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Cultural Strategy: any cop?

I finished reading Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron’s ‘Cultural Strategy’ on the MTR this morning. Thanks to Maria for putting me onto it while we were working together in Sydney. I have to admit I was intrigued but a little sceptical at the time so I’m probably a little late on this. Here’s the blurb:

“How do we explain the breakthrough market success of businesses like Nike, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Jack Daniel’s? Conventional models of strategy and innovation simply don’t work. The most influential ideas on innovation are shaped by the worldview of engineers and economists – build a better mousetrap and the world will take notice. Holt and Cameron challenge this conventional wisdom and take an entirely different approach: champion a better ideology and the world will take notice as well.”

I wrongly assumed it was going to be one of those tedious ‘old model is dead’ books about how all brands need to start a movement and turn their customers into crazy evangelical brand zealots.

In fact, the authors recognise that the success of brands like Starbucks and Patagonia happened when they stopped preaching to the choir and found a way to appeal to the silent majority.

Innovation is overrated

What really resonated with me was their central point that brand success has much more to do with perception than product innovation (what they call ‘better mousetraps’) or redefining the category you play in (so-called ‘blue ocean strategy’). Similarly the role of advertising is not to communicate a literal message or stake out ownership of a abstract emotional territory, rather it’s about context and associations. This aspect fits nicely with Paul Feldwick’s excellent paper ‘Exploding The Message Myth’, which refutes the idea that creative is simply a wrapper to help communicate a literal message.

Implications for planners

While ‘Cultural Strategy’ isn’t terribly complimentary about the contribution of planners in some of the featured case studies, it does raise some good points about the strategic process. Namely that if the executional expression of a strategy has such a big impact on effectiveness then our job can’t just be about defining an abstract strategy statement or single-minded proposition. Rather, we need to foster a more nuanced consensus among the team around the  cultural context in which our brand operates and think more about tone and nuance. And this means a less linear process – get the creatives involved before you write the brief, and be there to ensure that the all-important cultural nuance doesn’t get completely watered down by the time the work hits the market. There’s quite a lot of blog chat about this type of thing at the moment, Northern Planner suggests that perhaps our role is as shapers rather than planners.

A good example of this approach (not included in the book) is the way W+K articulated the original brand strategy for Honda. Rather than take the reductionist approach of a brand onion or pyramid, they instead created a visual manifesto that conveyed the idiosyncrasies of tone that would have otherwise been lost. Check out Russell Davies’ APG Entry for more on this.

The other aspect of ‘Cultural Strategy’ that I really liked was the emphasis the authors put on seeking to understand the category orthodoxy and use this as a competitive advantage. Regardless of whether you buy into the cultural strategy approach as a whole, knowing the category cliches is essential and can often a fertile source of ideas – sometimes it’s easier to start by defining what you aren’t than what you are.

You knew there’d be some criticisms

Where I don’t necessarily agree with Holt and Cameron (and their thinking departs from Feldwick’s) is in their assertion that a cultural approach based on ideology is always the ‘right’ way to build a successful brand or advertising. Evidence for the prosecution includes Cadbury’s Gorilla or Sony Bravia’s Balls, unsurprisingly neither of which are referenced in the book. From my understanding their effectiveness was not the result of a cultural ideology so much as a simple rejection of crap messaging in favour of a beautifully executed, emotive piece of advertising.

In addition, it sometimes feels like the authors have retrospectively applied a rather tenuous cultural explanation when the reality was a lot more complex. In most cases they fail to properly acknowledge the role of other factors, particularly luck, which as we know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, is often a much bigger factor than we like to admit.

Despite these reservations, in general the book helps to move the conversation about brands along in the right direction. A cultural approach may not be right for every brief but it’s certainly worth a read.

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  4. Starbucks instant coffee: breakthrough innovation or brand suicide?
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