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The first mover advantage, brands who lead culture are more successful than those who follow.

Culture is the combination of Beliefs, Artifacts, Rituals and Language. In practice, our culture is our identity. Often, we use brands as shortcuts to, or badges of, our identity.

Unfortunately, for brands, they don’t always have a choice in regard to what cultures choose to identify with their brand. New Balance faced considerable backlash after Neo-Nazis declared their brand as the “Official Shoes of White People”.


Brands including Papa John’s, Tiki Torches, and Yuengling faced similar challenges as the Neo-Nazi alt-right movement expressed their alignment with these organizations. These brands then replied with a series of condemnations via various social channels.

What if brands took more control of the culture they associated themselves with? What if, instead of trying to clean up a mess, they focus on leading the charge and become cultural leaders?

Marcus Collins, Chief Consumer Officer of Doner, explored this and more at Social Media Week LA.

Brands Benefit from having a close proximity to culture

Collins asked everyone to imagine they’re in the headphones section of an electronics store. He then asked them to verbally state which headphones they were more likely to buy. The overwhelming response, “Beats”.

Beats by Dre may not be the best headphones available, but they have a closer proximity to culture. In HBO’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ Dr. Dre recalls how he was being courted to promote a pair of shoes before Jimmy Iovine stepped in a told him to stick to what he’s passionate about. Music. Due to his background, Dre can authentically connect with the culture or music lovers. Beats has gone on to leverage several other cultural leaders including Lebron James and Lady Gaga.

Collins then goes on to note “It’s interesting because before Beats it used to be white earbuds. Muted innocuous earbuds, and now they’re big over the ear headphones. This is what the silhouette of American culture looks like.”

The white earbuds came standard with iPhones and iPods, but people were willing to embrace a cultural change. Apple owns Beats by Dre so I’m sure Tim Cook isn’t losing any sleep over it.

Encouraging a Kodak Moment

In looking at the vast majority of older portraits, you’ll notice most people aren’t smiling. This is in direct contrast to the selfie culture that has caused your feeds to be packed with images of people who are always in a better mood than you.

It’s believed that people didn’t smile because portraits took so long to paint. Imagine holding the same forced grin for hours. Not a pleasant thought.  However, this norm carried over to photos as well, even though it took less time.

Collins explains “In the fine arts, a grin was a characteristic of a peasant, a drunk, children or half-wits. You didn’t smile in photos because if you did, it meant you were less than.”

This cultural norm carried over, even as technology makes the process much quicker.

Enter Kodak, a camera manufacturer founded in Rochester, NY. They were producing great cameras but had a huge problem. People perceived the action of being photographed as a serious event. Therefore, they weren’t taking photos very often.

In response, Kodak set out to change the cultural belief around taking a photo. Their message “You smile in photos because these are captured moments of joy”.  What we now consider to be, Kodak Moments. Over time, people began to smile more. Researchers looked at yearbook pictures and discovered the percent of people smiling in their photos got larger over the years.

The impact for Kodak was huge until they missed out on a cultural trend. The rise of digital photos.

Creating a Cultural Catalyst, at a Urinal

Collins and his team partnered with Netflix to promote the new season of Narcos. The series is a chronicled look at the criminal exploits of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. During the 80’s, Escobar and his cartel provided the means for party-goers to keep on partying, especially in California.

The idea then came up to find a way to leverage this well-known culture in an effort to get people to talk about the show.

The solution, creating experiences in places where in the 80’s, you may have benefited from Pablo’s party favors. Clubs and bars in Los Angeles. They put stickers in bathrooms that featured a rolled-up dollar bill with white powder next to it. A text overlay read “Here in the 90’s? There’s an 80% chance this powder came from the Cali cartel”

The used the same approach on coasters and other flat surfaces in these locations. As you can imagine, people love to take pictures of stuff like this. Not only did they take pictures, they also shared it with their networks online.

The result, one of the largest debuts for a season on Netflix, with a relatively small budget.

Collins explains, “The core function of marketing is about influencing human behavior. If we can create a catalyst in culture to get people to talk, it then begins to ripple across the social graph and ultimately gets people to move. Not only is that important for marketing, this is what business is all about.”

A Message to Aspiring Marketers, Embrace Culture

Collins concluded by giving advice specifically to people who are early in their careers.

“You’re in a place in your life where you’re trying to find the edge . . . Culture is one of the most powerful ways to do that. If you can have a close proximity to culture, your career will ascend.”

He goes on to state that younger people are typically closer to culture because they’re living it.

“You probably have more time than you have money. Use your time getting close to the culture. It requires great curiosity and an enormous amount of empathy.”

Learn the latest trends, insights and best practices from the brightest minds in media and technology. Sign up for SMW Insider to watch full-length sessions from official Social Media Week conferences live and on-demand.

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