A good strategist asks ‘where to play and how to win?’. The answer to the first part, increasingly it seems, is in culture. But when thinking about winning, brands can forget to ask ‘what’s in it for culture?’, so their pursuit of cultural relevance can leave them behaving like cultural parasites, argues Adam Chmielowski, Co-founder of Starling Strategy.

The rewards of not just being in people’s heads but living in culture too

Brands aim to lodge themselves in people’s memories, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of finding their place in the culture and environments around and in between people. 

Sir John Hegarty has talked about the power of brands becoming entwined with culture, as Marmite famously did, to become an organic part of people’s conversations.1 

This type of social currency is what Ian Leslie calls “cultural availability”2, a companion to Byron Sharp’s more famous concept of “mental availability”. 

Helen Edwards meanwhile, describes in her book From Marginal to Mainstream3 how brands reinvigorate growth in stagnant categories by stewarding fresh ideas emerging in the margins of society into the mainstream. 

The costs of cultural colonisation

But as more brands embark on their enthusiastic adventures into this new territory, we should pause to question the cultural costs. 

What are the consequences of failing to act, as Edwards advises, with “humility, not hubris”?4 What if the instinct to win becomes a process of colonising?

Think about brands and ideas of womanhood. Whilst some brands have had success in helping women with real, neglected issues (such as Bodyform and its award-winning work on breaking taboos around periods), critics of “feel-good feminism”5 and “femvertising”6 argue that brands more broadly have watered down the feminist cause. They promise female empowerment through #selfbelief and #innerconfidence, without addressing the complex, social issues which make women feel disempowered in the first place. In other words, individualising the problem – Imposter Syndrome! – and commodifying the solution – buy this Girl Boss elbow cream! 

Writer Mel Zog7 observes how brands, riding social media’s breaking waves of “flash trends” (“girl this, girl that”), accelerate this privatisation and commodification of the female experience, leaving girlhood increasingly defined and defanged by material consumption.

This all brings to mind the argument of Douglas Holt, author of Cultural Strategy, who described how brands working with cultural phenomena can often sanitise and suck the life out of them to make them palatable to a mainstream audience: “brands act as parasites riding the coat-tails of other more powerful cultural forms… such branding efforts serve a decidedly conservative function.”8 

A healthier and more responsible relationship with culture

How might brands do things differently to ensure a better and more generative relationship with culture? Here are three suggestions.

  1. See culture as social and shared

It is a wider problem in our Western, neoliberal society that we have lost the language for collective action. This is the context in which marketing’s individualising tendencies sit, yet they are at odds with culture’s essential shared and social dynamics.

Telecoms brand 3 are doing things differently. As part of their sponsorship of Chelsea FC, they have created the #WeSeeYou Network, a “culture-shifting initiative, building a long-term community of role models, celebrating the abundant – but too often hidden – women in this field, and recognising the women who are the lynchpins of their sporting communities.” This is culture as a collective story: connecting women, spotlighting their contributions to the culture and community. 

Its ad features a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, celebrating the influence of the “female, family chain”, and the impact of women who have paved the way for players today and tomorrow. 

“You” becomes yoked to history and community, the future threaded to the past. 

Culture starts to feel shared and whole again. 

  1. Work at structural not just symbolic levels

We’re used to thinking about culture in terms of its codes but less comfortable engaging with the structures and systems which underpin it. But symbolic salves can detract from material change. This is something that has historically restricted efforts in sustainability.

IKEA is seen as a leading brand in sustainability partly because of how it aims to change social structures. They run a programme called “The Live Lagom Project” as part of efforts to make a circular economy more of a social reality. Lagom means ‘not too much, not too little, but just right’, a concept the brand makes real by creating prototype communities showcasing how to live in this new way at home, and featuring households’ stories on the website and in stores full of tips around how to reduce waste and organise food preparation.

A National Lottery-funded experiment called “Places Called Home” also aimed to create more resilient and sustainable communities through citizen interactions and participation: “We hope to inspire communities to take action around sustainable living by learning from each other and creating meaningful connections.”

IKEA’s work suggests a truly systemic shift to a more sustainable world can come from not just lodging the brand in memory structures but by re-shaping our social structures too.

  1. Think resistance, not just relevance

One way of gauging the future directions of travel in culture is understanding what’s happening at its edges, where resistance to mainstream norms offers new ways of doing things.

Lessons could be learnt from how The North Face has worked with partners to make the outdoors a more inclusive culture and place.

Its ‘Explore Fund’ seeks equity in the outdoors by working with and funding hundreds of organisations, such as Outdoor Afro9 to promote exploration of nature from a Black perspective. Initiatives like these are more than improvements in representation, the mainstream absorbing the margins to look more relevant. The North Face committed instead to Reset Normal, the name of the initiative pledging to put $7 million toward diversifying the outdoors, creating the Explore Fund Council, a group of experts across culture, academia and the outdoors to distribute that money.

Treat culture as we should nature

There’s a striking parallel here between how we treat culture and what we have done to nature.

Just like corporations became extractive of nature’s resources, we need to become more mindful about how we avoid making the same mistake with culture. 

The same language is already in the ether – tapping, mining, owning.

If we’re to avoid repeating the same cycle of colonise, extract, deplete, we need to ask more loudly:

What’s in it for culture?



[1] The Drum: Sir John Hegarty: advertising needs culture and why consolidation doesn't work

[2] FT: The important word in ‘social media’ is not ‘media’

[3] From Marginal to Mainstream 

[4] Campaign: Helen Edwards: Brand stories must find a cultural insight to get the emotions going

[5] The Guardian: ‘Self-empowerment and lots of spending’: our frustrating slide into Stanley cup feminism

[6] The Guardian: Femvertising: how brands are selling #empowerment to women

[7] Face Value: Let Them Eat Cup

[8] Holt, D Jack Daniel’s America Iconic brands as ideological parasites and proselytizers. Journal of Consumer Culture 6(3) 2006 

[9] Instagram: Outdoor Afro HQ