s co-founder of an agency set up to ensure marketing is more inclusive and representative of all people’s various lifestyles and cultures, I have learned an important lesson that may surprise many from our first 14 months in business: cultural marketing is toxic.
Promoting a message to a certain group who belong to a particular culture by taking advantage of that group’s different cultural references – tradition, language, religion and so on – to communicate and persuade is certainly “on trend” right now.
But that’s not to say it is always being done right.
Today, the desire to fully represent people’s lived experiences through marketing and advertising may look like it’s here to stay. And a growing number of brand owners seem to now think: the edgier the cultural association, the better.
But beneath the façade of fashionability, all too often there is a shallowness in intent and approach that everyone in the industry should make it their business to address.
Consider the many cultural agencies – and cultural divisions within other agencies – now popping up and how few are actually run by people with the cultural background they are representing.
Consider, too, the speed with which the rise of cultural marketing came about. Certain cultures or music – rap and hip-hop, for example, which in the UK have become synonymous with Gen Z culture – were not deemed ‘brand safe’ just three or four years ago.
And, consider how so many cultural campaigns that might look impressive at first glance fall short because of inaccurate representation due to a basic failure to understand and pay attention to all-important cultural nuances and finer details.
There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. And marketers and agencies need to understand where it sits and stay on the right side of it.
This is not to say everyone involved in a campaign focused around black music or LGBTQ+ culture should be black or LGBTQ+. Rather, it is an argument for not just assigning one junior creative or consultant of a particular culture – because doing so is not enough.
Decision-makers on any cultural marketing campaign should include decision-makers from the culture that campaign seeks to represent.
Yes, because inclusion is important, but also, to ensure authenticity – the trademark of any successful cultural marketing campaign.
A client at one agency where I once worked wanted a black culture-focused campaign.
But this company’s desire not to work with ex-prisoners – ignoring the complex reasons that may have led to prison, as well as how they had turned their lives around – instantly excluded a whole group of black music artists who were part of the culture it wanted to use, compromising authenticity.
Its approach was ignorant.
As was the approach of PrettyLittleThing when it recently sold risque outfits as part of its Eid collection as well as the desire of a food company we are aware of, that wanted to run a campaign marking the same festival, despite selling no Halal food lines.
Or how so many brands only talk to cultural specialists in the countdown to Black History Month or Pride.
Many brands are doing cultural marketing well – like JD Sport, FootAsylum and Premier Inn which recently had a commercial featuring a black couple in which the woman is wearing a headscarf before going to bed – the kind of real-world cultural detail that lands well.
But many more brands are not doing cultural marketing well.
To turn this around, they need to take their approach to cultural marketing more seriously.
And they can do this in five ways:
First, build people from within the cultures they want to represent into their teams – and not just at the most junior level: have them involved in leading the campaign. To get the details right to be truly authentic, you have to do more. A focus group alone is not enough.
Further, build a diverse team from the top down as part of a long-term strategy, not a short-term tactic. Recruit diverse talent into senior roles because they are talented, then trust them to run with it. Don’t just hire lots of diverse juniors to box-tick or fill a gap.
Third, if you are going to tap into a culture whatever that culture, be sure to dig deep.
Understand the issues that shape it. And care about the detail. Which should also mean not being afraid to say when something’s not right – or be hostile if someone points out you have got something wrong.
Next, give back by engaging with and making a positive contribution to the factors or circumstances shaping those issues.
Above all, don’t just take and then move on, leaving the culture dry. Instead, dive in wholeheartedly and apply the give back philosophy to all you do – including the cultural influencers, experts and specialists you work with.
Consider the impact of the small budgets and tight turnarounds you might request. Because it pays back in multiples when you pay and treat people fairly.
Hannah Campbell is co-founder at One Twelve Agency