David Blecken
Aug 29, 2017

Why brands must be careful when ‘supporting culture’

By failing to see the big picture, they can do more harm than good, according to the leader of a new cultural insights programme in Tokyo.

In a documentary on urban sports, Yuka, a street dancer, complains of cultural marginalisation
In a documentary on urban sports, Yuka, a street dancer, complains of cultural marginalisation

Brands these days are constantly encouraged to listen to, shape and generally “be part of" culture. If studies are to be believed, consumers everywhere have (at least some) faith in brands’ ability to make society better. No one expects a single brand to save the world. But it seems logical to pick an under-represented area of society and help it grow. The movement (whatever it might be) flourishes thanks to the brand’s generous support, and grateful consumers reward the brand by buying lots of its products—right?

Not always. That’s why Mike Sunda, a planner at MullenLowe in Tokyo, recently initiated Tokyo 20XX. Billed as a ‘cultural insights specialism’, its aim is to give brands a realistic view of various communities and subcultures in Tokyo and make them aware of all the nuances before they think about getting involved.

The project debuted in July with three short documentaries. They look at the current state of the club, urban sports and LGBTQ scenes in Shibuya, all of which face unique challenges.

In particular, the club scene is still finding its feet after the authorities lifted an absurd anti-dancing law in 2014. The decree dated back to an anti-prostitution crackdown in 1948 and made a comeback around 2010 after a series of undesirable incidents at clubs. While it’s no longer in place, Sunda says many in the scene still feel vulnerable to police heavy-handedness. It’s also an expensive pastime, yet a difficult industry in which to make a living.

Sunda notes that many brands have tried to engage, including Red Bull. Some years ago the energy drink brand ran an academy and offered up a number of free events for a period, he says, having worked on the project as a freelancer. It seemed like a great move, giving wide exposure to artists and accessibility to young people. But the drawback was that club promoters subsequently struggled to persuade people to pay the regular 4,000-yen entry fees.

Brands understandably tend to focus on the end consumer, Sunda says—although even then, it’s easy to get it wrong. As a keen club-goer, he says conspicuous signage for tobacco brands like iQOS pulls the experience down. “There are levels of visibility that don’t have to begin and end with branded signage,” he notes.

They do sometimes take into account the creators too, but not necessarily the overall system. “It’s important to look at the whole scene in its entirety as a living, breathing ecosystem,” he stresses. “It’s not something you do through desk research; it’s something you can only do through fully immersing yourself in the scene.”

That applies to any community that a brand hopes to engage with. The dynamics and challenges people face in any given area are rarely obvious at a surface level. Few brands other than those immersed in the skateboarding environment, such as certain streetwear labels, would be aware that Shibuya’s skaters are being gradually edged out of the area that’s central to their identity. As parks they have grown up in close, “they can’t just relocate to Ikebukuro [a less colourful Tokyo subcentre]”, Sunda says. Street dancers and basketball players are subject to similar marginalisation.

The LGBTQ community also faces a lot of challenges that aren’t visible, despite gaining more acceptance in recent years. Shibuya ward became one of the first to officially recognise same-sex partnerships in 2015. But elsewhere, the community still faces discrimination at an institutional level. Sunda says: “We’re at a moment of potentially positive change, but it could go either way depending on how big brands decide to show their support, or not.”

Most support so far has been tentative, revolving around Pride. But it would be a mistake for brands to assume the LGBTQ community in Japan shares the same characteristics as elsewhere, he adds. In parallel, brands that have supported a community in other markets should not assume that that gives them a cache of goodwill in Japan.

“People who work on the brand side are full of positive intentions, but it can be very difficult for some brands to expand their perspective outside of what has historically been their agenda or default understanding,” Sunda concludes. “So we’re coming to them as an impartial third party that can look beyond the flashy creator in Tokyo and also consider the 16-year-old playing football in a car park in Saitama. We’re not just interested in the glamorous side but the wider implications of potential growth. Whether or not a brand wants to get involved, I think this is a discussion the majority should be open to. We don’t have to force this project upon them, but if it encourages them to have these discussions internally we would still consider it a success.”

Campaign Japan

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