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Keep on branding in the real world: Real cultural strategy in unreal times

It’s a played-out analogy but an apt one — we are in the midst of a modern gold rush. The race to power Generative AI has created widespread disruption. It drives business decisions, impacts social dynamics, and reshapes our everyday lives. It also marks a shift change for brand marketers that need to scale efficiency but not at the detriment of equity. This calls for a renewed strategic focus on creating meaningful connections with culture and communities.

 

By Omar Quiñones, Founding Chief Strategy Officer at MEL

 
Keep on branding in the real world: Real cultural strategy in unreal times

We live in a time of unprecedented technological change. Generative AI has exponentially accelerated the development and implementation of innovation. Its potential for positive change cannot be overstated. Yet people still feel uninformed and uncertain about the future. Too many believe the speed of innovation and societal change is unmanageable. This unease is compounded by global geopolitical tensions, continuing climate concerns, mounting economic pressures, and a contested election year unlike any before it. 


A new age of mistrust


The speed of innovation and unleashing of AI is ushering in a new age of distrust. Edelman recently released the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer, the longest-running study of the influence of trust in society. The most salient macro theme is that trust in innovation is in peril. People don’t see how it benefits them and believe there is a bias in favor of the wealthy. They feel surrounded by misinformation and don’t know who to turn to for answers. Mistrust in institutions and fear that innovation is mismanaged have dampened enthusiasm for emerging technologies. Business remains the most trusted institution to introduce and integrate innovation, yet Media remains the least trusted. This carries significant implications for the business of our brands.


Innovation, a real imperative


Progress and innovation are a priority to unlocking business growth. This leaves marketers at a point of inflection and their brands at the forefront of bridging the trust gap. A crucial, yet daunting task when AI has made people question everything they see and hear. This begins by properly representing how a company’s products, services, and programs better meet consumer needs. It continues by leveraging innovative ways to show up in the right touchpoints and with the right messaging. It also demands that brands take action to bolster their role in people’s lives, create a meaningful value exchange, prove their true purpose, and ultimately earn back trust. 


Cultivate radical authenticity


What is real? What is fake? Who should I believe? People are burdened by these questions because everything around them is increasingly generated by AI. This has made them attuned to anything that feels straightaway true. Authenticity can build equity for brands in this era of uncertain attribution. Those who create a brand world that feels real and relatable – now aspirational even for luxury – stand to break through. This doesn’t mean shying away from AI prompts and output. These services have become an exponentially valuable resource for strategy development. Yet marketers and their agency partners can too often live on their screens and become disconnected from the world at large. What this requires is unlocking genuine insights, building meaningful connections, and embracing culture.


Building cultural equity


Strategy should leverage AI as a sidekick, not be subordinate to it. We have access to incredible Generative AI powered tools that can fuel our thinking. But we must not forget that, while it is influenced by emerging innovations, connecting with culture requires a human touch.

Here are six strategy tenets to create real brand equity in culture:


1. Look for insights in plain sight.

Take a data-informed approach, tapping into generative, quantitative, and syndicated sources. Also, seek unspoken truths by questioning problems and interrogating answers (requisite “why’s”). To do that, simply immerse yourself in life. Close the laptop. Go outside. Purchase and use your brands. Ask firsthand questions face-to-face.


2. Co-create, don’t just generate.

ChatGPT is surprisingly informed. Midjourney or Sora seem indistinguishable from magic. But we are still behind the uncanny valley; something always seems off. People feel a genuine connection to ideas with a distinctive insight, brought to life with relevance. Put up a mirror to your audience’s lives. Listen to the beats of culture. Partner with creators from those communities. 


3. Don’t confuse personalization with personal.

Generative AI has made it possible to create personalized content scales, tailored to individual consumers' preferences and behaviors. This level of customization can increase engagement and conversion. However, a deeper cultural connection between brands and consumers must transcend the transactional. Always strive to meet both functional as well as emotional needs.


4. Take a total and targeted approach.

Proactively integrate diverse audience considerations. A total market strategy delivers both inclusive communications, as well as relevant targeted segment communications. It builds currency in culture through a consistent message, anchored on a distinct strategy, delivered in preferred touchpoints, applying recognizable execution cues, all in proper cultural context.


5. Speak to the universal through the specific.

Specificity leads to authenticity. Don’t paint the world in broad strokes. People crave things that feel true, even when it is not from personal experience. Give a platform to the most impactful voices in any conversation. Tell their story, through their lens. It provides deeply grounded cultural credibility and evokes universal truths that resonate with all.


6. Contribute to the communities you serve.

Consider your audiences as more than consumers. Brand actions must go beyond driving a transaction. They must consider the needs of the cultural communities where these audiences live. Their actions must support them in meaningful ways. In solving real problems and leading with purpose, brands build lasting equity, relevance, loyalty, and love.


In short


The world will never be the same. The business of brands will be forever changed. Yet the role of strategy remains. Build breakthrough brands with an authentic voice and meaningful role in people’s lives. Create experiences that bridge the physical and digital worlds. Help them contribute to culture, not co-opt it. Drive buzzworthy (positive) disruption. Seek to impact both commercial and social consciousness.



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Ella Roland
Ella Roland
3 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

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Hanzala Saleem
Hanzala Saleem
3 days ago
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you for this enlightening blog post, Omar! Your discussion on the importance of authenticity and cultural connections in branding amidst rapid technological advances is incredibly timely.

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Best,

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3 days ago
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