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Understanding the double-edged sword of culture and polarisation

17th Oct 2023

Understanding the double-edged sword of culture and polarisation

This article is part of a series of articles of the WARC Guide to creating cultural advantage. Read more.

Earlier this year, lead singer of the band The 1975, Matty Healy, openly criticised the Malaysian government’s stance on LGBTQIA+ rights at a music festival in Kuala Lumpur, after which he kissed his bandmate on stage. Within 30 minutes, the band was prohibited from performing the rest of its set and the following two days of the festival were cancelled.

Some argued Healy’s actions drew much-needed global attention to Malaysia’s anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. Others interpreted it as “white saviour complex”, something that will fuel the local anti-LGBTQIA+ political agenda and create new barriers. So what do we make of his actions in an ever more complex, fragmented and polarised world?

Global brands are waking up to the power of culture for impact but are paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong. One slip-up and the damage is done in full view of a global audience. Yet at the same time, there is evergrowing pressure to take a stand – audiences want to see consistency and commitment. They are tired of inauthenticity and will stop at nothing to cancel it.

To be memorable, your words and actions need to generate strong emotions but in a polarised world, what hits home for one audience can completely alienate another, especially across geographies.

Polarisation and the power of culture

The term “polarisation” has existed for centuries and was most commonly used in physics to describe the act of changing the direction of light waves. The current definition only became prevalent in 1949 when it was first used to highlight “a division in a group or system”. Due to its association with that time of political turmoil, it now has a strong negative connotation.

In a way, culture is the answer to polarisation: polarisation divides, whereas culture connects. Brands that create culture thus create connection. A sense of belonging. A shared identity. However, they are not mutually exclusive – polarisation has the potential to amplify culture, whilst at the same time, strong culture can alienate and therefore polarise. You have to find a healthy balance.

Brands can leverage polarisation to build stronger relationships with their audiences in a progressive – instead of divisive – way. To succeed, they need to find ways to anchor themselves within the constantly shifting, local realities of their customers. It’s all about the three As:

  • Assurance
  • Audience
  • Authenticity

Assurance: Rally your community

According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, severe polarisation is on the rise with politics seeping into every aspect of people’s lives. Many feel that businesses do not do enough to address the societal issues that they are passionate about and that businesses cannot “avoid being political when addressing contentious societal issues”. At the same time, global trust in businesses is significantly higher than in government and media, which puts them in a unique position to win with their customers. So where does that leave them?

As society becomes more polarised, businesses often choose inaction to avoid being politically aligned. But in a way, now is the perfect time for them to step up and become the social glue that brings people together. Brands like Oatly and Ben & Jerry’s have prospered, thanks to their vocal viewpoints. Interestingly, both originate from countries that are classified as severely polarised by the Edelman Trust Barometer (Sweden and the US, respectively). By expressing a strong opinion in a polarised society, brands knowingly cause friction, which rallies passionate, yet highly sensitive communities.

Ben & Jerry’s has a track record of controversial standpoints, but their Fourth of July post calling on the US “to return the stolen indigenous land of Mount Rushmore” received pushback from a different angle than anticipated. Patriotic voices were almost drowned out by challenges on whether they were also planning to return the land of their Vermont headquarters. Ben & Jerry’s parent company bounced back from an almost US$2bn loss in market capital following the post and the non-material damage is still mounting.

There are also brands that have successfully built communities through polarisation without falling into the political trap. During spring 2023, Mettle, a B2B subsidiary of the British bank NatWest, which specifically targets passionate self-starters, launched a heavy metal ad (pun not intended), tapping into a specific subculture that at first glance does not represent the diverse make-up of UK micro-businesses. People loved or hated it but the ad cut through the noise and connected at a raw emotional level and Mettle’s loyal customer community continues to thrive.

Audience: Have constant eyes and ears on the ground

Once key indicators of societal changes, cultural trends were signs of recently established ideas or principles. Naturally, businesses became invested in studying viral content. In striving to use it to generate sales, the purpose of analysing culture has been lost. In today’s world, heavily influenced by social media, the lines between what divides and unites us are not only blurred but also constantly shifting.

It’s vital to have a finger on the pulse and work with diverse voices on the ground who are able to challenge and debias your work. This helps assess the possible risk attached to making certain decisions. Going back to assurance, it’s not just about understanding the risk of possible backlash but about understanding whether you can count on the support of your core audience.

Canva, an Australian design platform, services a global community by offering editable locally relevant templates. In 2016, it set up the Canva Design Community which has since expanded to over 850,000 members. Canva sets weekly #CanvaDesignChallenges to put the designs of members in the spotlight and win a prize. This not only creates huge engagement with its product but also provides information on product use, user needs and inspiration for future template designs. As of October 2022, the platform had over five million paid subscribers and between 2017 and 2021, their revenue had surged from US$23.5m to US$1bn.

Rather than giving audiences a passive role, as is common with traditional market research, actively involving them in the development of products, services, experiences and comms can yield competitive advantage and build lasting relationships.

Authenticity: Shape culture rather than react to it

When Edward T Hall developed his theory around the cultural iceberg, he distinguished between the visible aspects of culture (our expressions of belonging) and the deeply ingrained invisible culture (that which creates our sense of belonging). Polarisation operates at both surface and deeper levels, with visible manifestations in behaviour rooted in underlying values.

Take the historical Indian jewellery brand Bhima. In April 2021, the brand released the progressive ad Pure as Love featuring Meera Singhania Rehani. The story follows a young Indian transgender woman throughout her transition journey and plays on the cultural values of family as they support her during important milestones in her life.

Whilst the ad depicts a very positive picture, the raw emotion linked to Meera’s actual experience gives it authenticity. It is estimated that there are about two million transgender people in India, yet transphobia prevails. And despite depicting a Hindu wedding (which is considered hetero-patriarchal), the ad went viral on YouTube and Instagram, and an overwhelming majority of the responses have been positive.

To be culture-first means taking a step back and defining the cultural space where you have the authority to participate authentically. You have to be abreast of the local cultural context that influences your space and identify the deeper cultural values you align with.

Are you applying the three As?

When looking at these best practices, it’s clear it’s not about acting on things because of cultural context – it’s about acting on things within cultural context. Even if your actions and messaging are intentional and authentic, they still come with calculated risk but sometimes, taking that risk does pay off.

In 2018, for the 30th anniversary of the Just do it campaign, Nike released its famous global Dream Crazy ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick played a pioneering role in the NFL player protests that involved taking the knee during the national anthem to raise awareness of racial injustice and police brutality. Nike knew the ad would generate a whole range of responses. Some considered the association with Kaepernick anti-American. Some criticised Nike for featuring a non-contracted athlete. Others even said that Nike was exploiting a political situation for its own gain.

Whilst it alienated some consumers, the ad successfully strengthened the relationship with Nike’s younger target core demographic. Sales rocketed by 31% the weekend after the release of the Kaepernick ad. Social media exploded, with mentions of Nike-owned brands peaking at 450,000 in a single day on Twitter.

But Nike didn’t stop there. The brand is consistently addressing racial issues, pushing the thinking and taking risks. Sales are increasing year-on-year and with its solid position as one of the leaders of the global sportswear market, it is obvious that it is winning with its core audience. Perhaps the learning is in the line of its 2018 ad: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

Interested in learning more about cross-cultural effectiveness? Check out our article on the four pillars of culture.

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