How Brands Leverage Cultural Literacy to Drive the Conversation and Thrive

This is an edited extract from Cultural Intelligence for Marketers: Building an Inclusive Marketing Strategy by Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel. In the book, the cultural theorist and strategist provides a vital new framework for understanding how to understand and leverage the power of culture in marketing.

The debate over the real impact of purpose-driven marketing on brand management has intensified as marketing leaders face increasing pressure and tighter budgets. Some research now even suggests that consumers don’t make strong associations with brands that make a positive impact on social issues. What often gets missed in our singular focus on ‘purpose’—and the tendency to collapse other distinct forms of conscious marketing under this standalone label—is the critical role that socially conscious, culturally intelligent marketing holds more broadly for any brand, whether purpose-driven or not. This isn’t solely a matter of marketers’ responsibility towards society. In this cultural climate, producing marketing assets that demonstrate fluency in cultural norms and consumer expectations is what distinguishes brands that transcend advertising and become part of the culture—and those that are just scrambling to keep up.

Too many well-known brands like Mattel, Camel, Old Spice, Victoria’s Secret, Always, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Axe are contemporary examples of how brands can unconsciously perpetuate stereotypes and cultural norms that are now recognized as objectively harmful. Over time, their messaging has played a role in shaping societal views, including those related to gender norms, beauty standards, and desires, primarily through their products and advertising campaigns. Looking back, it becomes evident that too many brands of the past often conveyed exclusionary messages without even realizing it. Some promoted ideals centered around white, thin, and conventionally attractive bodies, while others perpetuated narratives that sexualized women and objectified their bodies in advertisements. However, eventually, many of these brands had to become more attuned to cultural shifts as the changing reality became apparent. The lesson here is evident: Brands that don’t take time to understand and align with evolving cultural values will eventually have to change their brand identity. The only issue is that by the time they do so, it may be too late.

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In today’s competitive marketplace, cultural literacy is not just a preference anymore; it has become a necessary advantage. Rather than playing catch-up with cultural shifts, brands that leverage cultural knowledge stay ahead of the game by anticipating and shaping such shifts. But this isn’t something that just happens.

If we understand cultural strategy as the practice of understanding signals, trends, patterns, and movements in culture and then using this knowledge to achieve specific business outcomes, then we must develop skills, frameworks, and a common language to get there. The industry is in urgent need of a new paradigm that centralizes and prioritizes cultural knowledge and critical thinking in the core of inclusive and culture-driven marketing. Our approach to culturally intelligent, innovative, and inclusive brand marketing must actually place both cultural knowledge and critical thinking front and center of our practice.

And yet, an undeniable paradox still exists within the industry. It is surprising that despite the growing importance of cultural marketing, still too few organizations seriously invest in truly preparing brand managers and strategists for the era of cultural marketing of tomorrow. As inclusive marketing strategist Lola Bakare (2023) asks with precision and a necessary sense of urgency, “How many of the top ad schools even offer a course on inclusive marketing, marketing responsibly or anything along those lines, much less require one?” Most existing avenues for professional training that marketers, planners, and creatives have access to hardly ever mandate continued education in media literacy, studies of identity-based perspectives, or even prevention of internalized bias. And in the worst-case scenarios, these aspects of culture-oriented learning are seen as entirely irrelevant to brand marketing. Somehow, we still think we can get away with it. But as Bakare so powerfully underlines, “… if we truly want to move past the perils of mediocrity, cultural literacy is anything but inconsequential—it’s the key to clearing the exponentially ascending bar that will define the creative excellence every brand’s success will demand.” In other words, if we want to evolve, something has to give.

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It might be assumed that cultural literacy matters for well-known, purpose-driven brands like Unilever, Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Nike, or Patagonia. These brands place social purpose and community impact at the heart of their engagement with cultural communities and contemporary trends. But reducing the uses of cultural literacy solely to purpose-driven marketing is a mistake. No brand is immune to perpetuating stereotypes or unwittingly reinforcing harmful narratives in their pursuit of relevance in the marketplace. In this sense, cultural literacy surpasses mere strategy—it stands as an essential prerequisite for any brand going to market in a diverse consumer landscape.

Procter & Gamble’s understanding of the broader significance of cultural literacy in brand marketing merits consideration. In a 2021 article titled “Marketing with cultural intelligence for growth and good” published in Forbes, Gillian Oakenfull explains how P&G has adopted a “self-awareness of the influence of one’s own culture on one’s thinking, attitudes, and behavior.” In the article, Oakenfull highlights how P&G has taken an intentionally proactive approach to avoid making avoidable errors when marketing to historically marginalized and underrepresented audiences. To prevent any risks and paying for preventable mistakes, the company has invested heavily in enhancing its cultural capabilities. Even as the company aims to create a workforce that mirrors the demographic diversity of its audience, Forbes reports, the leadership sees external inputs as indispensable to fill in gaps in knowledge and awareness. To make up for any internal limitations in cultural insight, P&G take a proactive approach. The company turns to expert advice, direction, and perspectives from culturally diverse panels of social media influencers and researchers with specific expertise in cultural issues.

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Cultural literacy isn’t an attribute that brands can simply retrofit. Being proactive pays off in the long term. In today’s marketing landscape, agencies and in-house teams face immense pressure. Brands need more than memorable campaigns; brands of tomorrow need a sharp cultural edge. To stand out and thrive in an increasingly socially aware marketplace, brands must embrace the new era of brand marketing, where understanding culture isn’t optional; it’s essential. Contemporary marketing is in dire need of new ideas, approaches, and strategies to combat persistent issues such as cultural appropriation, enduring inequities, and the pervasive absence of genuine inclusion. More than ever, learnings from critical humanities (cultural studies, media theory, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies) are urgently needed in the marketing world. Enter cultural intelligence, a new paradigm for navigating culture in the world of brands.

Cultural intelligence is the difference between superficial representation and accurate storytelling that amplifies voices, challenges assumptions, and reflects the complexity of human experience. Brands that embed cultural fluency and social consciousness at the core of cultural strategy future-proof their success and secure their long-term cultural legacy.

This edited extract is ©2024 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.. Cultural Intelligence for Marketers: Building an Inclusive Marketing Strategy is available on Amazon.

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