Can We Keep Our Finger on the Pulse of Culture?

By Mariya Manuel, Brand Strategist, Duncan Channon

Good strategists have their finger on the pulse of culture. Sound familiar? If you have a job in advertising strategy the answer to that is probably, yes. Culture has become a key driver of successful advertising campaigns. Leveraging culture ensures it’s more relevant to the audience, and more likely to create behavior change. And yet this statement makes the work of staying on top of culture seem simple, when it is not.

Culture isn’t one thing; it’s many things all at once – all fluid – representing a myriad of attitudes and behaviors of different communities. Every segment or subculture, making up what we generalize as culture, has its own pulse. Culture is also a lens of how you perceive and process the world. When I thought about how specific my cultural lens was, I realized that I am only exposed to a small fraction of culture holistically. As generations in the U.S. grow increasingly diverse, every strategist or creative will be confronted by the limit of their own cultural awareness.   

Add to this, the impact of the internet and algorithms. Social media has become a driving force for how we perceive what is happening in culture and it comes with pitfalls. It’s easy to see how culture is fragmented on the internet. The internet has allowed for people who have niche interests to find each other. Algorithms are a great tool for creating communities of people who have at least one thing in common. We are shown the content we’ve indicated direct or peripheral interest in and are connected to people who have similar beliefs. Our algorithms shape our personalized digital worlds which is an extension of how we perceive real life. It dictates what is culturally relevant to us, individually.

This means that algorithms can isolate us from different subsets of culture. One day I received a trend report around everything I needed to know about #barefootboysummer. As someone who is perpetually online, I was completely ignorant #barefootboysummer even existed and was shocked I had never heard of it. When I finally looked up what it was, I immediately understood why it didn’t cross my feed. This example might seem frivolous but shows how algorithms can be an isolator. They work like the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, manipulating what we see and dangerously presenting our digital worlds so objectively.

In order to produce an accurate cultural analysis, we need to understand our own cultural lens (and the bias that comes with it), what other cultures exist at any given time, and which ones are most relevant to the audience we’re trying to reach. This work requires both checking our own blind spots and committing to ongoing exploration and education. This might look like spending time on the “wrong side of TikTok”, reading up on the subreddits, clicking on Instagram profiles we don’t follow, or exploring Twitter (or whatever it’s called). Looking at trends can be valuable because many of them transcend one particular cultural group. It is interesting to see how a trend can play across different communities and how those communities react. One way to know you’re a good strategist might simply be to see how diverse the content your own algorithm is serving you.

Outside of the internet, we also need to test our hypotheses and listen to other people’s opinions in real life. We should always be taking the time to talk to consumers, to invite their feedback and ground our work in cultural insights that reflect their reality.

This piece of advice was glaringly clear to me in a past project. We were targeting Americans parents living in rural areas, 35-55 years old. I hadn’t had a lot of personal exposure to this audience. After doing some preliminary research and reading the brief a million times, I wrote down some early strategic territories I thought might be interesting. I set up interviews to see which territories held the most weight and which quotes I could use to back them up.

After the interviews, I realized many of my strategic territories did not resonate and most of my assumptions about what was important to this audience were off. Listening to the audience revealed my subconscious biases and the pitfalls that come from assuming everyone thinks like I think. This critical feedback inspired a more accurate insight which led to a more authentic strategy.

I was treating my 33–55-year-old Rural Target with the same narrow assumptions that marketers apply to Gen Z these days. The key to cracking the empirical code of Gen Z is the key to understanding any audience better. Don’t know us – get to know us. For previous generations who grew up pre-internet, much of “dominant culture” was maintained through isolation and alienation. Faith in institutions was stronger because assimilation was survival. Generalizing was easier. For Gen Zs, growing up on the internet allowed us to find community so we didn’t need to rely on conforming to the cultural practices of the community we were physically placed in to survive. Are Gen Zs all gay, godless heathens? Maybe. Or maybe Gen Zs are just allowed to celebrate their individuality because online community and support is a normalized option for us. The reality is that the internet is not just for Gen Zs and many people across generations are finding the benefits and dangers of community building on the internet.

So, I ask this; is keeping our finger on the pulse of culture really possible? Or maybe it’s more of an aspiration, something we’re always working towards but can’t ever achieve entirely because it’s so multifaceted and amorphous. Critically thinking about cultural exploration is a pursuit worth pouring effort into. Not only does it make us more effective marketers, it makes us more open-minded people.