Managing brands has always been about building a response to the authenticity challenge: how to be genuine? How to stop sounding like marketing? How to be real?
After 20 years focusing on brand experiences, the approach to building stronger brands seems to have taken a new path towards the development of brand cultures. Activating the appropriate culture has indeed become the new way into consumer engagement.
So now the key question is: What is your brand culture? And what do we mean by culture?
There are many of definitions of culture, so the challenge of defining brand culture is a daunting, perhaps risky, exercise; but we must seize the opportunity of this new age of culturally tuned brand management. In the context of brands, we define culture by a set of values, rituals, semantics, and semiotic codes that are produced by a specific human community (like skaters, knitting lovers, conservatives, geeks, tech companies) to create a sense of identity and belonging.
The key word here is identity. Activating the appropriate cultural code is a way for brands to evolve their own identity to better resonate with their audiences.
Defining the right culture for a brand is not a mere communication or activation challenge (feeling the vibe) but is an identity challenge (being the vibe). Culture is not about what you say, but about what you truly are or have the intent to become.
Cultures are stronger than brands, they shape how consumers see the world, they dictate what’s in, what’s out, what to desire and what to despise. They change and evolve. Without great care anyone can slip into the realm of being dated and out of touch.
Opportunistic or dated, the way to authenticity is a fine line – So the question is: When and how should brands change with culture?
Here are three brands that exemplify moments of cultural shift when targeting a new audience (and a new culture).
THE CIA: Targeting a new audience and embracing a new culture
In 2021, to engage with a more diverse audience, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) underwent a rebranding exercise, shifting from a nation’s icons to fiction’s cues. The objective of the rebranding effort was to encourage more diverse applicants “people of all backgrounds and walks of life” by activating a culture and a universe they could relate to.
The romanticisation of the spy in literature, cinema and TV has always been a recruitment asset. Streaming culture, created by Netflix, is the latest avatar whereby the CIA has been making reality look like the fiction. Beyond the logo, the chosen imagery is particularly impactful – it feels like a Netflix series homepage. The agency may have been a bit too overzealous with that idea, stripping their logo of any of their previous cues at the risk of losing all sense of self.
In response to Twitter backlash, the CIA ended up with a modernised version of the current logo in which the main equity has been kept.
What is the brand here? The most iconic spy agency brand.
And the culture? Streaming.
When? To engage a new audience (and culture)
How? By following visual language, rather than owning it
What is the future of automotive industry? Beyond the larger-than-life Japanese escape of its former CEO, Carlos Ghosn, the French car maker Renault made a very interesting identity move in 2021. This rebranding exercise was part of a bigger Renault plan, called the Renaulution – aiming to pivot the company and brand in the realm of the EV.
Renault: Responding to a shift of business model (and culture) in your industry
In contrast to the CIA, Renault didn’t discard its equity fully but rather renewed its existing icon. This renewed identity signals another, maybe deeper, shift within the automotive industry. The shift from a 3D to a 2D logo could indicate a business model shift from hardware (the car) to software (the electronics and AI within the car). We can see that Renault is playing catchup the Silicon Valley tech giants, including Tesla. These brands will continue to shape and drive what the future looks like—a challenge for the classic automotive brand if they’re not willing to adapt to new frontiers that affect their customers day-to-day.
Renault says it is ready for what’s to come.
What is the brand here? A European car maker born in 1898
And the culture? Renewables and AI
When? Shifting of an industry business model from steel to chips
How? By reinventing their key brand asset
Ben’s Original: When it’s too little and too late
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin a white Minneapolis police officer. The scene was filmed by a witness’s cell phone and quickly shared across social media. This sparked not only US protests against the use of excessive force by police against African Americans, but a global one, too, reviving the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013.
In the context of consumer brands, this moment of conscious cultural change matters. Soon after, in June 2020, the 131-year-old PepsiCo-owned brand Aunt Jemima announced a change of name and image “to make progress toward racial equality.”
A few months later, in September 2020, and after facing similar criticism of perpetuating racial stereotyping, the iconic rice brand Uncle Ben’s undertook a redesign, including the brand name, that became Ben’s Original. Uncle Ben, the image of a Black man in a bow tie was removed from the package. Beyond the name change, the company also announced a new brand purpose: to support disadvantaged communities with nutritious meals and better opportunities in life.
The Black Lives Matter movement created a renewed awareness of systemic racism in Western societies and initiated a contemporary activist culture. New generations won’t accept any of the previous stereotypes. What was unnoticed in the past has become unacceptable today as people become increasingly aware of racial slurs and bias, unconscious or otherwise.
It’s easy to look back with hindsight and critique, but Ben’s Original could have done two things, earlier and better. Earlier – they waited until after the BLM movement to question their roots, understand perceptions and reappraise their identity, ignoring the glaringly obvious. Better – they should have built and forged future-forward icons as a symbol of their new brand purpose instead of merely removing the problematic ones.
In the 1990s, Ben’s Original missed the speciality rice revolution (e.g., jasmine, Thai, ancient grains) as its competition steadfastly focused on the promise of convenience. Will the brand be successful this time, by leveraging the revolution of a disadvantaged community’s empowerment?
What is the brand here? An iconic family rice producer
And the culture? Supporting communities
When? There is no other choice but to let go of some of the brand’s heritage
How: Dropping the most iconic brand asset
Culture can be about a of a specific group you want to engage, or culture of a certain industry you want to be seen to be a part of, or more broadly civil rights and anti-racism. Changes in response to culture are a matter of opportunity, like a shift in audience or business model, and pace, to avoid looking out of touch.
Responses to culture require a realignment of corporate values and principles as well as a brand’s equity and identity for it to be believable. In the case of the CIA, they went too far and in so doing had to circle back. Maybe Ben’s Original was too little, too late? Only time will tell. And Renault? The firm is walking the cultural tightrope well for now, but it will need to prove out the shift by delivering on its new promise.
The practice of cultural foresight is fundamental to effective brand management and design, and what makes the discipline of brand design both fascinating and rewarding. When done well, business, brand and consumer reap the benefits.