OPINION20 March 2023

More in common: The case for cultural strategy

Inclusion Opinion Trends UK

Cultural strategy is about better understanding and reflecting people’s lives, and making sure brands act on better representation. By Hannah Robbins.

People holding hands in a circle

Culture is the fabric of our lives and how we make sense of the world. It’s how we spend our time, our money, our energy, what we care about; how we express ourselves and how we communicate. It is a giant Venn-diagram, criss-crossing as we engage with the increasingly fragmented cultures that define our identities. Some cultures we choose, others we’re born into.

The only thing all cultures have in common is people – human beings. Which is why when it comes to cultural strategy, data is drawn not from siloes and spreadsheets, but from the lived experience of people’s worlds.

As a brand, you have a choice: you either are in culture, have become a part of culture, or, more likely, are interrupting culture. Cultural strategy helps us to avoid the latter through giving tangible, executional guidance and jumping-off points for new directions a brand might take. 

It visualises the context a brand lives in, showing ways that it might go while remaining true to its core. It helps us to become a part of culture by understanding what it means to be human; to comprehend the social, emotional, psychological and commercial shifts that affect customers’ lives and what is important to them.

Cultural strategy done well is sharp, focused and meaningful. It casts the net wide to explore a given culture in all its beauty, but then hones in on a sharp, deliverable action for your brand that helps you to be a part of that culture – in meaningful and tangible ways.

Skincare is an interesting example of where we’ve seen cultural understanding creating transformative shifts from the margins, upending – and checking – a global industry, and in the process creating category standards that better serve the lived experience of real people.

Casting the net wide, global skincare is a culture long-dominated by Eurocentric standards of beauty and whiteness. As a result, the priority of product development and brand understanding has catered primarily to a market of white women.

As part of a wider reckoning with identity, younger generations are driving the conversation in feeling empowered to own multiple (potentially conflicting, in-between) facets of their individuality. With recent discourse on identity centred on race and ethnicity, it’s no surprise we see new brands in the skincare category emerging from people of colour, reconnecting with their motherland and taking pride in their heritage – this is known as retro-acculturation.

Brands making skincare products became a part of global skincare culture by understanding what it meant to feel marginalised, building on the cultural shifts at play to become a valued part of people’s lives.

Very often, new skincare brands, such as Indē Wild, Epara and Fenty Beauty, are brands with their founders’ multi-heritage woven deep into their identity and offering. Cultural strategy calls on people who are living the culture we seek to disrupt to understand what needs to change, so that we can best respond to it.

This is the essence of cultural strategy – looking at a given culture, responding to its movements, and then becoming a part of them. It looks at a culture broadly and tries to understand the real human needs of the people within it – and what is missing – and how a brand can change that through specific action.

Understanding this underrepresentation of diverse cultures in the beauty category has made way for this surge of new brands that have usurped incumbents to become a part of the culture that once shut them out. These brands are carving out success because they were aware a shift in culture was necessary.

Being a brand in an emerging cultural space requires an ever-more granular level of cultural strategy. A lot of cultural strategy work is beautiful and interesting and inspiring, but it stops there. It is inspiration for brands to muse over, rather than sharp action for them to take.

Visualising a brand within the context of complex identities while remaining true to its core means living that culture – listening and working with it, understanding what is important – rather than just assuming you are welcome and interrupting it.

Cultural strategy done well is about better understanding and reflecting people’s lives, so that you can become a welcome part of them. We say it is the duty of a brand looking to engage in strategic cultural work to ensure it is right: just as rich, vibrant and engaging as the culture itself – and most importantly, the human beings who make it what it is. 

Hannah Robbins is senior cultural strategist at Firefish