Yael Cesarkas, Executive Strategy Director, R/GA outlines five building blocks to building a master strategy for relevance, an overarching blueprint to help marketers reach and engage subcultures. 

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

How can we revitalize brand affinity? How can we be cool? How do we get people to talk about our brand? If these questions pulse through your day, congratulations – you’re a modern marketer. In the realm of social media dominance, cultural relevance is the holy grail. It's not just a buzzword; it's the key that unlocks business results, driving brands toward sustained success. These questions are pivotal.

Gone are the days when cultural relevance was a straightforward conquest. Once, it was as simple as aligning with what graced prime time TV or adorned glossy covers. But now, with the rise of social platforms, digital content, and the creator economy, seizing cultural relevance is about getting methodical and intentional about bottom-up culture.

In a landscape where no singular source dictates relevance and no monolithic media outlet decrees what's attention-worthy, the strategy shifts. Enter subcultures – hidden gems of engagement and impact. Their allure is undeniable, with engagement rates on social platforms eclipsing those of mainstream counterparts. Marketers are taking note, redirecting budgets mostly toward micro and nano influencers and creators. But, while influencer/creator partnerships are important, they’re a tactical element rather than a sustained and equity-building relevance strategy.

Navigating subculture communities transcends influencer/creator selection. Yes, these play a vital role, but they are not the strategy; they're its agents. Brands need a master strategy to relevance. An overarching blueprint that guides how a brand can credibly weave its ethos, narrative and experience into and with subcultures.

Five critical building blocks to building a master strategy for relevance

  1. Crafting a brand cultural perspective

While all five building blocks are essential, this one trumps them all. It goes beyond relevance and engagement, this piece permeates across all your marketing. Crafting a cultural perspective is an ongoing exercise – as sculture is dynamic and shifts by the day, so should your perspective evolve and iterate. But while culture and perspectives shift, the underpinnings of your brand values should remain the guiding principles.

A useful brand cultural perspective should include “what we do'' and “what we don’t do”. It should include a list of criteria questions to help your organization navigate daily situations. But more than anything, it should have a real point of view. Vanilla is the opposite of subculture. Subculture is about passion for something; like-minded people communing around something. It takes being comfortable with being a subculture, accepting that not everyone will relate to you and trade-offs will have to be made. It is taking a (calculated) risk, having some edge. But the upsides of loyalty and high engagement are worth it.

  1. Audience opportunity mapping

This requires both data science and creative thinking. It is not merely a segmentation exercise; it is about identifying audience “hot zones” with the highest propensity to engage with your brand in the near and mid-term future. There are a few ways to go about this, let’s review one, called “inside out”, that is mostly recommended for brands that are stable, established, or have a healthy passionate core and looking to grow that.

Start with your most loyal customers – identify them in the data set and build their lookalike models in a third-party database (Simmons/MRI or GWI, for example). Then, project the models onto the general population database and assess who else looks like your loyalists but is not yet a customer. It is those people you’d want to dig deep into – what are their behaviors online? Do they post? Comment? Just lurk? Who do they follow? Who are the key influencers they engage with? Go beyond social/digital –  where are these people spending time, discretionary income and/or attention? These are the most potent clues for which subcultures your prospective audience cares about most. Nike, for example, has an already loyal Gen Z fanbase, many of which are also passionate Fortnite players. This audience’s engagement with Fortnite is higher than other platforms and led to the successful partnership between the brands over the summer, launching Airphoria.

  1. Trend sizing and tracking

In this step, we need to understand that trends and cultural relevance change over time. Think of trends like waves: they start small, get bigger, become popular, and then eventually fade away. They move at different speeds. The key is to figure out where your brand should join these trends and when to do it. Dr Marcus Collins’ book, For The Culture, analyzes this beautifully and explains why brands need to be comfortable to engage at different stages.

To do this, start by listing your brand's playing field – think about the areas where your brand naturally fits. For example, if you're Nike, you're naturally in areas like fitness, training, and athletes. Next, find adjacent areas – consider related areas where your brand can participate. For Nike, this might include things like music, casual fashion, and even talking about women's issues in sports. Once you’ve listed those, start identifying trends. Each of these areas has trends driven by different subcultures. Find the trends that match your brand's cultural perspective (see #1) and start tracking them. Set up monitors to watch these trends. Pay attention to volume and velocity of mentions, engagement, and search. This doesn’t mean you participate in all these trends. Consider your brand’s stature and maturity to decide if and when to jump into a trend. Generally, it's good to have a mix, test things out, and when you see positive results, get more involved.

Once you're part of a trend, keep your connection with the people involved and follow how the trend develops. In simple terms, it's like catching a wave at the right time when surfing. You need to find the right wave (trend), start riding it when it's getting bigger (not too late, but not too early), and keep riding it as long as it takes you where you want to go.

  1. Orchestration of moments

To benefit from being a part of subcultures, brands must be consistent and genuine. It means the community should feel that the brand cares and is there to help and connect, not just for a quick appearance. A "one-time and done" approach can harm more than help. Each subculture has its own pace, and brands need to figure out how often to get involved. You want a balance of two kinds of moments:

  • Brand-initiated moments: these are times when your brand takes the lead in doing something with or for the community, whether it's a small or big activation.
  • Participatory moments: these are moments when the brand truly engages as a member of the community. Keep in mind that brands are held to a higher standard than individuals, so it's essential to maintain authenticity and consistency in your interactions with subcultures.
  1. Aligning spaces and investments

This might be the most technical element of the five, and it heavily builds on the work you have done for the previous four elements. Once you landed your cultural perspective, audience opportunities, the spaces and trends and the moments to activate it’s time to map these against the right touch points. Not every subculture lives across social platforms, in fact, most high engagement communities often cluster on a single platform – subcultures like #DarkAcademia or #Egirl, for example, which had a major trickle up effect on pop culture, started and thrive on TikTok. If your goals are long-term brand health, sentiment and equity, you can start more modestly and use organic social, but know it will take more time to build results. If there is a time-sensitive need or aggressive audience acquisition, you’ll have to rely on paid social with higher investment.

Crafting a master strategy for relevance can guide brands toward sustained success. The journey starts with understanding the dynamic nature of culture and the importance of having a genuine, non-vanilla cultural perspective. This perspective drives your interactions with subcultures, making it crucial to align your brand's values and ethos. In this ever-shifting landscape, remember that cultural relevance is the key to unlocking business results. By understanding and mastering these five building blocks, you can craft a strategy that resonates, captivates, and propels your brand toward lasting relevance and success.