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Nothing as powerful as culture that can influence behaviour: Marcus Collins

In For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want To Be, Marcus Collins talks about leveraging the power of cultural identity, building brand love, and getting people to act in predictable ways

Published: Jan 17, 2024 12:15:32 PM IST
Updated: Jan 17, 2024 04:24:00 PM IST

Nothing as powerful as culture that can influence behaviour: Marcus CollinsMarcus Collins, the author and a professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business

Marcus Collins is a professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business and the author of For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want To Be. He is an inductee into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement and a recipient of the Thinkers50 Radar Distinguished Achievement Award. In an interview with Forbes India, he talks about the meaning of culture and how marketers can leverage that. Edited excerpts:

Q. Why a book on ‘culture’ now?
Culture is a word that we often use but seldom fully understand. Marketers talk about “getting their ideas into culture”. Business leaders wonder “what’s going on with culture?” HR folks declare they have a “good culture here”. We intuitively know that culture is important to almost every facet of business but if you ask five people to define culture, we would get 55 different answers. That’s a problem. If we can’t articulate culture concretely, how do we ever fully leverage its power?

For The Culture is a book that provides the reader a shared language to define culture, a shared understanding to unpack the mechanisms that make up culture, and the knowhow to apply this language and understanding to their practice.

Q. What’s your definition of ‘culture’? How does it influence behaviour?

Culture is a system of conventions and expectations that demarcate who we are and govern what people like us do. Because of who I am, I, therefore, see the world a certain way. That’s why for some a cow is leather, for some it’s deity, and for others it’s dinner. Well, which one is it? It’s all of them depending on who you are. These held beliefs help us frame the endless amount of information that is transmitted from our senses to our brains so that we can make meaning of the world and know how to operate in it. Our world is constituted, shaped, and mediated by our shared beliefs and assumptions of right and wrong, just and unfair, acceptable and undesirable. It’s our system of shared beliefs and ideologies that dictates what seems “normal” and what seems “out of place”, and therefore, it’s this system that determines what gets adopted and what does not.

Because of our identity, we navigate the world accordingly. What we wear (artifacts), the behaviours we adopt, our language, and the like. These social facts constitute what it means to be a member of the community. They are outward expressions of inward beliefs, and we adhere to this way of life to maintain good-standing membership in our communities and promote social solidarity within them. They are further expressed through shared works. The alchemy of these characteristics represents our culture. Those who subscribe their identity as members of a culture subsequently adhere to their cultural characteristics to promote social solidarity among its members and to remain in lockstep with them.

Consumption, by its very nature, is a cultural act. What we buy, what we wear, what we drive, how we style our hair, where we go to school, who we marry, if we marry, where we vacation, and how we bury the dead are all by products of our cultural subscription, and we abide by these expected conventions to stay in lock-step with our people.

Also read: Too many choices: A model to predict open-ended consumer decisions


Q. Brands have evolved from being ‘love marks’ to ‘identity marks’. What changes does this demand in marketing efforts?
The earliest established brand was founded in the 1700s by Josiah Wedgewood who created pottery. He put his name on it and trademarked the name to signify ownership. In this way, brands served as a legal mark.

By the 1950s, marketers starting using psychology to understand how people cognate, in hopes of driving consumption. In this way, brands moved beyond being legal marks to become trust marks. By the 1980s, marketers aspired to move beyond transactional relationships with consumers. They wanted to be loved by them. So, they used advertising to tell evocative narratives, moving the brand from a trust mark to a love mark.

Today’s most powerful brands leverage culture to connect with people because of its connection to identity, where people consume as identity projects to express who they are to the world—Patagonia, Apple, Beats by Dre, and the like. These brands have evolved beyond love marks to become identity marks.

And if that be the case, then tomorrow’s brands will be about community. We are tribal in nature, given to gathering and communing in familiar groups. As we use brands to say something about ourselves, we find people who are just like us to form community. In this way, brands of the future will transcend from being an identity mark to being a tribal mark. Brands that facilitate these communities will most likely win, while the ones still focussed on value propositions will most likely lose.

Q. Companies like Apple and Nike have a ‘cultlike’ following. What do they do differently to manage this?
These brands operate at an ideological level. They transcend their category and elevate beyond “what” they do by focusing on “why” they do it. This allows people to pour themselves into a shared ideology as opposed to a company that makes computers and shoes. Since the company abides by an ideological view of the world beyond its products, there are inherent cultural characteristics associated with it. The brand manages this by living up to the beliefs and the associated characteristics. Apple and Nike believe different things, therefore, they navigate through the world differently.

Also read: Brand Purpose and Responsible Marketing walk into a bar. They meet common sense


Q. What are the perils of relying too much on demographics?
Demographics provide discrete boxes to put people into and help us make the world neat. While factual, demographics don’t accurately describe who people are. Take me, for example. I am African American. I’m forty-four years old. I’m from Detroit and I went to public schools my entire life. If a marketer saw this description of me—my demographics—as their target of interest, they would likely put me in a box based on the stereotypes they have constructed in their minds about what forty-something Black men who live in Detroit do. This approach gets us to stereotypical tropes, not the nuances that capture who I really am and how I see the world.

Q. Which is a better way to segment the market?

Demographics do a terrible job of describing real people; cultural communities are far more accurate and predictable because we self-identify by them and adhere to a shared way of life. Therefore, our behaviours are much more likely to be predictive of the behaviours of people like us than the fictional boxes that marketers construct.

Q. Culture is evolving and getting redefined by the day. How can marketers keep pace?

You keep the pace by staying close to it. We must continue to observe the cultural practices of community to maintain a nuanced understanding of how they make meaning and how that meaning is manifested through their shared way of life and cultural production. If, for me, a cow as leather and for you it’s a deity, then you would likely be offended and turned off by me. The same thing goes with branded products. When we present our offerings in a frame that is incongruent to the meaning in the minds of people, we, too, run the risk of turning people away.

Q. What are the challenges faced by those operating across geographies?
The biggest challenge in this regard is the geography isn’t about borders and landmass, it’s about the demarcation of people—people who abide by different cultural orthodoxies. Therefore, you have to go to market bearing in mind their discrete cultural characteristics. So marketers should consider: (1) what are the social facts of these people, (2) what does the brand mean in their mind, and (3) how might the ideology of the brand be made manifest based on the social facts of the people and their cognitions associated with the brand.

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