Your brand can only exist within the culture of its time. If you get too far out ahead of that culture, you lose touch with your user. If you trail behind the culture, even a little bit, your user loses touch with you.
Any given culture generally moves between 4 stages: Entrenchment, Tension, Exploration and Transformation. Each stage leads to the next, and each stage has its own characteristics.
But just because your industry is in a certain stage of culture doesn’t mean you have to play there. You can change the culture of your category in order to position your brand as the natural winner.
In fact, most good brands uphold the culture of their time, but the greatest brands move people from one stage of culture to the next.
The early internet culture, the social media boom, and the rise of ethical consumerism all told us the norms of those spaces, but they also gave us a framework for feeling when those norms were being outgrown. It wasn’t until we were given language and ideas like ‘digital privacy’, ‘personal branding’, and ‘sustainable living’ that these categories began to change, and we started to update our place in the world once again. The brands that spearheaded that change, like Telegram, LinkedIn, and REI, ended up creating a market that valued them more than their competitors.
Culture tells us our place in the world. Every category, from media and fashion to food and finance is in a different phase of cultural change, but it’s the movement from one stage of culture to the next that creates the highest form of brand equity.
While there are bounds to what culture will tolerate in a given stage, there are levers within those bounds that you can use to push your audience forward. But first you have to understand the rules in order to understand how to properly break them.
The Culture Brand Cycle is a roadmap for moving the culture of your category from one phase to the next, so that your brand is ideally positioned and your competitors are at a natural disadvantage.
Moving your category’s culture from Entrenchment to Tension, from Tension to Exploration or from Exploration to Transformation requires the right kind of brand at the right time.
Below, I discuss what triggers are needed between each phase of culture in order to move your category forward.
If you can accurately diagnose where you are and where you need to go, you can be the changemaker that captures outsize value.
Entrenchment is a stage in cultural dynamics where a specific ideology, belief system, narrative, or value-set has become deeply rooted and widely accepted by the majority. It often results in a shared societal perspective, with individuals, businesses, and other institutions investing heavily in maintaining this status quo.
Entrenchment feels safe, but also stale. There may be a sense of boredom or apathy, but there is generally little discomfort.
The following industries are in the Entrenchment phase right now and they provide good examples of how our value sets in these areas are still pretty deeply rooted.
- Fast Food – The fast food industry has been entrenched for decades, characterized by convenience, standardized menus, and quick service. The giants have been giants for a long time, and the challengers don’t look that different from them. The culture in this space is simple, safe and risk-averse, with the vast majority of players (and consumers) valuing speed and cost. In fact, this culture is so entrenched that sociologists consider the “McDonaldization of society” to be a major force that has rippled outside of the fast food industry.
- Education – The Education category finds itself deeply entrenched in long-established systems and traditional approaches to learning. For decades, formal education institutions like schools and universities have been the primary means of acquiring knowledge, primarily through standardized curriculum and testing. While a glut of tech and learning startups have tried to change this, and there have been movements to shift education toward critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills, any change has been incremental. Other than online classes and iPads in backpacks, you won’t see much difference in the classroom of today versus the classroom of a decade ago.
- Hotels – The traditional hotel industry, with brands like Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt have long-established value propositions of comfort, convenience, and amenities. Despite the rise of alternatives like Airbnb, hotels remain the default option for many travelers and no one is complaining because we’re entrenched in a generally accepted value system within this category.
How To Move From Entrenchment To Tension: Entrenched cultures emerge when people concede to “good enough”, and the only way out of it is to make what’s “good enough” feel painful.
Your brand needs to wake people up to the discomfort they’ve ignored and make them see the inferior status quo they’ve accepted, but simply showing people a better way won’t get you far.
The kind of pain that spurs a culture out of Entrenchment and into the next phase of Tension is deeply personal and emotional. It’s the pain of cognitive dissonance where there is a conflict between one’s self-image and their behaviors.
When Apple employed their branding to turn all of us into electronics tastemakers according to Seth Godin, they suddenly created a dissonance between how people viewed themselves and how they shopped for electronics. It was painful to not own an iPhone, which had now become a signal of personal innovation and creativity. Suddenly a whole generation was faced with the question of “Who am I?” when they went shopping for phones.
During its Entrenchment phase, the culture of the auto industry was deeply rooted in notions of raw power and speed. Ferrari spent years engineering the perfect sensory experience of a revving gas engine. The military might of Hummers showed up in the suburbs. The Fast and the Furious multiplied.
But Tesla took the culture from Entrenchment to Tension by introducing the right kind of pain. They may have talked a good game about replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy, but what really won them the market was a legion of early adopters who wanted to see themselves as stewards of the future by way of technology.
They created a new dichotomy between the old and the new. While other EV brands tried to make something familiar, Tesla made a clean break with the past.
Every few months, the internet would gather to watch a Tesla race a gas-fueled supercar on Youtube, until one day the Tesla won. Where there was once the power and speed of engines, there was now the power and speed of computers.
The Tension phase emerges when friction begins to develop between existing beliefs or behaviors and emerging societal values or needs. These tensions highlight a dissonance between what our culture has accepted and what it may need to accept for future growth.
You’ll often notice a sense of unease in this phase as people look to the years ahead. It’s an open secret that change is necessary but the opportunity in front of us feels murky. There may be good ideas and alternatives floating around, but consumers still have a hard time seeing them play out.
The following industries show us how Tension manifests in the market.
- Automotive – After a very long period of deep Entrenchment where automakers focused on efficiency and dealerships wielded great political power to protect themselves against pressures to evolve, the category has entered the Tension phase. Automakers are experiencing friction between the long-standing tradition of fossil fuel-powered cars and electric vehicles, and Tesla has single handedly put the dealership model under existential threat, with brands like Rivian and Lucid following. Players know change is necessary given the escalating climate crisis, peoples’ increasing demand for frictionless online buying and customization, and loosening legal protections, but many car buyers are still hesitant due to concerns about infrastructure, battery range, and the upfront cost of EVs.
- Fashion – The fashion industry is experiencing tension as it grapples with issues related to sustainability. There’s growing awareness of the environmental impact of fast fashion, including waste and pollution, but the industry’s reliance on quick, cheap production cycles and consumer demand for new trends creates resistance to change. Consumers, just like brands, say one thing but do another.
- Agriculture – The agriculture industry is in a state of tension due to the growing awareness of the environmental and health impacts of traditional farming practices, especially with large-scale livestock farming and monoculture crop production. Meanwhile, new concepts like vertical farming, lab-grown meat, and plant-based proteins are emerging but have not yet reached widespread acceptance or viability.
How To Move From Tension To Exploration: If you find yourself in a culture of Tension, the best way to move that culture forward is to create a sense of clarity and opportunity. Show people what’s possible. Even better, show people what they could be capable of.
This is a time to inspire and allow people to see themselves in a new world. Give them something to dream about. Turn them into empowered optimists. Let them turn that tension into a sense of Exploration.
Bitcoin and the brands around it moved finance from Tension to Exploration by giving people a clear sense of the democratic opportunity ahead. In his recent Talks At Concept Bureau on How to Build A Brand Mythology, Peter Spear noted that Bitcoin represents a “Big Bang story for the origin of a totally different financial universe based on liberation and a totally mysterious technology code as a matter of fact.” In the context of brand mythologies, Bitcoin was doing something “cosmological”. The opportunity was palpable.
New healthcare brands like Hudson Health and Levels have reframed medicine as a holistic approach to personal growth, not merely illness. While traditional medicine has been a practice of helping people get back to a baseline, these new brands are about helping people get from a baseline to an ideal. They introduce new ways of relating to one’s body, and new perspectives through which to see medicine, doctors, and patient control that have turned growing tension into exploration.
In the Exploration stage, society begins actively searching for solutions to the frictions that surfaced in the Tension stage. There’s a general openness towards new ideas, narratives, beliefs, and an eagerness to experiment with different solutions. This phase, however, is characterized by a certain degree of risk, as the culture navigates uncharted territories in an attempt to resolve the tension and align with new cultural ideals.
Brands that operate in cultures of Exploration can feel exciting but precarious. So much is possible but a pervading sense of uncertainty colors peoples’ views.
- Finance – The financial industry is in the Exploration phase, and while crypto and decentralized finance have cooled for the time being, challenger banks, AI financial tools and robotic process automation (RPA) are all going strong and vying to be the new default mode of finance. Traditional banking methods are being questioned, and alternatives are being explored. While many are open to these new financial solutions, the path forward is unclear due to regulatory uncertainties and technological complexities.
- Healthcare – The healthcare industry is in an Exploration stage with the rise of new screening technology, longevity healthcare, home testing, psychedelic treatment, novel mental health formats and telemedicine. A great deal of this exploration is coming from outside of the system, namely startups and tech companies that don’t fall under the coverage of health insurance. However, the sector is still navigating issues related to patient privacy, quality of care, technological requirements and inconsistent laws and regulations across jurisdictions.
- Space – The space industry is in the exploration stage. With private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, the possibilities of commercial space travel, asteroid mining, and lunar habitation are being actively pursued. The industry is in a state of innovation and discovery, but the new norms for commercial space activity are still unclear and in the process of being established.
How To Move From Exploration To Transformation: For brands who find themselves in a culture of Exploration, the goal should be to usher their users into a culture of Transformation by creating certainty in the market.
In a high optimism, high risk environment like this, people need to be instilled with confidence to move forward.
I’ve written in the past that food and nutrition have become our new religions. That’s because the Exploration phase of food culture over the past few years has graduated into Transformation. Functional foods, new diet philosophies and new nutrition science created a vast array of brands that opened up our understanding of what it means to gather and eat. Our relationship to food has evolved, and we now see what we eat and drink as both therapeutic and political.
Highly prescriptive brands like Ezekiel Foods, Hü Chocolate, Vital Proteins and Whole Foods all pushed culture from Exploration to Transformation, and all of them gained massive brand equity and market share as a result.
What all of these brands did was focus on creating confidence in their categories. Each one created highly informed, highly opinionated consumers that became discerning in their purchases, not simply with information but with philosophies about what it meant to eat, whether it was a matter of health, morality or even status.
People were bolstered with a strong sense of confidence that allowed them to transform the category.
In Transformation, our cultural exploration is beginning to yield early winners and losers. This period heralds a cultural shift where new ways of thinking and behaving are adopted and solidified into social norms. It’s a phase of significant change, often seen as a revolution in social principles.
The Transformation phase can take time and be distributed unevenly across a culture at first, but more than anything else, it is characterized by a sense of comfort in our new realities. There is no identity play, no murkiness, and no lack of confidence. The new normal makes sense.
Categories that have arrived at Transformation can be shaky at first, but they all signal our new shared values.
- Media and Entertainment – The rise of streaming services, social media and user-generated content platforms have pushed this category fully into Transformation. Companies like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube have drastically changed the way people consume content, moving from scheduled programming to on-demand viewing. Distribution models have been upended, causing a significant shift in the overall industry’s structure.
- Work and Career – We’re just entering the Transformation phase of this category, but our new shared values around work and career have begun to take root. The traditional career ladder is all but dead for most employees, the multi-hyphenate worker is the new standard, and remote work is still in a tug-of-war with legacy organizations but it’s clear that new companies will be much more amenable to the arrangement. Throw in the growing movements around the 4 Day Work Week, work-life balance and the fact that gen Z workers have leaned hard into freelance, and it’s clear that this category is undergoing transformation.
- Food – Our new food norms are here. Flashy functional food brands that once only showed up in specialty coastal stores are now carried in every Walmart across the nation. National and international fast casual chains have begun to reflect our new diet philosophies, and even Starbucks has rolled out a line of olive oil based beverages that will resonate with anyone who has a certain understanding of dietary fats and the industrial food complex.
Transformation can be a long golden age for brands. Cultures in this phase can feel new for a very long period as people take time to settle into their new normal. It’s the reason why somewhere in the recesses of our minds we still feel Google is a startup or Netflix is a challenger brand. Neither is true anymore, but that mentality speaks to the power of transformation.
At the tail end of the Transformation phase, we move into a period of optimization where margins get competed away and everyone converges on a single modality of solutions. More and more depreciating returns lead to consolidation and oftentimes duopolies. This is where you see regulatory capture as companies work to close the door behind them. What was once a growing pie begins to move toward a zero sum game.
Meanwhile, the status quo becomes stronger until we return to the beginning of the culture cycle with…you guessed it, Entrenchment.
One important thing to remember throughout all of these phases is that ideas, not technology, impact culture the most. With AI advancements rattling nearly every industry, it’s easy to forget that technology can only express itself within the boundaries of the culture it’s born into.
Washing machines were supposed to liberate women from the home, but instead the culture of the time made them fire their housemaids and do the work themselves. Mass production of cars should have created the suburbs, but it didn’t. It wasn’t until the idea of the nuclear family was popularized that we saw the topography of cities change. Social media was supposed to bring us together, but within the culture of the time, it’s done the exact opposite. We’ll have to wait for an idea, not a technology, to deliver on that promise.
Know your culture. Understand both what it demands of your brand and what it denies it. Use these cycles to move your people forward with ideas and concepts that can improve the world we live in.
Very few brand leaders understand how to move the cultural landscape, but those that do have always had an incredible advantage.