Rica Facundo
Apr 5, 2019

What the vegan Whopper tells brands about culture

Burger King's bold beefless move is more proof that culture is the new commercial advantage.

(Source: Burger King YouTube channel)
(Source: Burger King YouTube channel)

A vegan went into a Burger King and got a Whopper. Impossible! Well, not anymore.

A partnership between Burger King and Impossible Foods to create plant-based Whoppers is a testament to how seismic shifts in culture can influence business. There are no more sacred cows.

It would have been all too easy for Burger King to disregard the growing movement of veganism as ‘not our target audience’ or ‘not applicable’ to our core base of meat lovers. After all, in its over 60-year history, the brand’s iconic flagship burger has always been made of flame-grilled beef. Now, BK has woken up and smelled the opportunity.

Smash this trend with the groundswell demand for social responsibility from brands, and you’re presented with an impossibly tempting opportunity: to convert vegans into brand advocates.

The result? Creating a whole new audience segment to engage with and grow. A ‘beef’ burger in which the socially conscious millennials don’t have to feel guilty about indulging.  

Culture is the new commercial advantage

Burger King is the latest brand to foray into the arena of cultural marketing. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s an underutilised and crucial resource for brands to use to stay relevant in today’s highly inclusive cultural climate.  

Just look to the blockbuster success of Black Panther, Roma, or Crazy Rich Asians that tapped into the growing desire of under-served communities to be represented at scale. Five years ago this would have been seemingly impossible. But now, it’s the only reality people want to see.

So how can marketers harness culture as a commercial advantage?

Distinguishing cultural and consumer insights

Powerful marketing has always been grounded in consumer insight. What do people long for? What are their behaviours? What challenges do they face? And how can brands provide the solutions?

But relying solely on consumer data provides an incomplete picture of human behaviour.

The truth is that consumers will always be influenced by culture—the complex system of values, codes and relationships that shape who people are and how they think.

And because culture is an invisible force, one-off consumer insight can never capture and explain the undercurrents of change that influence behavior.

That’s why marketers must supplement consumer knowledge with cultural fluency in order to predict trends and spot opportunities ahead of the category.

Capitalising on cultural signals

Culture is more than cool trends and fleeting fads. While it’s important for brands to participate in cultural moments, this is low-hanging fruit.  

What is crucial is that marketers actively step back and ask themselves: Do these isolated events collectively signal a bigger shift we can explore? Is there a subculture that is influencing how consumers perceive us?

This is why investing in building, nurturing and understanding culture should be a long-term business strategy. It’s a mix of constantly and simultaneously identifying short-term signals and analysing long-term trends to equip marketers with deeper intelligence that can profoundly inform decision making.

So, it's not that yearly piece of research which yields historical insights just in time for the new campaign. Rather, culture should be used as a constant feedback mechanism that allows brands to optimise how they engage with consumers.

Culture is context

There’s a quote in an episode of the TV series Star Trek: Discovery: “Universal law is for lackeys. Context is for kings.” The same principle applies to brand leaders who use cultural insight to spot opportunities for innovation.

Every brand is guided by a set of brand guidelines which serve to create its narratives, yet increasingly, the reality is that consumers' world doesn’t revolve around brand anymore. Rather, it’s a reverse power shift where brands must orbit around the consumer’s lifestyle and the culture they choose.

If marketers don’t recognise and act upon the changing cultural context that is outside of their brand bubble, they will never be kings. Instead, they will be stuck inside a never-ending cycle of irrelevance.

Some of the most significant social movements have arisen from cultural shifts in a society. Culture gives meaning to ideas and conjures emotion which then incites collective action. Brands must therefore understand that culture change is not driven by action; it is driven by emotion.

Those brands which can harness the power of culture can create the necessary transformation to evolve, adapt and be seen as leaders—much like the iconic burger chain, which has made plant-based food go mainstream around the world.

Rica Facundo is the cultural strategist at Iris Singapore.

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