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Why Marketers Should Stop Trying to “Tap Into Culture”

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This article was submitted by Rival Contributor: Christopher Stemborowski. Christopher has 15 years experience in holistic marketing strategy. He has held senior roles both brand and agency side, with expertise across B2B and B2C having worked  with ServiceNow, Google and other brands. He is a leading strategist bringing together brand, product marketing, integrated campaigns, digital and paid media disciplines. He is committed to elevating marketing as a business function that creates value. He is also the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley, CA.

If you have an idea you'd like to share, and are interested in the contributor programme, email us at media@wearerival.com.

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Marketers, 2024 is the year to stop “tapping into” things. Semantically, it's a poor phrase; strategically, it’s usually the wrong aim. Especially for challenger brands or those fighting to gain market share. 

Commonly, this phrase gets thrown around in a briefing document when a well-meaning strategist or planner will say, ‘we should tap into culture to align with our audience’. This will be said as a voice-over in a presentation a few slides after a great audience persona overview that lists the passions and cultural interests of the target audience. Then it will transition into a slide of cultural moments laid out in a timeline that tees up 5 - 10 tactical ideas that will be shared.

There are two reasons marketers should avoid the “tap into” expression going forward. 

First, marketing’s core premise is to create value. But to “tap into” a community, trend, or moment is focused on what you are taking out - and at its worst, is exploitative. Marketing should create value for the business at the point of sale through its activities. When brands show up in culture to be noticed, gain mindshare, or align with the communities passionate around that topic, the best case scenario is that you earn attention.

If you are focused on tapping into culture you are more likely to take attention and not as likely to create preference or increase the value that can be realized by the business. 

Secondly, and crucially important for any marketer working on a challenger brand, if all of your competitors are by default targeting the same customers and using the same thinking, any benefits (however small) will likely accrue to the brands with the largest budgets and the largest existing share of the market. Recent research from Professor Karen Nelson-Field, showed that, “big brands benefit more per passive attention second, meanwhile small brands gain more value from each active attention second they achieve. This difference is likely due to the established mental availability of larger brands and the strength of distinctive assets in their creative.” If you are leading your category and have the budget to box others out in search of marginal gains, fair play and proceed as you like. 

But, if you don’t lead your category (yet), you have budget limitations and you want to test the hypothesis that it’s time to stop ‘tapping into culture’ then how should marketers be engaging with culture?

1. Position your brand as a contributor and use language like “BUILD”, “CREATE” or “AMPLIFY” that reflects this as you think about how you want to interact with communities, affinity groups and fans of different passion points.

This type of alignment can create preference which can later benefit the marketing effort when consumers are making purchase decisions. In the US, retailer Macy’s has for 97 years built something that serves the passion points of the American public’s appetite for entertainment in the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” which was the highest rated live entertainment event on US linear TV in 2023. This is an example of a brand going beyond tapping into a moment by creating its own platform.

2. Know your category entry points and ensure that any intersections with culture build mental availability in the contexts that matter for what you are marketing. 

One of the reasons so many financial services firms and B2B brands sponsor golf and tennis athletes / events in the US is because those sports have a mental association with deal-making for many US customers. It’s certainly an evolving landscape, but for better or worse there is an association, so brands building experiences, creating inspiration and amplifying the success in the context of these events will create useful linkages in the minds of your customers.

3. Execute with authenticity. Trying to be a different brand in different pockets of culture is not sustainable and can backfire with substantial repercussions.

Look no further than the turmoil Anheuser-Busch has endured in 2023 for its poorly planned Bud Light Social Influencer to understand why a litmus test is needed. Real intention and thought should be given, but a simplified starting point would be to ask, ‘can we unequivocally stand behind our efforts if they are questioned?’ and if not go back to the drawing board. 

Red Bull provides an excellent example of what this looks like in practice and has been building a playbook for how to co-create culture and value that it can capture at the point of purchase for decades. Long before owning football teams on multiple continents, before building a Formula 1 racing team and even before having a human skydive from space Red Bull has been authentically co-creating culture for communities that matter to its target audiences. 

Think about Red Bull’s incredible “Flugtag” events. The scale of this event has grown over time, but in its early days it probably represented one of a few big bets the growing marketing team placed in a portfolio of efforts. It created something that was a platform and opportunity for their target audiences. The Flugtag events are clearly in line with Red Bull’s ethos and if questioned would easily be supported as an event that aligns with their positioning to ‘vitalize body and mind’. 

Crucially, stunts like Flugtag Red Bull have initiated alignment with moments in consumers' lives when they might think about needing a way to ‘find their wiiings’ to do something difficult. That hard thing may be building a glider for a Flugtag event, jumping out of a plane with no parachute, or for the slightly less adventurous among us your extreme task could be an infrequent trip to the local climbing gym or finishing a work deliverable under time pressure. But, when you have the choice between multiple energy drinks and you pick Red Bull, the value they have created is a preference so strong that you will have no problem paying the same price for an 8.4 oz can of Red Bull when comparable products are all in 16 oz cans. This means that Red Bull’s culture-building activities are not just creating awareness; It’s building a mental association that when you’re about to do something hard and need a boost, you should get a Red Bull.

So, let’s make 2024 the year that marketers avoid extracting value early and exploiting culture. Let’s make this the year we stop tapping into culture and start building, creating, and amplifying the communities and passion points in a way that creates value.

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This article was submitted by Rival Contributor: Christopher Stemborowski. Christopher has 15 years experience in holistic marketing strategy. He has held senior roles both brand and agency side, with expertise across B2B and B2C having worked  with ServiceNow, Google and other brands. He is a leading strategist bringing together brand, product marketing, integrated campaigns, digital and paid media disciplines. He is committed to elevating marketing as a business function that creates value. He is also the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley, CA.

If you have an idea you'd like to share, and are interested in the contributor programme, email us at media@wearerival.com.

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