How culture is born... and when brands should step in
First, don't ask what changes culture -- but who.
The change-makers, taste-makers, mavericks and renegades who challenge the status quo, that's who.
Every culture-shaping product follows a set of characters who, in their interactions with wider communities, have captured some kind of zeitgeist and created something new: a new way of speaking, of behaving, of expressing themselves. Brands then follow: think of Nike Airforce One, the iPhone and TESLA; they all followed actual people who captured a zeitgeist and leveraged technology as catalysts for cultural change.
In other words, people – and the norms and customs and ideas they develop -- exist when there is no actual product involved. People and their ideas come first. Always.
Often when someone is disruptive, people turn to look, and this attention can create a small movement of people, ideas or ideals; a small wave. Just as a maverick disrupts and gains attention, so too do emerging sub-cultures. Initially led by a small group of individuals, subcultures are interesting, different and refreshing. In their originality, they are inherently creative, bold and risk-taking.
Depending on the impact, benefit and timing of this new movement, wider culture may start to adopt some of its elements. This adds and shapes culture while adding fire to the sub-culture until it becomes absorbed and appropriated by the mainstream. We've seen this countless times as disruptive technology, sport or politics becomes the norm.
To me, this is emblematic of the transition of followers being 'core' to a movement moving to those who are following the 'lifestyle' of that movement. Core has a credibility that can only be earned through exclusivity and via a highly influential group of people. As that area of culture is adopted by the mainstream, core becomes lifestyle.
The decision for brands is often at what point to buy into a movement. Do they embark on a journey when embryonic subcultures, which may be seen as controversial but are tightly knotted to a hard-to-reach audience, are taking early steps that may eventually influence masses of people, or do they stick to the mainstream and leave this all alone?
Ultimately, the opportunity a brand has to influence and shape culture lies with the former. Done right, a trifecta is formed: the brand is supporting and facilitating new expression, the sub-culture benefits, and consumers see what is happening and buy into the product on a deeper level based on their values.
There is of course the process of cultural commodification, and the contradictions intrinsic to the relationship between culture and commerce. An important subject, no doubt – but best left to experts.
For now, it seems clear that brands can play a role in shaping and facilitating culture – and if they can do that with integrity, allowing more people to create and develop their ideas while pursuing their dreams, then that can only be a good thing for all involved.