Nick Barham Chief Strategic Officer TBWA

Nick Barham
Chief Strategic Officer
TBWA

It’s people, not brands, that create culture
 

Brands – and the people and companies that work for them to build brand narratives – fetishize the idea of culture. Cultural relevance has become another 

KPI, to join awareness and understanding as a target for brand activity.
According to a 2015 study by JWT, being culturally relevant impacts a brand’s financial success. The study introduces the term CultureMuscle™: the more muscle a brand has, the more of a cultural player it is.

While the study does a good job of trying to quantify something as slippery as culture, CultureMuscle™ makes me think of bodybuilders, over tanned and out of date, juiced up on steroids. To play in culture, to be a meaningful and positive addition, requires more than bulk; it’s about having the right moves, knowing the right people. It’s about fit. And it’s about timing.

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We work with Airbnb. As they expand, the range and diversity of accommodation grows, fueled by the individual personalities and creativity of over a million hosts. Whatever your passion, you can find somewhere that satisfies it. During Spring 2016, Airbnb was running its Love This? Live There campaign, matching passions and Airbnb accommodation.

When the Oscars came around, we felt this was a perfect place to show up. Movies are pure culture: they create worlds that we can’t help but want to live in. The traditional routes to ‘being part’ of the Oscars were closed down. A hotel chain was an official sponsor, so we couldn’t even buy a spot in the ad breaks, let alone mention the Oscars or any of the contenders by name.

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We turned to the Airbnb community, posting a simple question on Twitter,
If you could live in any movie, what would it be?, and let Twitter reference all the movies we couldn’t. As fans mentioned movies we answered each one with a perfect listing, and as Oscar winners were announced we matched their movies with the right destinations. From The Revenant to Mad Max to Star Wars, Airbnb’s inventory was up to the challenge, and the brand became part of the evening’s narrative, generating more user-driven conversations than any other advertiser.

For one night, two unrelated areas – movies and home sharing – achieved a temporary synchronicity, the perfect merging of brand and event, where the join between brand and culture was invisible. Most brands can only dream of a few of these fleeting moments which transcend the weight of necessary business.

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Beats is a brand that does these moments better than most. Its ‘straight outta’ meme might have been its most visible play but despite its efficacy this still felt like a big, muscular marketing push.

Behind the meme was a more magical cultural fluidity. At the time the movie dropped, there were so many intertwined narratives – a story about a young streetwise company bought by the world’s biggest; a story about a group that changed the face of music, and a musician who became rap’s first billionaire; a story about an LA city that went from being an outcast to an influencer – that it was impossible to see where history ended and storytelling began. Where you couldn’t tell if you were watching a movie, witnessing a tech drama or being sold headphones. This isn’t cultural muscle, this is cultural flow, where the joins are invisible and every element thrives off its contact with others.

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At the heart of culture is humanity, not business. Companies – if they’re lucky – get to join in from time to time. Before Compton, the film, there was Beats. Before Beats was NWA and at the centre of NWA was Dre, reminding us that brands don’t create culture, people create culture and sometimes brands are the materials they use.