Are Brands Destined for Cultural Irrelevance? Honestly, Maybe.

(And that’s not a bad thing!)

Sonia Hildner
2 min readOct 28, 2020
Brands are now competing for cultural relevance in an increasingly complex and political landscape
Brands are competing in an increasingly complex and political landscape

Before this year, I used to have a bit of an equation in my head for building brand relevance. It looked like this:

Brand + Cultural Tension/Moment= Brand Relevance

Way easier said than done, of course, but brands who succeeded in putting themselves at the center of culture (see: Dove, Nike, Aerie, Beats) had major success in boosting brand relevance and advocacy.

But 2020 has really changed our definition of a cultural moment. With concerts cancelled, sporting events restricted, and all of us confined to our homes, culture has taken on a more serious and socially progressive definition. Conversations are focused on bigger, more complex, deep issues: a global pandemic, Black Lives Matter, election security, women’s rights, etc. This shift isn’t necessarily bad from a human point of view — in fact, it might mean we’re evolving as a species — but from a brand perspective, participating in culture looks a lot like corporate social responsibility vs. shameless, tolerated self promotion.

The result of all of this is that it’s harder and harder for brands to insert themselves into cultural conversation without appearing pandering, insincere, self-serving, and/or shallow. Unless the brand already has deep, progressive roots in social justice (which cannot be bought or earned over night!), it’s hard to justify their participation in culture.

So, if you’re leading a brand — what can you do to build brand engagement? I’d argue it’s about going back to the basics. In my mind, people follow brands for one of two reasons:

  1. They are entertaining (see Wendy’s, Recess, bubly)
  2. They are helpful (see: Frida Mom, Zero Waste Collective, Bon Apetit, Patagonia)

Your brand might do a little bit of both, but ultimately you’ll probably err on the side of one more than the other. And then — and this is the hard part — go all in on serving your followers either entertainment or help. Don’t try and depend solely ride on the waves of cultural relevance, Twitter trends, or the latest SNL skit. Create content on your own terms, for your own followers, and don’t be dependent on the cultural flavor of the week — which you likely won’t have the right to comment on.

I honestly think this might be a refreshing reset for content marketers everywhere — and for the people who follow their work, who are just one pandering post away from unfollowing them all together.