OPINION9 May 2022

The benefits of cultural insight


If cultural insight wants to maximise the opportunity that currently presents itself, it also needs to amplify its overall business case, argues Andy Crysell of Crowd DNA.

Hands holding threads

There is nothing very new about the use of the term ‘cultural insight’ in market research. Here’s a reference to it from over a decade ago in Research Live, and it’s cropped up in agency and job descriptions going back much longer than that. Its roots extend further still – in particular to the work in the 1970s and 1980s of Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born theorist, activist and director at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. But there’s evidence of a new found position of authority for cultural insight, of a more solidified, and commercially significant, place within the wider research industry. 

Mergers and acquisitions are a good place to look for proof. There have been a number of acquisitions, with larger groups investing in the field (such as Space Doctors’ sale to InSites Consulting, and ours to STRAT7 ). Elsewhere, other agencies have been updating their branding and positioning to ensure ‘culture’ is truly centre stage. And some more generalist research businesses have been beefing up their cultural insights teams and specialisms, making clear they’re equipped to do this work in an elevated fashion; not just as a nice-to-have add-on.

So why the uptick in interest? It’s safe to assume that the increase in enthusiasm agency-side is matched on the buyer side. Cultural insight does seem to have benefited from the pandemic. It’s been a wake-up call for many senior leaders who once thought solely in terms of customers, competitors and the category that opportunities (and threats) can be identified elsewhere. 

They’ve been won round to the view that people are – yes – people. Not simply ‘consumers’ or ’customers’. That you need to see the ‘whole person’, as Grant McCracken puts it in Chief Culture Officer. That brands exist in culture, whether they like it or not, and it’s within this broader context that many ways to improve positioning, campaigns, products and experiences can be found. 

As Douglas Holt argues in Cultural Strategy, brands can open up market space not only through functional innovation, but through cultural innovation, and representing a shift in the orthodoxy. This, we’re finding, is becoming an ever-easier argument to land.

Increased C-suite interest runs in tandem with powerful developments in how we can do the work. Such as the use of unstructured data – essentially a way of turbocharging cultural insight, transforming where the source material can come from and the ability to see patterns at scale. Being able to pull in and work with such vast data sets brings new dimensions of credibility to cultural insight in the eyes of many decision makers.

All of this is very promising news for anything running a business or forging a career in cultural insight. However, with the increase in attention and in commercial opportunities comes a need to straighten a few things out.

Namely, what even is cultural insight? Methods-wise, for some it’s primarily about semiotics work; for others trends analysis, or ethnographic research. But really, it probably shouldn’t be defined by a method set.

The fuzziness follows through into what is actually meant by culture. It’s easy for the conversation to become fixated on the cultural arts, when really the definition – as per Stuart Hall’s – should be more about culture as ‘shared meaning’, and to do with values and rituals as much as food fads, music subcultures or TikTok trainspotters becoming the face of Gucci x The North Face (though that’s exciting, too). 

Alongside this need to set the right definition of culture, it’s important to communicate that while, yes, sometimes culture sits in the hands of so-called leading edge audiences, this is as much about everyday people. Back to Stuart Hall et al. Their work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was essentially a rejection of a ‘top down’ view of culture, as something defined by the upper classes, and instead a belief that culture is less hierarchical than that, coming at us from all angles. Amen to that. 

If cultural insight wants to maximise the opportunity that currently presents itself, it also needs to amplify its overall business case. The commercial value is evidenced more through fragments and strands at present, rather than via a cogent overall view (the messiness of culture no doubt has something to do with that). We need the case studies and effectiveness data to support our collective cause. 

There’s work to be done, then. Always more to add to our point of view. But for anyone who’s fascinated and motivated by what happens at the intersection of brands and culture, our place in the insight industry has never been more relevant.

Andy Crysell is founder and chief executive officer at Crowd DNA.