To be culturally relevant, you need to be in culture

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Steve Jobs has been quoted many times on many topics. One of his most interesting analyses was regarding Microsoft

He said Microsoft (which at the time was many multiples the scale and value of Apple) might be very successful, but it had no taste. He went on to say what he meant by that was in a big way, it lacked the understanding of how the product was going to be used and how it would be landing in the culture of the day. Ultimately, he concluded, they will lose because they are producing product that is not admirable.

For a long while, his theory played out. Microsoft lost while Apple gained – in scale and market capitalisation. Year after year, Microsoft missed what Android became, leaving a $400bn product opportunity to Google. Indeed, it is only by finding cultural relevance and investing in a whole new area, in this case Artificial Intelligence (AI), that Microsoft regained its former position as one of the most valuable corporations.

So, for Steve Jobs, cultural relevance was not just a marketing idea, it was a product necessity. Yet for so many others out there, cultural relevance seems to be seen as an ‘opt in’ notion. You know the thing, ”once we have the product, distribution,  pricing, and the company structure right, we can see if we have time to get the marketing” to be a bit more culturally on song. I have even had conversations with those who help companies find agencies through search exercises and pitches, who will say that many of their clients are not really sure why cultural relevance is important to their category anyway.

Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

Putting aside that Steve was not wrong about much, I often think that when you are arguing for something, the smartest way to look at it is to consider how things would look in its absence. Meaning that you have a product that you are very proud of, but your kids don’t even understand why they would need it, nor what it is for. Culturally they simply don’t get it. A problem, I think you would agree.

This is exactly the conversation I recall having with the global CEO of HP Printers division (a business worth £60bn at the time) at his office in San Diego some years ago. His daughter had just gone to off to college and he generously dispatched the latest personal printer for her to have with her. She sent it back with the message “why would I need this”. And he called his agency in to tell us that he was now seriously worried about his product and category being irrelevant for the next generation – with a major ask to set about looking into what to do about it. You might wonder if you need to be culturally relevant. But you sure as anything don’t want your product to be culturally irrelevant.

Understanding how people are looking at things is crucial to any decent product development strategy. And in the same way it’s crucial to any decent marketing investment strategy. When working with Mercedes AMG, we noticed that the cool hedonists of the day were appropriating the brand and its most iconic products in rap, in video and on Instagram. So, when AMG wanted to expand its marketing audience beyond the Clarkson-esque petrolheads of the past, it really only needed to embrace an audience that was already loving it. Opening the door to a younger, more female and more global group who were less interested in what was under the bonnet, and more interested in how it made them feel. The result has paved the way to help the brand transition from big roaring V8s to an electrified future, whilst growing and lowering the average age of the buyers.

Culture is not a mysterious alchemic notion that only a few understand. Culture is all around us. It’s what we are doing, seeing and liking. It’s what our friends and their kids are doing. It’s simply just opening our eyes to today and tomorrow and letting go of yesterday. This understanding helps a great deal in guiding brands and marketers as they navigate the tricky landscape of keeping true to the core principles and values of their brand, whilst constantly adjusting to be relevant for today.

So the next time someone in your organisation starts to talk about cultural relevance, maybe dig a bit deeper and see what you can do to have that knowledge shared with the product teams, the distribution channel, the pricing decision makers as a well as the marketing teams. And it might just ensure you get to the top of the relevance tree, ahead of your competitors.