Marketers are facing changing dynamics and perspectives as global culture shifts and coalesces, and consumers become more discerning and outspoken. In this WARC Guide to cultural advantage, WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo examines the opportunities and challenges, and how brands can respond to them.

It is unsurprising that culture has become a catch-all phrase in marketing. After all, culture is the omnipresent invisible hand of norms and beliefs that influences human behaviour and identity, across different contexts.

This is a huge playground to discover opportunities, and yet culture in marketing is often conflated with what’s popular and trending – as pointed out by Dr Marcus Collins, author of For The Culture, in our WARC exclusive.

“This is a flawed and superfluous perspective because popularity and trends are merely byproducts of culture, a symptom of something far more systemic and personal.”

Rather, the consensus from our WARC Guide contributors is that cultural engagement, as a conduit for establishing consumer relevance, should go deeper or else risk the reputational and business damage that happened to Bud Light in the US.

Indeed, cultural participation now requires authenticity, credibility and commitment. But global culture is shifting and coalescing. New dynamics are at play that demand marketers to look at the world and its increasingly diverse, discerning and outspoken consumers with fresh perspectives that leave outdated notions at the door. In our inaugural APAC-led global guide to cultural advantage, we unpack what’s changing and how brands can respond.

But first, why is cultural advantage good for business?

In my past experience as a cultural strategist and researcher, I’ve seen first hand how the use cases for culture go beyond virality. I always equipped myself with various definitions of cultural advantage to wield, depending on who I was pitching to:

  • For the creative storytellers, culture was about the stories that profoundly bring people together or apart, regardless of demographics or geography, and could form the basis of brand positioning and platforms.
  • For those seeking innovation, culture is the white space opportunity happening outside of the brand world when you put down the laptop and explore lived realities.
  • For the research-minded, culture is about decoding shifting behaviours and attitudes that uncover the why behind the buy.

As I did my research for this Guide, I’ve seen new, more holistic and deeper ways of measuring culture emerging. For example, a new study by The Marketing Arm analyses the link between cultural resonance and customer share, with evidence showing how culturally resonant brands can grow 25% more than competitors.

This is also reflected in the move towards measuring “meaningful difference” rather than “differentiation” to grow. Kantar’s Adji Saputro writes how cultural relevance can become a lever for meaningful difference, as showcased by the price premium that local brands in Asia can now command, making them a serious competitor to Western brands. Brands can win share not by being “local and cheap” but “local, locally relevant and premium”, thereby setting the standards for the category.

The end of mono culture

The rising need for cultural relevance or localisation in the marketing industry is just a symptom or signal of a bigger shift underway, which is that global culture is no longer monolithic. And we are seeing this being reflected across various facets of business and society.

Firstly, the stalling of Western-led globalisation is accelerating with various macro analyses describing a “multipolar world” where Western economies are no longer the major economic and cultural power. APAC sits at the heart of this shift as it starts to reinvent its economic model away from “Factory Asia” and even becoming an exporter of global culture, as pointed out by Culture Group’s Acacia Leroy. 

Beyond geopolitics and trade, the rising power of grassroots movements (such as LGTBTQ+) and once marginalised communities is making global culture less monolithic and more intersectional. One example is how the global diaspora is reclaiming their narratives against their colonial history – from the watershed Black Lives Matter movement in the US to India’s rise in the international agenda and Australia becoming a migrant majority country.

Lastly, technological advancement has ushered in what Amber Haank and her team at Amaru call “Culture 3.0”, where companies no longer control the narrative and communication is democratised. The internet has amplified consumer voices and enabled a global village of people to gather on digital platforms and connect with each other, not because of geography, but because of shared interests and values. Hence the rise of understanding communities and sub-cultures as the new unit of marketing, but in a way that does not exploit or tokenise the participants.

Culture is a double-edged sword of polarisation and connection

While culture is often used to create connections, it can also become a double-edged sword that inadvertently creates polarisation, as pointed out by Creative Culture’s Paola van Cappellen.

The polarisation of society in many markets is breeding mistrust among consumers, thereby making them more highly sensitive to faux pas.

According to Edelman’s Nick Hope, three critical themes characterise today’s societal terrain: falling economic optimism and high anxieties, the mass-class divide and living parallel lives, and the gap between business and government, which together form the perfect storm of polarisation.

Brands that are insensitive to cultural nuances are increasingly being called out – from the misuse of humour and slang, to accusations of cultural appropriation and tokenisation.

This is why brands need to move beyond “just enough” in their cultural strategy, argues Uncommon Kind’s Jenn Chin. “Understanding the benefits is not about pandering to heightened levels of political correctness but reframing the opportunity to find the secret doors that unlock hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.”

The devil is in the nuance

Even as the geopolitical climate gets choppier, the ebbs and flows of digital connectivity and commerce continue to provide a pathway for brands to grow and connect with a global village of diverse audiences.

Research and analysis from Brand Finance’s Alex Haigh show that despite these changing dynamics, the biggest brands in the world still have strong demand outside of their home countries. But competing in the international or domestic market will require understanding more nuance than what was previously required. What does this look like in practice? I sum up the best practice from our various contributors.

Fusing data and culture
  • Market Xcel’s Ashwani Arora recommends how to take a mixed method approach of quant and qual to tackle the multifaceted nature of culture.
  • Wunderman Thompson’s Victoria Hoyle and Virginia Alvarez provide best practice on how to understand the different segments within a community by using AI-powered methodologies.
  • WARC’s case studies show the need to culture check your data – does your dataset over-represent or under-represent certain groups? Is it language inclusive?
A more holistic and inclusive approach to collaboration
  • EssenceMediacom’s Wendy Siew says to utilise the 4Ps (Policy, Practice, Provision and (Im)perfection) – a combination of hard and soft approaches to developing what is known as the next EQ: cultural intelligence, or CQ.
  • R3’s Shufen Goh writes about developing a partnership ecosystem that works on both a global and local scale.
  • When working with communities, Dr Marcus Collins says to see culture as a place to give, not a place to take.
  • RF Thunder SG’s Phoebe Shen says that localisation should move away from language translation but cultural integration.
Recontextualising the stories we tell
  • Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding’s Laurence Lim says to take a cultural hybrid approach to branding to create a genuine conversation between geographies, time periods and world cultures to be more inclusive and renew creativity.
  • Amsterdam’s Diederik van Middelkoop asks us to consider the cultural nuances of music to reinforce resonance and recall.
  • Flip the script by using under-represented communities as vehicles to convey universal truths.
Staying committed
  • LUX’s Swarnim Bharadwaj advises that brands should be operationally fit to commit to leverage culture effectively.
  • Shokunin Marketing’s Dominique Touchaud says that a brand’s ability to go glocal depends on how well resourced the corporation is.
  • Edelman’s Andrea Hagelgans and Ebony Brown say that while perceptions of issues shift, values and commitment should not, which becomes a buffer against potential backlash.

It’s difficult to unravel a complex organism like culture. As Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss writes, “Culture is the sea we swim in – so pervasive, so all consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it.”

Step out by reading more insights, trends and best practice in our report. Non-WARC subscribers can access a free version here.

Read more articles from the WARC Guide to creating cultural advantage.

Cultural hybridity: The future of branding
Laurence Lim
Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding

Cracking the code of consumer motivation in an age of reverse glocalisation
Victoria Hoyle and Virginia Alvarez
Wunderman Thompson

Walk this way: How to engage in culture in a meaningful way
Marcus Collins
University of Michigan