Cultural Framing: Why Context is Crucial

What do Pepsi, Seinfeld, and “Fearless Girl” have in common? They are all great examples of culture in action. And they underscore the importance of understanding cultural context to generate deeply-felt responses among people. Doing this well requires understanding culture and its effect on consumer attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. We call this Cultural Framing, and it revolves around understanding the unspoken systems of meaning at play in affecting our behavior, our attitudes, and our decisions.

This article outlines why Cultural Framing is critically important to the Insights industry. And breaks down exactly what we mean by “culture,” why it’s important, and how it can help us uncover deeper insights.

Defining culture

“Culture” is an amorphous term, difficult to define but (often) easier to recognize in situ. Maru/Matchbox has adapted a definition offered by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his foundational book of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz defined culture as “the webs of significance that [people] have spun.[1]” His famous example is the wink — a physical action with a variety of possible meanings.

George Costanza and “The Wink”

Geertz’s discussion is a little academic, but for a more updated example, we can look to an episode of the American comedy series Seinfeld. In “The Wink” (Season 7, Ep 4), Jerry inadvertently squirts grapefruit juice in George’s eye over breakfast. Throughout the episode, the irritation causes an involuntary wink that bedevils George’s conversations. Elaine, Kramer, Jerry, and others all confuse this involuntary tic for some deeper meaning: a wink that says he doesn’t really mean what he’s saying, and he’s bringing the others into some conspiracy.

We see two meanings associated with the wink: an involuntary tic and a conspiratorial gesture. The inability to distinguish between the two causes typical Seinfeld-ian confusion. But the deeper point is important: understanding the action and its possible meanings, and discerning the intended meaning, is understanding culture. The interpreter must recognize the meaning behind the action to understand what’s really happening. We do this all the time — often without noticing it.

Coffee: The drink, the brand

Let’s look at a commercial example: coffee. Imagine a blind taste test of three different cups of coffee: one in a Starbucks cup, a second in a Krispy Kreme cup, and a third in a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. On the surface, the beverages are the same. However, at least in the U.S., these cups and the coffee each contains stand for very different things. The different meanings that Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Dunkin’ carry — and, frankly, the meaning of coffee itself — is culture. It’s this understanding of culture that can be used to craft unique and resonant marketing messages, uncover innovative product ideas, and develop compelling strategies. When we don’t understand the meaning behind the category and the brand — when we misunderstand them or ignore them altogether — these messages, ideas, and strategies can fall dangerously flat.

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

One of the most famous recent examples of a cultural mis-step is Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad . The ad involves Ms. Jenner joining a street demonstration and breaking the ice with police by handing one of them a Pepsi. This ad generated a huge uproar and was pulled very shortly after launch.[2]

When asked about the ad and the backlash against it, Harvard Business School lecturer Jill Avery told The Atlantic that the ad failed because those who approved its development and release didn’t understand the cultural resonance the ad would strike:

“How do these ads get approved?,” Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, wrote me in an email. “By brand managers who are not doing their cultural homework — relying upon surface-level understandings of the cultural phenomenon they are featuring in their marketing communications and not understanding the deep well of emotions, identity politics, and ideologies that their ads will trigger.”[3]

In contrast, brands that successfully excavate structures of meaning and align themselves positively with that meaning see market success. Two recent examples come to mind.

Fearless Girl

Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano, Flickr

The sculpture “Fearless Girl” was erected by State Street Global Advisors and the ad agency McCann New York in early March 2017. The statue stands directly opposite of the famous Wall Street Bull and was created to encourage companies to add more women to their boards.[4] Though not without controversy,[5] the statue gives voice to deep cultural meaning, and it has generated a huge public response. According to Bloomberg, within 12 weeks of its placement, the diminutive statue generated:

  • 6 billion Twitter impressions
  • 745 million Instagram impressions
  • $7.4 million in marketing and media exposure for State Street.[6]

State Street Global Advisors (and McCann) successfully understood that public perceptions of large, traditional financial advisors were changing. They recognized the growing conversation around a lack of women in leadership. And they successfully gave voice to these changes in the form of a strong, defiant, bold, pig-tailed girl staring down a recognized symbol of an industry too-long dominated by men.

Dig Deeper to Excavate Meaning

Pepsi is estimated to have lost between $400,000 and $1m on their Kendall Jenner ad.[7] State Street Global Advisors is estimated to have earned almost $7.5m in publicity from Fearless Girl. Culture matters — not only in “soft” brand equity measures, but in cold cash.

These examples demonstrate the importance of taking the time to identify and understand culture. As a way to more programmatically do this, we have developed Cultural Framing. This is an insights framework that thoroughly uncovers deeper meanings and integrates them into understanding of consumer needs and behaviors. Cultural Framing gives us a way to help clients create more resonant marketing messages, create a more robust innovation pipeline, and communicate in a way that resonates with their audience.

To learn more about our perspective on cultural framing and how it can deliver the market insights you need, contact us.

[1] Clifford Geertz (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York. p.5

[2] “Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter,” Daniel Victor, The New York Times, April 5, 2017

[3] “How on Earth Does an Ad Like Pepsi’s Get Approved?”, Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, April 8, 2017

[4] “There’s No bull in the Message Behind ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue,” Shirley Leung, The Boston Globe, March 9, 2017

[5] “The False Feminism of ‘Fearless Girl’,” Ginia Bellafante, The New York Times, March 16, 2017

[6] “The Fearless Girl Is Worth $7.4m in Free Publicity for State Street,” by Jeff Green, Bloomberg, April 28, 2017

[7] “How Many Millions Could Pepsi’s Pulled Kendall Jenner Ad Cost the Company?” by Char Adams and Gillian Telling, April 06, 2017.

This article was first published on the Maru/Matchbox blog.

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