How can brands credibly shape culture to stay relevant?


The best brands not only live in culture; instead, they shape culture itself. But how, when the world changes so fast, can brands stay relevant? 

Shaping culture from a brand perspective is about tapping into the collective awareness we have as a society. As brands, we must prioritise the gaining of an understanding of what people and society are truly yearning for in the collective consciousness. Consider the first example of brand work that really tried to shape culture: Dove’s Real Beauty advertisements, all the way back in 2004. It was the first example of what it meant for a brand to step out there to challenge their audience and to get people to rethink what beauty standards look like - and it was hugely successful as an approach.

In March 2023, dentsu hosted our first Seichō live event - a reset moment, not just as a flagship event series, but in embedding new ways of working, and acknowledging our ability and responsibility to shape culture. Helping to form this approach was the principle of Sanpo Yoshi, which in Japanese means ‘Three-Way Satisfaction’. This new approach means that any new activity we do as a brand must be three things:

  • Good for our business​
  • Good for our people​
  • Good for our society​

This strategy shows our commitment to creating and contributing to wider culture in everything that we do. As time goes on, we’ll see many brands trying to emulate this strategy. The key question each must tackle is: can they do so credibly and authentically?

There has been a rise in so-called ‘purpose-washing’, where every organisation tries to claim that they're doing something to shape culture. However, consumers these days are adept at evaluating how genuine a brand’s intentions and purpose may be. For a business, the key test to pass is to demonstrate to consumers why they should listen to that brand in particular on an issue.

If your organisation can own an incredible and authentic approach to a topic, then your brand truly could shape lives by stepping authentically into the collective conscious. But the choice to try to do this must be carefully considered – if there’s any whiff of cynicism or inauthenticity about the idea, brands would be far better not to attempt it.

The balance between profit and purpose

The balance between purpose and need for profit is something that marketers must learn to manoeuvre successfully around in today's economic climate. This is uppermost in many of our clients’ minds right now, due to the straitened economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. It’s well-known that in a crisis, the first thing that often goes out of the door is the marketing budget. In such times, the tendency can be for everyone to just stay silent and hunker down.

However, what we've seen from research is that this is actually the perfect moment to respond to the crisis through comms, customer experience and advertising. This must not be by reacting in a short-term manner, but instead through really thinking long-term what the crisis means for your customers, wider society and for your business.

If we look back at the previous downturn, brands that stood with their audience and their consumers through the crisis by saying we understand what you need, we're there with you, ended up being three times more profitable out of the downturn than those who went silent. From a lower dollar spend, brands achieve a far greater audience impact, because with everyone silent it's a lot more affordable for a company to be the speaking voice in an industry. During a crisis is the perfect moment to think ahead and to capitalise on the opportunity it presents through your marketing, rather than switch off.

Achieving credibility in the cultural space must be about what matters to your consumers

To succeed in the cultural space, values and ethics, sustainability and culture need to be integral to everything we do, whether it's part of how we behave as an employer in the business, how we interact with our partners or stakeholders, or how we listen and engage with our customer. It must be about what your brand’s customers tell you matters to them.

To have respect and have credibility in a cultural space, it’s necessary to accept responsibility for any sins of the past and acknowledge to your audience how you are starting afresh, with renewed purpose, drive and vision. Refresh your ethical policy on a planned and regular basis to map the kind of issues that still speak to your customers. Importantly for brands now, it's about being prepared for somebody to lift the lid and look at what goes on – you must be able to demonstrate that your commitment is not just fluff.

To truly create culture, brands must be able to say to consumers there is another way to live or to be. Empower your audience to show that individuals can truly make a difference through their purchasing power. Cut through the jargon to present very accessible ways for people to relate to the topic you are tackling. Consider how to break your issue down further and broach with the consumer that this is not a topic reserved for those who can afford it, but rather something that's embedded in our daily lives. Communicate meaningfully and authentically, and your brand can play an important role in the shape our culture will form.

Check out our Seichō hub to watch our sessions back on-demand.