Brands and cultural tensions: own them, don’t wait until they are over

Brands have a role in culture. This statement sounds even better if framed as brands’ role in some cultural tension. This how they achieve their broader relevance and social meaning: they help people identify with it, tell their own story about it, participate in it, understand it.

I wonder. There’s a trap here.

By the time a brand jumps on a cultural tension train, the chances are it has already left the station. Once recognized, the tension is not so tense anymore. It becomes a story. It’s quite a safe position for brands. It’s also a passive one, and not only because it deals with a something that has happened, but also because it’s based on reconciling people’s behavior with an already established cultural frame.

But tensions are interesting.

They are their most interesting when they are still brewing. That’s the momentbefore they become a culture and a behavior – the moment of suspense, ambiguity, and murkiness. And that’s when brands need to capture them: before it’s clear what’s going to come out of it and well before there’s a story to be told.

Luckily for us, cultural tensions are brewing all around.

For example, think car brands: there’s a pressing need to recognize the tension between the millennials driving less and them being the 40% of the car market; of digital gadgets and apps replacing cars as markers of identity; of in-car technologies lagging behind their digital expectations; of car pollution and them being green. All of these are real, brewing tensions that create a serious antagonism between people’s judgments, tastes, and motivations and the ways car brands are managed and marketed; and if they are not yet big enough to be considered a behavior, they are the most certainly real enough to make brands reconsider ther strategy.

Or think retail brands. Privacy, intimacy, sexuality, self-expression, ambition, or ownership are all spaces of tension. Digital exposes so many brewing & contradictory tensions that’s unclear how we should think and feel about what’s beautiful, sexy, successful, or creative. In most cases, though, retail brands are not those leading our understanding of any of this. Their voice is lost among all the tools, information, and others’ choices that ubiquitously surround us and help us navigate the world around us. In this scenario, brands’ waiting for something to become a trend is a losing proposition.

What does this mean for brand strategy?

All the brewing micro-tensions give brands the unique and unprecedented opportunity to capture the underlying antagonism, turn it into a zeitgeist, and elevate it to a topic of a conversation. Brand strategy becomes less about tension solving, and more about tension setting: taking a cultural current that’s not known enough, broad enough, or mainstream enough and turning it into a bigger cultural movement.

Like amplifiers, they put the emerging tension right at the center of their brand strategy.

A true usefulness of brands is to help us recognize & exploit all the micro-tensions around us. By getting to own a cultural tension, brands go beyond just telling a story about it in a “help people participate in culture” way. They let us explore the white space that cultural tensions open & make us an active part of any conceivable story that comes out if it.

Now, this can really change behavior on a larger scale.

Originally published on May 31, 2011