When Should Brands Interact With Culture?

Advertising that taps into cultural or religious events isn't particularly new but it needs to be handled with sensitivity. We asked how best to approach it

By Elliot Leavy

Earlier this month, BBH London released a campaign for Tesco centred on Ramadan. The OOH campaign featured Tesco courteously aligning itself to the religious practice by altering its billboards to only feature food when it was time to break iftar.

The campaign was rightly lauded, but it also raises questions about which brands can engage with cultural moments, and why.

We asked some agencies, as well as Asad Dhunna, who consulted BBH London on how to be more inclusive, just when brands can and cannot interact with culture effectively.

Asad Dhunna, founder & chief executive officer of The Unmistakables

Brands and the people behind them need to consider their right to play when they want to engage in cultural moments. This right - or permission - requires cultural confidence within the teams and organisation as a whole to truly understand how to reflect the audience and cultures they seek to serve. 

We have seen countless examples where brands get it wrong, often because ideas have been developed by monocultural teams or have skipped the beat on inclusion by not bringing in different perspectives. Changing this takes time and patience to rewire the standard ways of doing things, and when it goes it is because teams have taken the time to learn and do things differently. 

Developing the Ramadan campaign with BBH and Tesco had the core component of cultural confidence. Over the past few years our team of inclusion consultants have been embraced with the end-to-end live learning we provide - right the way from planning and insight through to production and delivery. Therefore when it came to Ramadan we weren't jumping on a cultural moment, we had careful thought and planning that went into considering all possible outcomes.

Helen Rhodes, executive creative director, BBH

It was extremely important to us that we consulted people from the Muslim community every step of the way when creating ‘Together this Ramadan’. This helped guide the campaign’s authentic imagery, recipes, food, and messaging.

From the very beginning, diversity and inclusion consultants, The Unmistakables, were on hand to share their insights which helped shape the direction of the project and gave us confidence. We also enlisted the talents of photographer Khalil Musa and food consultant Dina Macki, who are both practising Muslims. Meanwhile, part of the cast was selected from Muslim colleagues within the Race and Ethnicity Network at Tesco.

Ultimately, this was a campaign by and for the Muslim community. Every detail mattered from the table setting, to the colour of plates, to the phrasing of the headline and the location of the billboards. Thanks to this collaboration, we were confident in bringing the campaign to life and sharing it throughout the entire month of Ramadan.

Kate Nettleton, group strategy director, VCCP

Culture has become both our muse and our enemy - it is our inspiration and the noise we must be heard above. Culture has never been created by more people or had more money behind it than now. Billions of dollars is being poured into content creation by the likes of Netflix and Tik Tok which now has over 138 million creators on its platform. It’s everywhere, anyone who can hold a phone can play their part.

Given our competition is rich, in funds, in talent, in numbers and in an ability to create culture that is born of something with a distinct purity and lack of agenda, we need to be more directional in the way we utilise culture.

We have to remember that culture is a powerful homonym. It is both the world of art and human creation that surrounds us, but it is also our identity, the ideas, behaviours, customs, origins that define who we are. We need to ask ourselves what part of culture we want to play a part in, and what role we want our brand to play.

In this way culture becomes our compass - not a line we cross, but an arrow that points us in the right direction.

In deciding if we want to interact with the cultural fabric that surrounds our consumer, or tap into something far deeper, their identity and culture, I’d caution that brands should only attempt to do the latter, when it is tethered to that culture at a deep genetic level. It’s a well-trodden trope but authenticity is key. It should be in the brand’s DNA. Like Nike; it has a credibility built from a connection to the cultures it seeks to inspire and influence.

It’s the former that’s in a sense easier, but we so often miss the mark. When we try and interact with ‘popular culture’ we often end up looking like a dad at a disco. Because we’ve forgotten that to fit in, you really need to learn the moves.

A brand that seems to have found its rhythm is Burberry. Take its recent foray into Tik Tok, in its Sylvanian dramas no less (@Sylvaniandrama) - these miniature soap opera dramas are compulsive, unhinged and packed with Love Island-esque escapades. Burberry understood this language and utilised it to promote their new Lola bag, in miniature form.

It’s sponcon without feeling like a con, because they wrote themselves into the narrative, without changing the story.

So let culture be your compass, work out the role you want to play, attach yourself to ‘cultures’ only when your brand is genetically connected, or join the dance. But make sure you learn the steps.

Anna Vogt, chief strategy officer, VMLY&R

The first thing brands need to ask is there any relevance for it to be participating in a conversation. That can be functional, as in what the product actually is, or more meaningful — as in what the brand stands for in its DNA.

So take Magnum, it’s an ice cream brand that I would say this brand sits in the more light hearted category. On the face of it, it might not seem like the brand has a right to participate in some of the more serious conversations that are happening in the world. But actually as a brand, they are massive advocates of pleasure and love which lends itself well to conversations such as LGBT rights and of the importance of individual expression.

So if this brand wanted to sponsor a cultural moment like Pride Month they would be able to do so in a very authentic way.

Whereas if another ice cream brand like Wall’s did that, it wouldn’t seem so right.

That’s what it always comes down to really, what is the brand already doing and what category are they in — and how relevant are these things to the cultural moment in hand?

Raquel Chicourel, UK chief strategy officer, Grey London

Culture is the most overused word in advertising today.  

Spend five minutes looking at any agency website as they all say the same thing: we exist to infiltrate culture. But what does that actually mean and is it always the best or most appropriate thing to do?

Putting pretentiousness aside, culture is simply what people are talking about now. It’s the stuff that exist in school gates, social media, pubs, homes, TikTok, Roblox. And it’s important because we know getting people to talk about a brand is the biggest driver of growth and profitability (famous campaigns significantly outperform non-famous campaigns – source: Binet & Field, IPA), so if you can tap into what people are already talking about, you increase your odds of success.

But the truth is, I believe just tapping onto what people are talking about is not enough. 

Too many brands either wait on the sidelines and join the conversation late. For example, is very in fashion for brands to be pro diversity today but it took them too long to get involved into the conversation. Even worse are the brands that try to tap onto important cultural conversation (i.e. climate change) but follow up with little to no meaningful action. 

So, should brands tap into culture? Yes, but it is not enough. Brands shouldn’t follow the conversation. They should lead the conversation. They shouldn’t wait until something is acceptable, they should make the world more accepting of the things that will make all of our lives and the world better. Think how daring at the time was Patagonia “Don’t Buy This jacket”, Nike “Kaepernick Dream Crazy”, Dove “Campaign for Real beauty”, NY Times “The Truth”, Apple iPhone privacy”. 

Brands should be leading the way, now and before anyone else, on the big issues yet to be tackled – i.e. ageism, cyberbullying, privacy, big tech and broken algorithms.

And where do you draw the line? People today trust brands more than the Government (source: Edelman Trust Barometer). With great power comes great responsibility. People expect brands to have a point of view and act on bigger issues. So, the question is not “should brands tap onto big societal issues?”. The question is “if your brand hasn’t got its house in order. If your brand has yet to take meaningful action on the topic. Should it have a point of view on it?” Because the last thing we need now, in a world filled with untrustworthy politicians and deceptive corporations, are more empty promises.

So, the next level cultural dent is for the brands that can walk the walk, to come and change the world for the better.

Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

Culture is the oxygen of brands. Severed from culture they slowly asphyxiate, starved of relevance and presence in their customer’s worlds.

However, few brands know how to engage effectively in ways that are rewarding and sustainable. For Hope United - BT’s activity during last summer’s Euros - we used this formula. Take a live cultural issue that is important to people (the Euros and the dark heart of hatred in football) and deliver a meaningful intervention (a team created to fight online hatred with simple digital tools to combat it), clear brand credibility (BT were the sponsor of the home football teams in every expression of the sport) and commitment from the organisation (BT has a significant partnership with the FA reaching down to grassroots). In this way BT were present in a critical cultural moment and encouraged over three million people to act against online hatred in football and beyond.

Debarshi Pandit, SVP, international business, head of multicultural business + co-chair of multiculture, Sky Network

Hats off to the bold marketing team at Tesco for being fearless and investing in the Ramadan campaign. Too often clients play safe for the fear of getting it wrong but this campaign ticks all the boxes and plays out beautifully and more important authentically.

In diverse and inclusive Britain, we should be seeing more brands being fearless and ‘investing’ in media showcasing inclusive campaigns. And it shouldn’t just be a one off Ramadan campaign but all year round engagement with multicultural communities reflecting cultural nuances at its best with brands playing a significant role during these cultural moments.

Win-win scenario where the brand that engages with the multicultural communities ends up generating ‘incremental sales’ because of their inclusive marketing media campaigns.

Brian Williamson, senior social strategist, AMV BBDO

For the creatively ambitious, brands don't interact with culture, they are culture. Make bad culture and you literally can’t buy people’s attention. Make good culture and your brand will be welcome almost everywhere it goes. 

Here’s the twist – the audience decides what’s good. When brands go wrong in culture, usually it’s ego that gets them. They lose sight of what people want from them.  

That’s why we need the maturity to prioritise people’s desires and the humility to be honest about our brands’ roles in their lives. Brands with the empathy to follow their audience’s heart rarely go astray. When they find themselves in unexpected new creative territory, they know just what to do.


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