Alfie Spencer
Feb 12, 2015

Why bother to understand culture?

'Cultural Radar' is a new weekly series that will explore a great range of cultural currents in Asia. In this inaugural piece, Alfie Spencer, a semiotics specialist with Flamingo, sets the stage by explaining why adopting a cultural perspective is essential for effective brand-building.

Why bother to understand culture?

Imagine for a moment a bicycle shop. It could be anywhere—near a crowded marketplace in Delhi, nestled amongst tiny cafes and restaurants in a district of Tokyo, sitting in a grey row of shops in the rain in a north London suburb. Wherever you like.

In that wing of the professional services industry that we could call communications, advertising and branding (that sprawling suburb of ideas and advice that you, dear reader, probably work in), the key thought is that we’ve all got some particular way that we think we can help this bicycle shop.

The mid-20th-century adman turns up: "What you need, pal, is promotion—people have got to hear about your great shop!." 

The quantitative data guy pitches up (looking a bit like a management consultant): "Sure, promotion will help, but let’s get more information here…need to know your footfall? Saturation of competitors in the surrounding area? Average spend per bike-buyer in a 4 km radius? How to price competitively for maximal GP? What the market thinks of your bikes? Just imagine what you could do with all that data! Then you’d really know what to prioritise!"

The 1990s brand strategist and his well-dressed designer turns up—he knows best practice in this stuff: "Change your layouts, harmonise your fonts, create an experience in the shop. Thought about a coffee machine and T-shirts that say ‘Bike Genius’ on them? You know, to advise the consumer?’

This article introduces the Cultural Radar series

Mr Big Data walks in: "You know what the quant guy just told you? Yeah, like that, but much bigger! I can tell you what colour to make your bikes based on likes in the social media of the surrounding streets. You could growth-hack your way to a 5 per cent gain just by hitting up today’s hot colour: aquamarine is big in bikes this hour."

A slightly tired looking early-21st-century adman turns up: "Look, I’ve got a big idea about the emotional truth of biking, and I can arrange the media spend such that anyone looking for a bike shop within 100 km will know that you are the one with a real sense of how bikes make people feel. We’ve got a channel-neutral idea that will make you the regional leader in bike-thought. You’re going to be tapping into a big emotional truth, unlike the other bike shops round here."

I think it’s fair to say that our bike shop owner could probably do with all of this advice. There’s a good chance it will all be useful one way or another, the more the better. Of course, he might have to prioritise a bit—he probably can’t do everything that every advisor is offering. And anyway, his lawyer is expensive, and given pressure from his Taiwanese suppliers, our bike shop owner is much keener to try and keep costs down and margins up by getting in another guy with a big data set: his management consultant, who’s got an idea about "staffing numbers".


Imagine now that another potential advisor walks into the bike shop. "Listen, I know that there’s lots of different advisors offering to help you, but I’m a little different. I’m going to help you succeed in this bike shop by helping you to understand the culture that you are working in."

It would be fair to say that not very long ago, there were still people who would have thought this new advisor’s pitch laughable. Absurd, even. After all, this is business. It’s obvious that businesses like the bike shop need the facts—data—and that they need to "get inside" their consumers’ heads and that they need people to communicate on their behalf who are good at communicating (sharing information, promoting the shop, etc.). But culture? I’m not about to write a novel or put on an art exhibition. This isn’t the opera, you know?

What could this new culture-focused advisor possibly mean when he says that by understanding culture, the bike shop owner could grow his business?


An admission: I’m with the advisor who has walked in and said "Understand the culture". I think that he’s right. Indeed, I am part of an organisation that specialises in being the culture advisor.

First of all, let’s take an uncontroversial definition of culture.

Culture is the totality of the practices, institutions and beliefs of a society.

This is a rough statement of the ‘anthropological’ way of defining culture (there’s another meaning where it refers to a society or group’s artistic output). So what we’re saying to the bike shop owner is that with a greater understanding of the practices, institutions and beliefs that flow through cycling and bicycles in his society, we can help him be more commercially successful.

That makes sense. It means that to help the bike shop owner, we should first of all understand what practices bikes take part in—commuting, sport perhaps, childhood play, weekend leisure, tourism, getting goods to market. We should understand cycling behaviours mediated by what cycling is in that society: what cultural roles it plays. We should make sense of the motivations around cycling and the beliefs about it through reference to the history of cycling in that culture, and the contexts, people and social frames that it is associated with. We should try to understand the stories that involve bicycles and the stories about bicycles. We should understand how cycling is connected to politics, social history, geography, artworks and economic structures. We should find out how it works in language and the values that bikes have when people love (or hate) them.

All of which is to say that at root, we’re asking the bike shop owner to have the following thought: "My business will thrive when I understand the context that surrounds my trade—the broader social system in which it figures."

Notice how this culture thought includes a respect for what the quantification guy, Mr Big Data, the '80s brand strategist and both the admen are bringing to the table. The cultural perspective wants to recognise that all this is important and good to know. But the perspective also wants to remind all of those approaches that they are not the whole story—that they all put too narrow a frame on things to be a solution by themselves, whether that’s ‘behaviour, ‘data sets’ or ‘what won an award last year’. That they work because they help us to characterise one aspect of the context that the bike shop is working in. But that the final context—the context that we want to understand holistically—is that "totality of practices, institutions and beliefs" that surround both the consumer and the brand (or bike shop).

What the cultural perspective tends to do is to stop you being reductive and binary in the way you think about business success. It stops you thinking that all business solutions are fundamentally psychological (as a lot of the research industry has traditionally believed: ‘What’s the insight?’), or that behaviour is the golden bullet. Or that data will get rid of all our problems. Actually, our business activity operates in complex interrelation with a huge number of discourses, tensions and concerns, and we should try to diagnose and grasp these in order for our business to succeed. We should think culturally.

The cultural perspective also sets you up to think about success in business and branding in a particular way. It allows you to see good data as the symptom of understanding the cultural dynamics at play. It allows you to think that a brand is successful when it is powerfully embedded in its cultural context—‘hooked up’ to its surrounding practices, institutions, beliefs and motivations in the right way. Which is a way of saying that a powerful brand, be it a successful consumer business or a socially relevant organisation, is one that is in a meaningful dialogue with its social circumstances, contributing to its cultural environment. 

Methodologically, the cultural perspective fully supports a deep and thorough engagement with that figure, the consumer, through data and discussion, absolutely yes, but also ethnographically and behaviourally. It also supports the idea that you might want to analyse the cultural context itself, not only via what consumers say and do. That’s my own trade of semiotics.

Most of all, seeing the bike shop’s success as a cultural achievement describes that success in the right way. He didn’t just "move the dial" on the measurements and he didn’t just understand what was going on in his customers’ heads. He didn’t just hire a Cannes-award winning director. He may have done all of these things, but what he really did was take on a meaning, relevance and a cultural power within his particular social context, within his historical moment.

The advisor who turned up saying "Think about culture" really is talking sense. Business success—penetration, market share, high equity scores, satisfaction and even excitement—are bought in the bonds of cultural meaning. 'Real estate in the brain’—fame, loyalty, affiliation—are relationships earned in the currency of social activity, a participation in the practices and institutions (language included) that make us what we are.

The kind of brand that wants to succeed in today’s world is one that thinks about brands as culture

Alfie Spencer is group head of semiotics with Flamingo






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