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Syncing brands with culture

Sarah DaVanzo
Chief Cultural Strategy Officer
Sparks & Honey

Sarah DaVanzo reveals how FoMo (fear of missing out) is nothing more than Darwinian

The concept of FoMo (fear of missing out) is Darwinian; people and animals that are curious, that notice change and adapt their behaviour, outlive and out-propagate those that do not. Put crudely, if one doesn’t notice the enemy ships that suddenly appear on the horizon, then one isn’t prepared to deal with the ensuing onslaught. If one doesn’t notice shifting weather patterns, then one can’t move to more conducive climes to continue the gene pool. This is why dopamine and serotonin reward our brains for identifying novelty, why news is addictive, why we gossip, and why culture rewards us for being trendy.

In today’s VUCCA world (volatile, uncertain, chaotic, complex, ambiguous) of exponentially increasing rate of change, it behoves us to keep our eyes wide open and look hard and deep for the fast and slow changes to our context, and adjust our behaviours (ie, our strategies) accordingly. This is what’s called ‘cultural strategy’.

Brands today realise that increasing competitiveness – exacerbating survival of the fittest – requires staying abreast of fast-culture and slow-culture dynamics. Shareholders are demanding that brands get ahead of the curve to remain relevant and plan for the future.

Future studies, predictive modelling and scenario planning have never been hotter. Subsequently, many of the world’s largest brand companies have started putting emphasis on trend analytics and futurism within their insights divisions, and some have even introduced dedicated roles such as Unilever’s new ‘director of human & cultural futures’.

Research needs to adapt in response to this. Not only does research need to be future-facing, and take into account shifts in cultural context that are impacting attitudes, perceptions and behaviour, but research techniques also need to evolve to be relevant with the times. In a culture of increasing transparency and openness, ‘glass walls’ and ‘black boxes’ are being shattered; traditional research methods are being replaced by new methods of inquiry and study – online and offline. This is why ‘research innovation’ is such a hot topic amongst research and insights professionals.


In a culture of increasing transparency, 'glass walls' are being shattered


Illustrating many of these points, sparks & honey was retained by a cross-functional ‘cultural insights’ committee, newly established inside one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. The mission was to help the client ‘awaken its cultural consciousness’ to give them the tools and processes to see, lead and leverage changing culture. This gives entirely new meaning to the 90s’ business catch phrase ‘change agents’. In this role, we were helping the client with research innovation and their own behaviour change, which led us to design a study best described as ‘research entertainment’.

Our research entertainment project consisted of producing an experiential activation at the New York Maker Faire in the form of a beverage lab. A fully operational laboratory was built where ‘makers’ could create beverages: concoct flavours, experiment with different phases/states (solids, gases, liquids), and explore how music and light impact taste. ‘Maker’ is the name of a community (which some estimate to be nine million strong) of creative people who self-identify with making things, comprising an important cultural movement. Tapping into maker-culture, we created a destination that attracted makers – as opposed to paying respondents – to freely share their thoughts and desires while co-creating various future visions of beverages.

During the two-day pop-up research lab, 500 makers went about their inventing and making, while also contributing to mini-focus groups and completing quantitative surveys. They recorded their thoughts in field notes (which we scanned and analysed). Numerous exit interviews were filmed for analysis and, as you can imagine, the richness of the photo content and sound bites were a social media manager’s dream.

The result: a robust study on the ‘future of beverages’ that informed the client’s insights, brand, marketing and innovation functions, shaping the corporate point-of-view on how to respond to changing culture and consumer behaviour. The beverage lab won five awards. Numerous participants followed up afterwards, validating how entertaining and fun the experience had been (since when is research fun?). We recreated the experience at the client’s headquarters for internal employee education – bringing ‘the maker mountain to Muhammad’.

This case illustrates how a CPG company, sensitive to culture and cognizant that it needs to better understand and adapt to changing culture(s), is adjusting its research and data collection methods. It sees cultural strategy as a matter of survival. It’s experimenting with research innovation to keep its insights machine in sync with culture. Here, FoMo is most certainly at play … but so too is RoCa (return on cultural awareness). There’s a strong financial case for research being in sync with culture. Comrades-in-insights, lean into culture!

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