Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

by Ben Perreira

I can’t take credit for the title of this post. My research partner and I saw a flag with this Peter Drucker quote while roaming the streets of Stockholm in May of this year.

It made me think though, because it’s true. I present two examples: surfing and country music.

On the surface these two cultural totems are rather different. Surfing is very multicultural. It is known as the “sport of kings” in Hawaii and people have been surfing for perhaps thousands of years in places like Peru and the South Pacific. It is a universal language that signifies freedom and connection to nature. The rules of etiquette in the water are international as well.

Country music, on the other hand, is the poster child for Americana. On the US Census it places a giant checkmark next to “White Non-Hispanic”. It seems that the recipe for success is a song that includes twangy guitar solos interspersed among references to summer, girls, trucks, rivers, dogs, older country musicians and back roads.

On the other hand, surfing and country music are not too different. They both have fervent fan bases that live and breathe their respective activity. They are also both heavily derided. Country music receives the lion’s share of verbal beatings among music snobs. Surfers are often painted as stoners who are uninterested in being part of the “real world” (irony noted).

So we have two groups of people, each numbering tens of millions, who possess certain defining characteristics that help them connect to each other, but are somewhat curious to those on the outside.

Groups like this are a marketer’s dream. A brand that gains acceptance by key members of large subgroups will likely experience rapid acceptance by a majority of that group. It is the original viral marketing technique. See: Jack Daniel’s among country music fans and Red Bull among surfers.

The problem is that there is no “right” combination of references to tan legs, Panama Beach, Silverados or lovin’ that will make a country fan connect to a brand, just like there is no “right” combination of scenic beach photos, girls in bikinis, guys riding waves or super cool lingo that will make surfers believe a brand speaks to them.

There is no formula, no output. If there were an algorithm that could generate culturally relevant copy, we would build the model and let the copy create itself. Cultural cues are much more subtle. It is for this reason a 90’s VW ad was able to market to the gay community without the conservative community realizing and causing its mandatory uproar.

Cultural cues in marketing communication are like NFL referees – if the audience doesn’t notice them you know they are doing their job.

Ergo, doing this kind of work is a very fun challenge.