Before settling in to read University of Michigan marketing professor Marcus Collins’ new book, For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be, I walked to a locally owned cafe, eschewing the Starbucks down the block, and I wore a Luke’s Diner T-shirt, thus declaring my Gilmore Girls fandom to those in the know.
Not long into the book, I recognized how these kinds of daily micro-decisions feed and express my sense of myself and outwardly signal the things I value — whether I’m always conscious of it or not.
So as you might imagine, the power that can be tapped by connecting with the “cultures” that drive our behaviors is considerable, since they often dictate what we buy, where we shop, who we vote for, who our friends are, where we live — everything, really.
As Collins explains, “[Culture] moves beyond a brand having the sharpest razor, the fastest car, or the longest-lasting battery. Culture supersedes all these product differentiators because it does not revolve around what the product is. Culture focuses on who we are.”
Put simply: We aren’t what we buy; we buy what we believe we are.
And because of that, Collins argues, the way to make an impact, and get people to take action — whether it’s in an office, a store, or a voting booth; online; or in your living room — is to understand and connect with a specific culture and then find a way not to market products to this “congregation” but rather to contribute to and/or participate in that culture in meaningful ways.
By way of examples, Collins unpacks why hipsters adopted Pabst Blue Ribbon (not because of anything related to the drink, but because of what the brand seemed to represent); the origins of the Budweiser “Wassup” commercial and why it became such a cultural phenomenon (it keyed into the unique, versatile language of close friendships); and how companies like Patagonia and Nike could make choices that seem counterintuitive from a traditional business standpoint — eco-friendly Patagonia discouraged customers from buying more stuff, and Nike built a campaign supporting former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kapernick’s controversial protest — and still come out on top.
Collins also draws from his vast experience as a marketing professional, and he wisely understands that his past missteps (and those of others) hold just as many lessons as, if not more than, the successes.
Among them is an attempt to create a “Beyontourage” for Beyoncé, when online fans had already constructed, on their own, what’s known as the “Beyhive.”
Collins writes, “We were looking for fans when we should have been looking for believers. Watching this all go down completely challenged the way I thought about getting people to move.
… Instead of trying to create a community around you, perhaps you’d be better off trying to find the people who already believe what you believe and to facilitate the network that connects them.”
He also discusses the short-lived follow-up to Sprite’s “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, “Only for the Thirsty,” which failed because, over the course of several years, the slang meaning of “thirst” had morphed from “desire/drive” into “desperate” or “pathetic.”
Yet an even more profound cultural dissonance occurred when Kendall Jenner appeared in a Pepsi ad featuring protestors and police, wherein Jenner bridged the distance between sides by handing a white police officer a can of soda. Not only did this add yet another “white savior” narrative to the pile, but it demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to the protests happening in regard to the policing of (and violence committed against) Black people in America.
Collins notes that it’s hard to always know how your audience will interpret marketing, but “the onus is on the communicator to ‘read the room’ and signal meaning in such a way that it aligns with how meaning is made, however nuanced that may be.”
I’ll confess that there were a couple of moments when Collins lost me — specifically, in a chapter where he ventures into the technical, academic weeds of consumer signification. Plus, Collins perhaps-too-briefly touches on the potential for using these methods (i.e., tapping into “culture”) for immoral ends with little more than a Hill Street Blues-like admonition to be careful out there.
Yet overall, For the Culture is a highly accessible, smart, and well-written book. Whether you’re a marketing professional, a business owner, an activist, or simply a mindful consumer, the book offers itself as a go-to guide to the invisible forces that inform nearly every decision we make. (Consider this both a warning and an endorsement.)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to close this MacBook — adorned with a sticker that reads “English majors: Doin’ it for the money” — and savor the last of my latte.
This story is part of the May 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition. Plus, read more book reviews at HourDetroit.com.