Drop the Words 'Relevance' and 'Authenticity' From Your Marketing Lexicon

Culture Is What You Should Be Focusing on

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"Why now?"

It's the question I ask every team as we begin crafting its new brand strategy: "Why is now the right time for your brand to succeed?"

For years, brands operated under the conceit that they could create an idea -- an identity -- so powerful consumers would be compelled as if by sheer Bieber-esque charisma to buy their ideology (and their products).

But in the last decade, brands were told that to have any lasting meaning, they had to be "relevant" and "authentic." Good intentions to be sure, but few took the time to understand how to deliver those ideas in ways that actually were relevant and authentic. Before long, these once-meaningful words became marketing jargon, devaluing the venerable principles they were meant to reflect. "Relevant" came to mean "what we want people to say in focus groups." And "authentic" morphed into "inspired by authentic things" -- in other words, things that are blatantly inauthentic, like "vintage" rock T-shirts.

So I recently instituted a new policy: I forbid my clients to use either word in their brand strategies.

It's not that relevance and authenticity are bad. Quite the opposite. Together, they forge the driving force ensuring your brand has impact, appeal and that of -the-moment crispness. It's that the words themselves have become generic, convenient ways to get universal buy-in across departments. Who'd ever veto either? Using them is now as complacent as putting "profitable" in your brand strategy.

Most brands don't know how to deliver on relevance or authenticity. They're over-reliant on focus groups to say what people think they want (at least, in a windowless room with nine other people they've never met, forced to answer questions about things they've never before given a nanosecond of thought to). Even if the answers are truthful, asking "What do you think?" doesn't yield the info brands really need to succeed. Brands need context -- a picture of the world around them that influences opinions and actions. Without that , they lack a relevant understanding of the shared awareness, knowledge and sensibility of a certain society at a particular moment in time -- now. The question that needs to be answered is "Why do you think that ?"

They need to understand culture.

Brands used to lead culture, or even define it, as in the case of campaigns like Apple's "1984." But thanks to the internet, today's fast-moving consumer is way ahead of the brand curve, forcing most marketers to adapt -- or die. How many brands aren't desperately trying to figure out their Facebook and Twitter strategies? Keeping up with consumer culture is now a full-time job, as Grant McCracken advocates in his book "Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation."

Cutting-edge agencies and media companies are investing in this capability, hiring cultural anthropologists like Kate Barrett at Olson in Minneapolis, and starting a Cultural Insights Lab, like at Discovery Networks. Here at Truth, we've been trying to find ways to convey to clients the cultural mindset that consumers have such a hard time articulating by using semiotics, a form of cultural anthropology. For example, by mapping the shifts in the collective consciousness as they move from "emergent" to "dominant" to "residual," we explore the context that impacts how brands are perceived.

Whatever approach you take to get a grip on culture, it needs to be rational and systematic. You need to find a way to create an objective point of view from all the "gut feelings" that every sharp person in your organization has, albeit from different perspectives. Gut isn't a leadership tool, it's a power grab. Socializing instincts throughout an organization allows a brand to have a particular POV on culture. That empowers everyone in the company to make better choices, and provides concrete ways to talk about abstract ideas.

Once you understand what's going on in culture, and where your brand fits (or could fit) into it, you'll see the world differently. It's like how women, once pregnant, suddenly notice all the other pregnant women in the world.

Culture, like a brand, is a living, breathing ecosystem that requires constant monitoring and evaluation as it adapts and changes. When your brand is able to answer "Why now?" at any point in time, you'll be positioned to be a relevant, authentic and influential part of the culture.

LINDA ONG is president of Truth Consulting.
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