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Foresight as Activism: Researching vs. Making Culture
Originally published via WARC
I was recently asked which acronym best represents our larger social and business environment.
Is it VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous)?
BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, Incomprehensible)?
RUPT (Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, Tangled)?
Or TUNA (Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, Ambiguous)?
There is no right answer.
And it makes no difference what we call it.
Amidst an anxiety-provoking permacrisis and breakneck innovation, it’s increasingly difficult to make sense of emerging norms, feelings and desires, which are the prerequisite for any marketer’s strategy. There’s a shared disorientation.
As a result, the global revenue of the market research industry tasked with hedging against these acronyms exceeded $81B in 2022. It’s grown more than 2x since 2008 and the CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of the industry itself has spiked since the pandemic. Uncertainty breeds desperation for answers…
Enter investments in cultural strategy, foresight and futurism – capabilities centered around researching cultural patterns and their potential developments. Based on what we see now and what we’ve seen previously, how can we visualize what tomorrow may look like?
It’s the right approach, but insufficient without rolling up our sleeves.
“It makes sense that we are investing in so much cultural research given the precarity we face; we are yearning for a sense of stability,” says Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel, author of Cultural Intelligence for Marketers.
“But is the researching replacing the doing?”
While it’s tempting to play with scenario planning and leave it at the implications, we must not hide behind the data, deck or titles of our roles, protecting us from the vulnerability of getting out there and doing the messy work: making the futures we wish to see.
When WARC asked strategy leaders around the world, which of the following are the biggest threats to their team, “Less time available to research communities” jumped +55% YoY, now a top three concern — above securing talent, reduced headcount, and automation.
Meanwhile when asked which of the following skills are most important today, “Understanding emerging cultural and behavioral trends” was #1.
Build With, Not For
As Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, reminds us,
“We don’t know anything. Ultimately, there are far more good ideas we can post-rationalize than there are good ideas we can pre-rationalize. So why make the ability to rationalize something a prerequisite for trying something?”
In other words, why make research a precondition for what could be possible? After all, we don’t know how to measure what we care about, and only care about what we can measure… all of which is just the past anyway. Research is an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. Our strategies can be rationalized by our own desires for a world we want to see, but does not yet exist.
Right now, companies are developing digital twin models of audiences so brands can A/B Test messaging before putting it out into the real market. But this costly software wouldn’t be necessary if organizations were active participants in the cultures or markets they were so keen to resonate with.
The reason artists don’t need market research is because they’re already immersed in the world they’re making for.
Bypass over-analysis and decision paralysis by living whatever you’re studying.
If you consider yourself an observer of culture, you’ve already put yourself on the sidelines.
When you’re an active participant in the interests of those you hope to resonate with, you don’t need to decipher what’s trending. You’ll know.
The answer is already in front of us.
Don’t leverage social media for Community Management – no brand can own a crowd – but think of it as an opportunity for Community Participation. Test and learn. Build in public. Integrate. Collaborate. Simply, hang out. Join communities.
Consider “channel strategy” as opportunities for two-way interaction, not one-way dissemination.
Foresight as Activism
Instead of chasing cool, how can marketers work with existing communities, especially those overlooked in the margins of culture, who already have the ideas for the worlds they wish to see?
The nuance is radical: Market research and trend-fetichism is self-centering. From a place of privilege, brands fight to place themselves at the center of existing change.
Instead, by collaborating with communities who are making (or struggling to make) progress, marketers can author preferred futures with and for them.
WARC found 65% of strategy leaders agree (vs. are neutral or disagree) that all brands should have a purpose beyond profit, 75% believe brands should take a stand on environmental issues, and 47% on political or social issues.
But with that, 79% believe “Fear of audience backlash means brands are increasingly reluctant to take a stand on political or social issues.”
So... if marketers believe understanding culture is increasingly important (likely to hedge against backlash), but have less available time to research communities, how are they to overcome this fear and take the stands they’re so interested in taking?
Strategy Executive Nick Susi asks marketers,
“What is the role we’re playing when tapping into a culture? Are we contributing towards it thriving sustainably? Or are we accelerating its lifecycle towards its fragmentation or end? How do we design better systems, or even a new social contract, where everyone wins?”
Let’s contemplate the more equitable, diverse, sustainable, artistic, intriguing, mindful, prosocial, and awe-inspiring outcomes we want to see, and the investments, partnerships and sacrifices we need to make to get there.
What’s ultimately required here is imagination, participation and conviction.
This looks like inviting the outside in and workshopping unknown unknowns. What doesn’t exist, but must? What isn’t being said, but would be powerful if we did? Instead of using a brief which read “Get people to:”, how can we meet them where they already are? And are we gaining consent before leaning in, and sharing control so more can contribute?
Brian Collins, Chief Creative Officer of COLLINS puts it,
“Make the future so irresistible, it becomes inevitable.”
When Vaseline learned less than 6% of search results showed skin conditions on people of color, ultimately contributing to +25% higher rates of mortality of skin cancer, they partnered with Hued, an organization creating equitable and inclusive healthcare. Together they aggregate thousands of medical images to create See My Skin, the largest database of skin conditions on people of color, which then connected viewers to culturally-competent dermatologists.
Or consider Decathlon, a sports retailer who wanted to amplify the existing work of The Accessible Icon Project, which re-designed the non-active “handicap symbol” into ones in action. Beyond updating their own signage, Decathlon open-sourced the materials which inspired rec centers, gyms, competitor retailers and even the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games to adopt the signage, representing and inspiring.
Lastly, look to Canesten, an antibacterial cream, which was tired of the often censored, over-sexualized, or stigmatized portrayal of vaginal hygiene, which contributes to shame and a gender health-gap. Uncovering insufficient in-school education, Canesten partnered with the PSHE, the UK body of health education, to create a legitimate, modernized vaginal health program. Since, the lesson plans have been integrated into the national curriculum across the country.
Our current task at hand isn't so much to chase cultural change and react, but to work with existing communities, fantasize what we'd like to see with them, and then invest in them.
The future of strategy is straightforward: Uphold the bureaucratic way things have always been done and study from a distance, or immerse oneself and explore the way the world truly operates to affect progress.
Resonance and acting in accordance with the zeitgeist remains the priority, but since when has the marketer stopped being the expert?
As we debate acronyms like VUCA vs. BANI, the most surefire way to forecast the future is not to keep researching it, but to make it alongside others.
Thanks to Nick Susi, Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel, Lore Oxford, and Tim Stock