibly hard when you’re working with celebrities. Often, the celebrity is simply a quick hit, and points out that the brand’s position is not adequately established—a process that requires patience and a strategy. 
At best, the celeb approach is hard to sustain, making them more of a promotional tactic than a long- term strategy.
The demand for brands to be fashionable
Fashion is an interesting path to becoming a cultural fixture because it’s not celebrity dependent. More and more brands want to be seen as fashionable: not just luxury brands, but brands from all categories—electronics, lighting fixtures, snack foods and outdoor gear all are looking to get into the game. Maybe it’s because fashion is wider reaching and has broader appeal than celebrities, who tend to be associated with a particular discipline or genre, or maybe it’s because fashion is simply more about lifestyle. Whatever the reason, the fashion space has become incredibly desirable for brands.
Obviously, there are some brands that will still go with a celebrity to gain fashion cred, but the ones that don’t can sustain their position long term. Brands like Warby Parker and Anthropologie entrenched themselves in the fashion world from the beginning and made every choice through the lens of fashion—from identity to retail experience to product design to advertising to social presence.
How it’s done
Brands that are already in the fashion category clearly have the advantage. Incorporating fashion becomes more difficult, however, in a low interest category—like plumbing fixtures. Ten years ago, our agency positioned Brizo as a fashion label. Rather than buying a presence through logo placement and expensive paid media, we sponsored a young, up-and-coming fashion designer—Jason Wu. He was an unknown at the time, having only one season under his belt. A decade later, and much more famous, he is still a loyal partner with Brizo because the brand believed in him when he was just starting. Brizo didn’t just leverage his success; they helped fuel it.
Making a brand a fashion brand requires ongoing commitment, from the client and agency side. Fashion is fickle, and ever changing. It can’t be understood through buying research and trend reports. It’s not just about following what’s on the runway. It’s about consistently finding the pulse of what’s happening on the streets and in the world before it’s a trend. And that’s a discipline most agencies and clients have yet to nail.
The importance of immersion—for agencies and clients
To truly create and manage a fashion brand, a fashion mind-set has to be in place across both the agency’s and client’s organizations. “Fashion” can’t just live in the marketing department on the client side, or in the planning department on the agency side. When brands live fashion, it impacts every facet of the business from product design to go-to-market strategies to the buying experience.
As agencies are charged with shepherding a fashion approach, we have to ask ourselves: how far are we willing to go to become authorities? Are we willing to do things like establish a travel stipend for teams to explore what’s happening in cultural markets? Are we willing to send our people to shows that live outside of our client’s category—in some cases, far outside? Are we willing to bring a stylist on board to help identify opportunities and trends for our clients? Stylists are the people who have their fingers on the pulse, and influence the way celebrities act, dress and think. They can be crucial to a fashion strategy.
Each agency team member should also take personal responsibility for following fashion. Fortunately for everyone, fashion is no longer solely the property of the coasts. You can access it anywhere—whether it’s by following brands that live fashion on social media, or reading blogs and articles about the intersection of fashion and culture, or even watching what’s happening on the red carpet. It’s all relevant.
How can we expect brands to be part of culture if we don’t immerse ourselves in it?
The business of fashion
Fashion is here to stay. It’s bound to become a more common directive from clients who want to be seen as “cool” and “of the moment.”
As a creative, I am way more excited about a world of brands that are inherently, organically fashionable vs. getting a brief that mandates that I have to use a celebrity as the idea behind a campaign because the brand wants to be seen as fashionable.
As someone who’s been in advertising for a while, I’ve witnessed the demand for products and services to evolve at a rapid-fire rate. In an era of parity and commoditization, fashion is one of the few ways a brand can truly differentiate itself long-term. It’s not just a creative desire that’s being fed. It’s also key for brands that want to be bigger than themselves—to become part of the culture their customers live in.

Carolyn is Principal/EDC at Young & Laramore in Indianapolis. She also maintains a blog focusing on art, advertising and culture. 


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