How to be a cultural leader instead of a cultural follower
Gillette’s ad with a dad teaching his transgender son how to shave has infiltrated mainstream news and social media. It’s a great example of a brand riding a cultural wave. In this case, Gillette is leaning into a new consumer value, “inclusive is the new exclusive”, a cultural shift that describes the phenomenon of companies gaining social cred for going beyond being welcoming and diverse and embracing a level of inclusivity that was once only the terrain of groups like the ACLU.
Gillette is still catering to the masses—or at least the younger generations who are aging into shaving. But they are doing it in a way that taps more into shared consumer values than shared consumer experiences. It’s a tricky line to navigate, but when done well, can yield huge payoffs. However, it requires a different kind of insight: cultural insight.
Consumer culture as a leading indicator
Cultural insight relies not on what a single consumer sees, feels or experiences, but upon examining the various ways that entire groups of people are changing, thinking, moving, voting, dreaming and even praying. We call these shifts "social forces" and they can be tracked, monitored and tapped into to create deeper connections with consumers.
Indicators of these Social Forces are everywhere, if you know what to look for. Changing consumption patterns show us whether luxury cars are giving way to adventure vacations. Spiritual shifts are apparent when we see the rise of fundamentalism or the founding of new religions like the International Church of Cannabis. Professional energies are funneled into new careers like A.I. ethicist or synthetic biologist. Even something as seemingly staid as the dictionary illustrates how our language is shifting as words take on new meanings—like “basic” transforming into a snarky dig, and new words like “Latinx” and “pansexual” being added to our lexicon.
Gillette isn’t the only brand winning with younger consumers by leaning into inclusivity. The face of H&M's 2018 pride campaign was Aaron Philip, the Black, trans and differently abled teen model who now has more than 54,000 followers. Tess Holliday, a size 22 body positivity crusader, shares unabashedly bold photos on social media as well as on the covers of both Self and Cosmopolitan. And then there is the meteoric success of Rihanna’s more inclusive makeup line, Fenty, which earned more than half a billion dollars in its first year.
The power these brands have is that they are bold, brave and at-the-ready. They have to be. By the time a new idea or value shows up in a mass consumer survey, it has already moved through culture widely enough to be voiced and shared by the masses. When we see the recent Pew data that 62% of Generation Z sees the societal value of diversity, we might nod but we could just as likely yawn. That doesn’t mean we don’t value broad consumer surveys like Pew; we use these numbers to validate and recalibrate what we’re tracking. However, if we had waited for these statistics, we would already be a step behind.
We must track and identify these leading cultural indicators so that can we help brands lead through change, not lag behind it, and to live their values in the most timely and relevant ways. Catch-up is too hard a game to play.