To 'pop into culture' is thinking too small

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Our instant formula for success--tap into cultural tension, insert product and create impact--is shortsighted, writes the head of brand planning at Eleven.

Let's face it. In marketing, "culture" has become an overused, empty buzzword. It's almost embarrassing to mention it. Nowadays, every brand—big or small—wants to be relevant in culture, whether they have the right to insert themselves in the moment or not.

The latest Pepsi ad is a prime example of that. Wanting to pop into culture at all cost, Pepsi believed it was offering a positive message of unity. Instead, what the world saw was a flippant and insensitive suggestion that a real-life civil struggle can simply be solved by a smile and a can of soda.

But Pepsi is not alone. The marketing industry as a whole has signed on to this rat race. We will do anything to be timely and talked about. It has become our instant formula for success: tap into a cultural tension, insert the product, and create impact in the world. Even "Saturday Night Live" has taken the time to poke fun at our industry, and the truth is—they are right. Our money is on garnering headlines, collecting impressions, and sparking conversations—even if those conversations are short lived. Even if those conversations are far removed from what we do or represent. These metrics are, in many cases, how we justify spending marketing dollars in the first place, right?

Perhaps it's time for brands' aspirations to go higher and deeper. In a world where anyone with an idea can become your next competitor, is "popping into culture" good enough? Or perhaps we are thinking too small?

Powerful brand ideas have the potential to do so much more than "pop into culture." They have the capability to get under your skin and transform whole organizations from within. Like adrenaline pumping through a company's veins, brands can change internal culture, ignite product innovation, and reimagine the customer experience. They go beyond marketing campaigns to become the operating manual for the entire organization. But most importantly, they can rally employees around a common ambition, turning them into the brand's most outspoken ambassadors. When a brand idea can achieve this level of impact inside the company's walls, it can directly impact the brand's sticking power in the outside world. And yes, even pop in culture—but in a way that is authentic and tied to a more meaningful purpose.

This is the magic that occurs when a brand is the business and a business is the brand.

So what is so often standing in the way of this brand potential? Our biggest challenge is that brands are still viewed as a marketing tool rather than a leadership tool. This artificial division we created between the brand and the business is confining brands to merely be the bow around the package, not the package itself. Furthermore, with CMO tenure becoming shorter, they tend to focus on short term KPIs and making an impact in the moment rather than building a lasting foundation. Even when businesses are eager to find their north star through their brand, they tend to do it in isolated projects with external partners that don't necessarily talk to one other. Consequently, bold questions about the business and brand are asked and answered in silo. Consultancy firms ask: "What business are you really in?" Branding agencies ask: "Who are you and why do you exist?" Creative agencies ask: "How can you be meaningful to your customers and culture?" And B2B agencies ask: "What will ignite your stakeholders and employee base?"

The truth is, the transformational potential of a brand lies in holistically asking all of these questions. But the intent to answer them should come from the start, even when it hasn't been mandated. Adopting this approach doesn't just yield bigger and more meaningful brand ideas, it also turns the people involved in the process into true brand believers, product innovators and business visionaries. 

IBM's "smarter planet" is a great example of this. So much more than a campaign platform, "smarter planet" is a business agenda: Smarter power grids, smarter food systems, smarter water, smarter traffic systems and smarter healthcare. Everything IBM does is driven by the belief that a new generation of intelligent systems and technologies—more powerful and accessible than ever before—could be put to use for profound impact and encourage further thinking. Not only did this inspire powerful consumer campaigns such as "Smarter cities" it was also the driving force behind IBM's Watson cognitive computing system.

"Think Different" went beyond its iconic brand campaign to become the playbook for change at Apple. The embodiment of Steve Jobs' vision, it gave employees a platform, a purpose and a sense of pride when the company was at the brink of bankruptcy. Consequently, it was the engine that inspired product innovation such as the revolutionary iMac and iPod.

Similarly, Airbnb's "Belong anywhere" went beyond timely consumer-facing advertising. At its core, it has powerfully crystallized why Airbnb exists in the world, and how it delivers an authentic experience of belonging no matter who you are and where you are. Internally, employees celebrate the importance of belonging by promoting a sense of family and open two-way communication. "Belong anywhere" has also become the company's North Star for its initiatives, such as Airbnb's recent pledge to provide free housing for refugees in need. Unlike the Pepsi ad, Airbnb's #weaccept campaign was so true to the business of Airbnb, that it felt authentic, moving and meaningful.

It's time we all rise up beyond opportunistic quick wins and become more ambitious about the authentic power of brands to drive fundamental change. Let's define the brand while we define the business. Let's reimagine the world, not just imagine campaigns. Let's create something that truly moves the people who buy the brand, as well as those who build it. If we do this, we will go beyond having brands that just "pop into culture" for a brief moment to having brands that are culture for generations to come.

Orit Peleg is director, head of brand planning at Eleven in San Francisco.