The following is a conversation between Dr. Marcus Collins, Chief Strategy Officer at Wieden+Kennedy New York & author of For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: My next guest argues that true cultural engagement is the most powerful vehicle for influencing behavior. If you want to get people to move, you must first understand the underlying cultural forces that make them tick.
He is Dr. Marcus Collins, an award-winning marketer and cultural translator, with one foot in the world of practice, serving as the Chief Strategy Officer of Wieden+Kennedy New York, and one foot in the world of academia as a marketing professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
With his third foot, he just wrote a brilliant, new book called For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be. And Welcome to The Business of Giving, Marcus.
Marcus: Thank you so much for having me. I’m stoked to be here.
Denver: Delighted to have you with us. Let me build upon that intro. How do you think this blend of academic and practical perspectives have shaped your understanding of culture’s role in marketing, and what unique thoughts have resulted from that?
Marcus: I’ve always heard us say, as practitioners, that we want to get our idea out in the culture. We want our ideas informed by culture and culture, culture, culture! What’s happening in culture?
And while we use that refrain, I then realized that there wasn’t a ton of concreteness around what we mean by that. In a lot of ways, we’re using culture as a proxy for popularity. That just didn’t seem right. Like what’s happening in the popular zeitgeist, go okay, but where does the power lie?
And the academic in me says, Well, what’s the underlying physics that’s governing a thing? I guess that’s the engineering me as well that: if we understand sort of the mechanisms at play, then we can start to manipulate or operationalize those mechanisms to optimize its output. And as I start to look at the world of culture through an academic lens, you start to reveal what’s actually at play here, that: Why does culture matter so much to us?
Popularity is a byproduct of cultural adoption, but culture is the antecedent, and culture becomes the outside external force that moves us in one way or the other. And the better we understand those mechanisms, the more likely we are to operationalize them and use them in practice. And what I found as an academic is that the better I understood it, the better the work became.
Marcus: And the better the work became, the more curious I became as an academic. And that cyclic relationship between the two, the convergence of those two spaces, I think, has been sort of the secret of my success.
Denver: That’s cool. A virtuous cycle… one just feeds the other as you go along. Do you think academia is respected to the degree that it should be in, if you want to call it, the real world of Madison Avenue?
Marcus: No, not at all. Neither is Madison Avenue as respected as it should be in the world of academia. These worlds, I wouldn’t call them polar, but they certainly don’t work together as much as they should. And this is interesting for me, being in both worlds, that I feel like I’m a spy in each world, that I hear the practicing world throw darts at academia.
And then I hear academia throw darts at the practicing world. And in practice, someone would say to me that: you’re too academic. Like, what do you mean by that? It’s like, well, you talk about theory a lot. It’s like, well, theory is the best description of the world around us.
Like, what do you mean? We often say in practice: That works in theory. I go, Well, yeah, of course, because theory is description of the world around us. And when it doesn’t work, then we probably use the wrong theory. That’s typically the culprit. But then on the practicing side, we go, ah, you know, those folks, you know, they’re not looking at what’s happening in the underbelly, the antecedent.
Marcus: And lack of understanding. So, I feel like my job today is to bridge the academic practitioner gap. Take these things that we rigorously interrogate as scholars, right?
Marcus: And we do great, great, great scrutiny and take those understandings and apply it to something pragmatic, helping take those ideas that matter so very much, that are so rigorously interrogated and put them into practice in such a way that actually drives some entity forward.
“…if we could see the world the way other people see the world, then we’d find ourselves having better relationships with people in the world.”
Denver: Yeah. Very cool. You know, I’ve always assumed the posture of the world that I wasn’t in. Because if I was talking to people in the practicing world, I’d be defending academia to try to balance them a little bit.
And if I was in academia, I’d probably try to say, Hey, you know, there’s some really good stuff happening in the practicing world because you’re trying to almost be a negotiator… to have really whatever world you’re in… you’re trying to get them to see with a little bit more appreciation what that other world brings to the table.
Marcus: That’s right. I mean, there’s a level of curiosity that’s necessary on both ends.
Marcus: If we think about the ideas that we’re curious about as academics, if we take them one step further to say “I wonder what that looks like in practice,” as opposed to think about it conceptually… how do we take it one click down. But then on the other end, for practitioners, if we look beyond “How do I apply this to my work today?” take it one click up, then we might find ourselves meeting in a common place.
And, I guess, I would argue that that’s kind of a lot of what the book is arguing too, is saying that if we could see the world the way other people see the world, then we’d find ourselves having better relationships with people in the world.
“…culture is the realized meaning-making system. And that is: the world is not objective, it’s subjective. That meaning isn’t fixed; meaning is translated or interpreted through our cultural lenses.”
Denver: Yeah, like a dragonfly eye with 300 different lenses and a lot of different perspectives, and it can really make a difference. You know, you’ve described culture as the meaning system. So, Marcus, how do brands navigate that system, ensure that that their intended meaning aligns with the way people are perceiving them?
Marcus: Yeah. So, the great cultural scholar, Raymond Williams, my favorite definition…he says that culture is the realized signifying system, and he’s smarter than me. So, I dumbed it down to say culture is the realized meaning-making system. And that is; the world is not objective, it’s subjective. That meaning isn’t fixed; meaning is translated or interpreted through our cultural lenses.
That’s why, for some, a cow is leather; for others, it’s a deity; and for some, it’s dinner; but which one is it? It’s all of them, depending on the people. So, for marketers, for practitioners, the idea is that we see the world through our own ethno-centric lenses, through our own cultural-translated frames.
But if we want to see the world more objectively, we have to see the world through different lenses. The dragonfly example, I use it this way– that if you go to a basketball game and you think of the social world that we live in, the phenomenal social world we live in is a basketball game.
If you’re sitting in the nosebleed seats, you see a different game than someone sitting on the floor side. It’s the same game, but you get a different perspective of the game. So, if we want to get the most accurate depiction of the game, then you have to sit in more seats. That is, you have to adopt many different lenses to see the world and understand how people translate the world, such that when I communicate, I communicate in a way that I know that you’re going to receive it.
I mean, how many times have you said, “You know, I said this and that person got upset. That’s not what I meant.” Well, yeah, of course, not what you meant. But it’s what they interpreted and how meaning was translated through those lenses. And we find ourselves having better conversations, better connections, better relationships when we’re able to communicate in ways that the person who you’re talking to, or people you’re trying to engage, they make meaning the way that you do… or at least the way that you intended.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s the old saying. It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.
Denver: And the only thing that really counts is what they hear because that’s what their behavior’s going to be. So, what if a brand sees the world as somebody they think that they want to market to does, but it turns out that they don’t, that there’s an incongruence, let’s say, between the way the brand is thinking it’s being perceived and the way it’s being perceived. How do you deal with that?
Marcus: Well, I think, the first that you have to understand, the way people see the world, like that incongruence happens because of a lack of proximity because I didn’t know that you would see it that way. I didn’t know that you would take it that way.
You think about your best friend or your spouse, for instance. I mean, probably the person you’re closest to.
Marcus: At least for me, my spouse, you know, I know that if I say it this way, Alex is going to get upset. Even though that’s not what I meant, I know she’s going to get upset because I know how Alex makes meaning.
Denver: You’ve actually figured that out. I mean, Congratulations!
Marcus: I was going to say 75%.
Marcus: Sometimes she surprises me, where she gets upset, and I’m like, “I didn’t think that that would get you upset.” Or even more so, really, is when I do something or say something and she’s totally cool with it and I’m like, “You’re cool with that? Like, you’re not perturbed?”
She’s like, “No, it’s just this.” And I go, “Wow. I didn’t even think that you would see it that way.” So, I think that when there’s incongruence between what we say and what people hear, the first issue is that we didn’t have an understanding of how people would see it, or rather how they would make meaning.
Our understanding or our proximity wasn’t close enough for us to make that understanding. Then it’s like, okay, great. So, I got a perspective. I just have understanding of their perspective. Now, I have to make sure that my execution is aligned with that perspective.
And you may say, well, I thought that they would see it this way, so I made this or said it a certain way, hoping that those two things would be analogous, and they weren’t. And that is an issue of execution more than it is perspective-taking. So, there are a lot of nuances to making these things happen. And, I guess, that’s why I have a job.
“Empathy is the act of perspective-taking in an effort to gain a richer understanding, and empathy requires denying yourself, denying your biases, denying the way you make meaning to pick up someone else’s lenses and understand how they make meaning.”
Denver: Well, how do you create that proximity to get those perspectives? I mean, what is the actual practitioner steps you take to get close to that audience to really find out what’s underneath the surface?
Marcus: I really step into the academic world, and I’ve become an anthropologist. Now, I’m not an anthropologist. My research is in consumer culture theory, and most of my literature, my theoretical repertoire is in sociology. That said, you know, I put on the hat of an anthropologist, and I do ethnographic work.
I situate myself in the cultural contexts of these people and become one of them. I adopt their lenses. I go native, so that I can experience the world through their lenses, and the skill really here is empathy.
Empathy is the act of perspective-taking in an effort to gain a richer understanding, and empathy requires denying yourself, denying your biases, denying the way you make meaning to pick up someone else’s lenses and understand how they make meaning.
And I do that through ethnographies, where it’s either in the field where most of my research, however, on practice side, and on the academic side is a netnography, which is an online ethnography, where I observe the cultural practices of these communal groups, these networks, these tribes, as they make meaning through their discourse and what they share, the rhetoric that they use when they enter… these conversations.
And negotiate and construct the meaning associated to the world around them, like how they describe and make sense of the phenomenal world in which they live through these social interactions. And, therefore, as I observe them, I become the research instrument to translate how they make meaning. And I go, “Oh, okay, I get it. These people see the world like this.”
Marcus: Therefore, if the brand’s going to interact with them, the brand needs to do X, Y, and Z. And now, we can move into execution.
Denver: How do you break that down? I mean, if a brand is a collective consciousness of a worldview of a particular product or a brand or whatever the case may be, and we are getting an increasingly fragmented cultural landscape, how does one thread that needle in terms of really connecting?
Marcus: Yeah, I mean, brands are vessels of meaning. They are identifiable signifiers. They’re vessels of meaning that we can identify, that conjure up thoughts and feelings in the hearts and minds and people, such that people have these cognitive and evocative experiences when they see a product, a company, institution, organization, person, and the like, which means then: if brands are vessels of meaning, then brands are culturally-mediated because culture’s a realized meaning-making system.
Marcus: So, the question becomes to your point: So what do you do in a world that is polarized, that is fragmented? Well, this pokes a hole in the conventional wisdoms of traditional marketing communications.
Denver: Sure does.
Marcus: Like we think about: How do I get the biggest market opportunity that will blast them with messages and hopefully, prayerfully, Inshallah, I can reach 20% of them. And then if God happens to be so merciful and so kind to me that I can convert 0.012% of them, I’ve made it. That is the traditional way in which we’ve been going to market on behalf of brands, branded products.
Denver: Perfect description.
Marcus: The challenge with that is that it is efficient but terribly ineffective. Good night! It’s terrible. And as the world becomes much more fragmented, doing so becomes much more costly because there are far fewer opportunities or vehicles where you can reach “the biggest market opportunity.”
And that is primetime television. That is the Super Bowl, which we know is extremely expensive because everyone wants to be there because there is a little supply to reach massive audiences. And the challenge there is that the massive audience sees it and goes, “Haha, that’s funny. Oh, that’s interesting. Great!” And move on with their day.
What convinces us to adopt behavior, which is the core function of marketing, by the way? What gets us to move? People. People do. And what we know about everything that’s popular today, that is in vogue today, all started on the fringe. They started with subcultures.
Twenty years ago, if you were into comic books, you were a nerd, a dork. Now, today, the movies that we watch across the globe, the most come from comic books.
Marcus: Twenty years ago, if you were into gaming, you were a failure to launch, living in your mama’s basement. Now, gaming is a multi-billion-dollar business.
Twenty years ago, maybe five years ago, if you were into anime, you were a loser. Now, anime is cool. This is what happens. Things become normalized through the negotiations and constructions of meaning in the population, but it starts with the subculture. So, to the point of the question that you asked, in a world that’s become much more fragmented, where there are more and more subcultures, how do we activate them to get scale?
You activate them by stimulating meaning-making interactions between their people, i.e. I get Denver to tell Marcus, and Marcus tells Alex, and Alex tells John, and John tells Roe, and Roe tells Darius, and it propagates. And everything we know about the way things diffuse in a population, this is the Gaussian curve. This is Rogers’ diffusion innovation. This is the bell curve. This is the normal curve.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Marcus: All these things, which stand the test of times, since the 1800s, where Carl Gauss gave us the Gaussian curve, but everything abides by this phenomenon. And even still today, it does.
And the beautiful part is that the technology that we have today– social networking platforms, particularly Web 3.0, things like Discord, which sits in the middle, they provide ways to facilitate these communities, these strong ties that exist in these networks that also provide bridges, or edges that bridge and connect these fragmented, disparate, decentralized networks. What a beautiful time to be alive!
Denver: No, it really is. You know, it reminds me, on the other side of that, it reminds me a little bit of Hemingway saying you go broke slowly, and then all of a sudden, at once.
Denver: And this… these things start slowly.
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: And it’s Denver to Marcus to Jane or whatever, and nothing. And then all of a sudden, that exponential kicks in.
Denver: And it becomes an overnight phenomena, which is not overnight at all. Well, I have to ask you this. If gaming and comic books and animation were on the fringe 5, 10, and 20 years ago, what’s on the fringe today that I should be keeping an eye out for over the next 5 or 10?
Marcus: Well, it’s hard to say because not all things diffuse. So, the idea is that I’m not clairvoyant, I don’t have a crystal ball under my desk, so I don’t have my finger on the pulse or on the scale that this thing is going to convert. So, when I tell clients that, they go, “Oh man, you had me all excited about this thing. Now, I don’t have a definite thing.”
And I go, “You’re right. There is no definite thing.” But here is the best path forward. Don’t pick the things or the subcultures that you think are going to blow, that you think are going to be successful. Pick the subcultures that are most aligned with the way you see the world.
So, which requires then: How do you see the world as a company? Remember, brands are vessels of meaning. And the most powerful brands operate at ideological level. They transcend the category, transcend value propositions, and operate at an ideological place. What is the ideology that guides you as a company? What are the cultural characteristics of you as a company?
And when you identify that, you go, “Oh. I see the world this way. This is what I believe. Who sees the world like me? Those are the people I’m going to tap into.
Marcus: Take a brand like Nike. Nike, as startup, is running shoes. And when Nike started, running wasn’t a big thing.
Like in the ‘70s, running wasn’t like a thing you did. I’m going to go put my sneakers on and go for a run. That was not a thing. It was a small group of people. It was subcultural.
Denver: Oh, yes.
Marcus: And Nike created shoes for them. And Nike was a branded product that was living at a value proposition, functional level, and it was getting its butt kicked. And Phil Knight, in his wisdom, thought about elevating the brand beyond its functionality, partnered with a guy named Dan Wieden and Dave Kennedy.
And together, they helped the brand find its voice, find its point of view in the world that every human body is an athlete. Everyone with the body is an athlete. Big, small, short, tall…
Marcus: We’re all athletes. So, Nike as a brand exists to help people realize their best athletic self because the only thing keeping you from being your best athletic self is you. So, what does Nike tell you? “Just do it.”
Denver: Just do it. Just do it.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, I think it’s really smart, as you say, to find someone who sees the world the way you do because, number one, that narrows the field considerably.
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: And number two, even if there’s a trend you’re going to miss, if they don’t align with your values, you don’t want to be there anyway.
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: So, you might be looking for something that’s going to be in alignment with who you are. And that makes an awful lot of sense in trying to do it that way.
Marcus: That’s right. And the beautiful part about that is that Nike talks to these subcultures in ways that those subcultures know that Nike’s a part of them. Like Nike goes in deep; they go native, and they talk to fencers one way, footballers one way, swimmers one way, basketball players another way, runners one way, so they all live within this congregation of athletes.
And Nike has been committed to that since the ‘80s.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. They have.
Marcus: Since Day one. And as a result, Nike feels authentic to them. So, as running becomes diffused or diffuses in the population, it becomes popular. Nike is right along there with them because it’s been there since Day one.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You also, when you’re trying to get that pulse, suggest that maybe we should look at the creators. Correct?
Marcus: That’s right. I mean, the creators are the ones that are producing the works that we use to socialize points of view. We call it cultural production.
So, if you think about culture as a system of conventions and expectations that govern what is acceptable behavior for people like me, it’s rooted in our identity. And because of how we self-identify, we take on the beliefs and ideologies of people like us. And because we have a certain way of seeing the world, we have a shared way of living, right?
We don certain artifacts. We dress a certain way; we talk a certain way; we behave a certain way, and we express our shared cultural subscription through these works like literature, music, movies, television, film, dance and brands and branded products. They become ways by which I express who I am.
Denver: Yeah, got it.
Marcus: And doing so creates norms or creates expectations and acceptability of what people like us ought to do. And that is unbelievably powerful.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That is so interesting. Well, you know, we can’t go through all those, but why don’t we go through one of them… and that being music, given your background in the music industry, having worked with Beyonce among others, and you have seen firsthand the power of music in shaping culture. Elaborate a little bit on that and what we can all learn from that.
Marcus: Yep. So, to your point, music is a form of cultural production. They evangelize what people like us do. There’s a country song called “I’m a Redneck Woman.” And the song, you know, she says “Victoria’s Secret, that stuff’s real nice, but I can buy the same dang thing, a Walmart, a sale, half price. It still looks sexy like them girls on TV. But I don’t need that kind of stuff to justify me. And you say, you may think I’m trashy, but I don’t give a rip. I’m just a redneck woman… I’m a high class broad.”
And like that song is evangelizing the consumption behavior of people who self-identify as redneck women. And that is “Victoria’s Secret, we don’t do that; we do Walmart.” I remember when my wife and I had our eldest daughter Georgia… we were driving a hatchback car. We were living in New York City, so we had a little, small car.
And we were like: We need to upgrade this to something bigger because we need a stroller and, you know, car seat and X, Y, Z. So, we’re looking at SUVs. We made a list of all the SUVs that had the highest ratings, and we drove a lot of them, but there was one SUV that we refused to buy.
We just would not even consider it. And that was a Toyota RAV4. Now, RAV4s, they ranked really high on the list of good SUVs, but we were like: we’re not buying that. You know why? Because there was a song called “Run This Town” by Jay-Z and Kanye West and Rihanna, old Kanye, by the way… don’t judge me.
Marcus: And Kanye has a line.
Denver: You just preempted my next question.
Marcus: Yeah. Kanye has a line in the song and he says, “What do you think I rap for, to push an effing RAV4?” And in that song, he is signifying that RAV4s are not a badge of being high in the social hierarchy. And we were like, Nah, because we subscribe to the hip hop culture, we’re like, Nah, we don’t want anybody like us to see us drive a RAV4 and be like: What’s going on there?
Denver: It would be like Walmart underwear, you know?
Marcus: That’s right. So, the idea there is that meaning is negotiated and constructed differently. In hip hop, if you bought clothes from Walmart, it’s like, Nah, what are you doing? Just like you wouldn’t drive a RAV4 within the hip-hop cultural consumption.
However, in the world of country, if you are a redneck woman at least, buying from Walmart is a badge of identity. It’s a badge of honor, even, it’s savviness! Well, which one is it? It’s both of them. Meaning is culturally mediated. It’s culturally constructed. And music becomes a way by which we reflect and express what people like us do.
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Has nothing to do with product, has nothing to do with brand, has everything to do with me.
Marcus: That’s right. Nothing to do with what it is, everything to do with who we are. That’s right.
Denver: That’s me. This is who I am.
Denver: You know, talk a little bit about the, I don’t know, confluence of information and intimacy.
Denver: You know what, I was thinking about those as I was reading your book. I think a lot about Zoom, and I’m on Zoom, and I have 20 other people on Zoom. And you say to yourself, that’s connection. That’s not connection. You know what I mean?
Denver: That’s social snacking, if anything.
Marcus: There is some truth to that, you know, there’s some psychologists who would say that, you know, it takes some physical connection for the oxytocins to flow that help us create these social bondings.
But then on the other end, I think about the pandemic when I was doing calls, meetings, interviews on Zoom, and I would see people’s background, see people’s things in their house. And I go, “Oh, I know you play guitar,” and, “Oh, I love that.” Like we start seeing these other pieces of ourselves that aren’t curated in the way that we show up to the workplace or how we manifest ourselves on social networking platforms.
So, in some ways, there is some more humanity there. I think the idea is to remove the bifurcation that it’s either all or nothing. And it’s not; it leaves you some spectrum. And this is, I think, to your point about the confluence of information and intimacy. We think today because we have more data than ever before, like reams and reams and reams of data, our ability to access data has grown exponentially.
However, our ability to extract meaning from said data, which we call insights, has only grown marginally. Why? Because we mistake information for intimacy. We think because I have information on you that I know who you are. Those two things are not the same. I can look at you up quickly on LinkedIn and go, “Oh, he does that and he has a podcast.”
This is that. I know who Denver is. You don’t know him until you talk to him. It’s like data, and it’s wide-swath, like big data that is, becomes a beautiful way to identify patterns.
If you look at the world on a macro level and you create these and you’re able to see the patterns, how things are related, it’s like flying over New York City. I can say: There’s Times Square, and there’s Central Park up there. And down here is meat packing, and over here is the financial district. But you don’t know the city until you walk the streets.
Denver: That’s so true. Yep. Absolutely.
Marcus: You don’t know the city until you talk to people. And some would argue, some might argue that you don’t know the city until you know how the city moves, which is the subway system.
And if you extrapolate that metaphor to humanity: What is the system by which people move? Starts with a “C” and ends with the “-ulture.” The governing operating system of mankind, the meaning-making system by which we translate the world around us. So, we don’t know people until we understand the beliefs they hold.
That is the way they see the world, the artifacts that are meaningful, the behaviors that are normal, and the language that they use. The better we understand people through the mechanisms that govern how their identity is manifested, the underlying physics of who they are, the more likely we are to make these meaningful connections and be able to communicate and engage them in a way where we reach alignment between what we mean to say, what it actually means in their minds.
Denver: Yeah, I mean, in some ways, I sometimes think, and I’ll say this about myself, you know, data can make us lazy because we think we know something, so it makes you a little bit smug because you have that information, where when you didn’t have it, you had to work a little bit harder to get to know who that person was.
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: Now, you’re trying to go in there. And I love what you say about the subway system. I remember when I traveled, I always took the subway system because it not only made me feel in touch with the people who live there. But I couldn’t remember a city unless I could get around on the subway.
Denver: Because if you were taking taxis, you’re just being dropped at places, you know, like parachuted in, and you don’t understand anything, and you can actually do that online, you know? And I was a runner, so I would always go to a city and run the streets and then try to find my way back to the hotel. So, I did some long runs in my time, you know.
How are we moving from advertising to content creation? There’s quite a revolution going on.
Marcus: You know, advertising, the root word of advertising is to advert, to get people’s attention. And the idea is that we’ll get people’s attention and then communicate something about a product or a brand or a branded product in such a way that it will nudge people to take action, considering the core function of marketing is behavioral adoption.
With the advent of the different media and different means by which we can create content, there are more things vying for our attention. So, not just advertising, they’re saying, “Hey, look over here.” It’s also this guy with the blog, this guy with small, itemized content, and it’s this person over here. There’s just tons of people.
And then there’s fragmentation on the cable television streaming. Everything’s vying for our attention, which then creates a harder job for advertising, the “breakthrough.” And what’s happening is that it’s all content.
Marcus: It’s all content.
Denver: It’s all content. But there’s one form of content that continues to be more powerful, to be more persuasive, to be more influential, and it’s been that way since the beginning of time, and that is the media of people.
Marcus: And in a world where there is more content, in a world where there are more things vying for our attention, we tend to rely more on our people to help us curate the things that we should actually be paying attention to, help us create the boxes of consideration that we might even put our time in, which I think creates even more challenges for advertising as a discipline.
“Comedians are the best. They’re the best market researchers.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think we do look at people, we look at our friends, we look at folks like that. I think it also kind of parallels our lack of trust, of what I’m being fed. And, therefore, who can I trust? And I mean, there was even a time when we would look at these Amazon reviews of book reviews and trust them, and you say, “Ah, I can’t trust them anymore,” you know?
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: Because it just becomes that kind of world. You know, we were talking about human behavior, and we talked about really understanding the underlying physics of it. And I thought a great observation you had was one place to look for people who really understand it are comedians. Tell us about that.
Marcus: Comedians are the best. They’re the best market researchers.
Denver: I got to hear that.
Marcus: So, comedians are, first, they’re just very curious about the world around them, and that’s the start when it comes to understanding how people make meaning, how to get to the cultural proximity, get to intimacy. You got to first know that your worldview is not objective, it’s subjective.
Marcus: Okay. That’s the first. Then secondly, all right, great. So, if the world is subjective, then people see the world differently; then I need to understand how people see the world. There’s curiosity. And comedians perfectly do this because they just watch people. And they go, “That’s odd. That person did this.”
They see someone else did the same thing. Someone else did the same thing. They’re like, Okay, this is a phenomenon.
Marcus: This is a thing. And now, what comedians do inadvertently, they apply theory to what they just observed. That is, they go, Why is this happening? What’s going on? Why is this happening? And as they take theory to describe the social phenomenon they just observed, they then find a way to communicate it in a way that gets people to go, “Oh, that’s so interesting.”
Emily Dickinson puts it this way, ” You tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” And so, they get on stage and say, “You know, every time you go to the supermarket, you do X, Y, and Z.” We go, “That’s so me. I totally do that.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marcus: Of course, you do. Because what they’ve done is they’ve gotten to the truth, why we do what we do. They observe the phenomenon, and they apply rigorous theory, even though they may not call it that. But they use theory to describe what’s happening, and they say it in a way that gets us to go, “Oh, that’s so clever.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Marcus: As a result, we laugh because we feel seen. And this is where I think marketing falls short. People don’t feel seen because we, as marketers, suck in understanding people. We put people in boxes that are nice and neat that don’t really describe them. We call them Millennials or Gen Zs or Hispanics or women or moms, as if these are monolithic groups of people.
And as a result, when we go on stage and say, “Hey, you’ve noticed that every time you do this, this happens.” People go cricket, cricket, because “you ain’t talking to me, because that’s not me.” We don’t know people very well.
Denver: Right, right. Well, they are great observers, and I think a lot of us are, but we don’t do anything with our observations other than do “Hmm.” And, one of the reasons, I guess, comedians are so good at it, there’s nothing in the world harder than being funny. You know what I mean?
Marcus: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
Denver: Let me ask you about the importance of emotional connection in transmitting culture, and I’m asking this, Marcus, pretty much because our primary listeners are nonprofit organizations. And, boy, this is something that they are really seeking to improve upon, how they can take their cause and really communicate that with an emotional edge to get people to take a certain behavior.
Marcus: Yeah. So, interestingly, I’ve had a chance to work with nonprofits in the past, and I tell them that you’re sitting on the greatest rocket ship in the world, and you treat it like it’s a tricycle. You have a belief in ideology. You started this firm, organization, this institution, because you believed in something.
And instead of talking about your belief, you talk about what you do. For instance, I did some work with the Big Brothers Big Sisters. And they’re like, “You know, we provide mentorship.” And I go, “Yeah, that’s what you do, but why do you do it? Like, that’s the thing. Why do you do it?”
Because they’re trying to get more people to volunteer their time, especially men of color to volunteer to be mentors. And they’re like, “It’s a year-long commitment, and like that’s a lot to ask of people, but what we know from the research is that that’s when mentorship becomes meaningful, once you hit the one-year mark.”
And I go, “Well, yeah, I get that.” But when you are communicating to these would-be mentors that the reason they should do this is because there’s going to be a dopamine hit, and you’re going to feel good about yourself. Your serotonin’s going to shoot up because you are giving to people, like if you look at this as a marketplace, competition, then you suck.
Because if I have to give a year to feel that way, when I can go volunteer for an hour and feel that way, why would I invest this much time for the same sort of outcome? It’s like, don’t do that. Start with: what do you believe? Why do you mentor? What’s the conviction that guides you? And talk to people who see the world the way you do.
And C.C. Chapman puts it this way. You got to start with the soul and end with the sale.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right.
Marcus: Start with what you believe, then end with the value propositions. When I talk to brands, you know, commercial brands, they lead with value propositions. And I tell them, well, you gotta start with the soul, and lots of them don’t even know what their soul is.
Marcus: All they know is what they do, not why they do it. So, I help them excavate meaning, help them excavate an ideology that they can live up to to help them transcend the value propositions and the category.
And I tell these nonprofits that you got the thing that companies employ me to help them find; you got it already. Now, just go tell people that; go preach the gospel about what you believe. Then tell them what you do.
Denver: That’s exactly right. Now, you know, one of the things I find– this in a lot of communications with non-profits, Marcus, is they never adopt a point of view. What they do is that they share information, and they give you a lot of data. And that’s it.
Marcus: That’s right.
Denver: And you were saying, you know, What’s your point of view? You know what I mean? What’s the point you’re trying to make? If you start with the point of why this organization exists and begin there, you can always have time to go back and say, “This is who we are and this is what we do.” And they fail to do that.
“Music at its best becomes cultural production. They become ways by which we communicate the values and beliefs of a group of people.”
Along those same lines, let’s get back to music a little bit, because the key to nonprofit success very often is storytelling.
Denver: And there’s no more powerful vehicle to tell stories than modern-day music… has always been that way. How can they use that mindset to tell their story more effectively? And I’ll even ask another thing about this. Why don’t nonprofits ever use music?
I mean, I can’t think of a lot of nonprofits– other than Kars4Kids or something… that drives everybody crazy–that I could really think of a nonprofit, you know, maybe Sarah McLaughlin with Animal Rescue or something.
Denver: But there’s not a lot of music being used by nonprofits. I just wonder if you had any thoughts on either of those.
Marcus: So, you’re making a very provocative point, I think, it’s meaningful. Music at its best becomes cultural production. They become ways by which we communicate the values and beliefs of a group of people.
And, essentially, music can access folklore in this way. You know, they’re hymnals. They’re things that help us communicate what we believe so that people act in concert. And I think that, in a lot of ways, marketers have used music because of its ability to get people’s attention and create mnemonics.
The Kars4Kids thing is a really good example. Why? Why Kars4Kids? Why? The communication doesn’t do that. Instead, it just tells you, here’s the call numbers to give calls for kids, to get your attention, to create these memory structures, so that you remember the thing, remember the jingle. That’s what mnemonics do.
But when music elevates beyond that to socialize the shared beliefs of a community, now you got something really powerful. And the brands that understand this, those are the ones that can benefit from it most.
Marcus: When they understand that I am communicating what I believe through this music, because this music is an expression of my identity, the way I see the world, my point of view, not what I do, good night. Now, you’re really tapping into the power of music.
Denver: No question about it. Finally, Marcus, as we shape culture through marketing, what ethical responsibilities do marketers carry, and how can brands assure that they’re, you know, really contributing positively to societal values and societal narratives?
Marcus: So, I write this in the book, let’s say, that the more we understand what influences people, the more responsibility we have, like in the words of Ben Parker, right? You know, with great power comes great responsibility.
So, you know, I use the book to lay out what culture is and how to leverage its power and how to sidestep its shortcomings or its pitfalls. But then, I say, Now, you have a responsibility because you have information; you have new skills.
And because we have a responsibility to make ethical decisions, we have to also realize that your ethics will be different than my ethics. Why? Because we live by different meaning-making systems. Therefore, in the book, I don’t tell people that this is wrong… this is right. Instead, I give the reader the calculus that I use to navigate the decisions that I make and their ethical consequences, be they good or bad.
The first thing I think about is, “What is my intention? Why am I doing this? What do I intend to come of this thing?” The second thing I think about is: What’s the perspective of other people… that my intentions may be good, they may be well-intended, not malicious at all, but in absence of other people’s perspective, then I still run the risk of offending them, right?
Marcus: Lack of alignment, right? These things aren’t congruent as I mentioned earlier. And then, when I say, Okay, I have my intention well- articulated, I understand the perspective that other people have, then I think about what are the potential outcomes? What’s the worst that could happen?
The best that could happen, people adopt behavior. Great… So what I’m trying to get done. The worst that can happen is what? And it’s through those three sort of inputs, those variables, that I decide, Is this okay? That’s the calculus that I use.
And what I beg of the reader is to adopt a similar calculus that as you think about bringing things to market, whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit entity or something in the middle, think about: What are your intentions? Why are you doing this thing? Are your intentions well-suited, well-meaning? And then what’s the perspective of other people? How might they see it? Interpret it and translate it?
And then lastly, what are the potential outcomes that could come of that? And if you do those things and you feel pretty good about it still, I’d say, you’re probably onto something.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I think most people’s calculus is no calculus, you know what? They just do it. And very often, simple questions that you can answer very quickly. It’s that intentionality that can really change what you do.
Well, the name of the book again is For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be. It is a great read, and it is instructive for anyone who is selling something, which is, in fact, everyone. So, I want to thank you so much for being here today, Marcus. It was a great, great pleasure to have you on the program.
Marcus: Thanks so much for having me. I had a blast.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.