Understanding Culture

Many brands are using anthropologists to help them identify and understand the forces and themes impacting their customers’ lives and mindsets. And one of the main areas of observation for an anthropologist is culture. Understanding culture helps brands predict and capitalize on upcoming trends.

I personally have an interest in culture especially when I hear it bandied around often without an understanding of what it is, what makes up culture, how it is created and what influences it.

So this post is my attempt to understand culture and how brands can be part of it.

What is Culture?

Culture is fundamentally about meaning and expression. It is how and where we derive our meaning from the world and people around us.

Societies function via written and unwritten ‘rules’ that people ascribe to willingly or unwillingly. The rules that we follow without noticing, and the rules that some people break willingly. This is culture.

But these rules are constantly changing and evolving, in fact, most of the time, we don’t notice them until they are broken. For example, the act of ‘gathering people to eat’ is draped with cultural meaning – otherwise, the pictures below are just people having lunch. But a family lunch, team lunch and quiet romantic getaway are draped with different traditions, meaning and emotional attachments - this is culture.

What meaning do you derive from these images?

Artists, Musicians, Comedians, Journalists often bring to light or challenge culture in their work. They make observations and statements about culture in their music or writing.

How can we get better at Cultural Understanding and Culture Spotting?

In order to understand culture and cultural meaning, we need to investigate the meaning behind certain rituals and phenomena.

As we observe and become curious about events around us, we should be asking: what does this symbolise? why is this important? what is changing? where are we going?

Can you think of some cultural rules that have recently been broken in MENA? Here are a few:

  • The resurgence of artistic expression? What does this mean about how people are expressing themselves?
  • Women driving in KSA? What does this mean about the way society is changing?
  • Cinema in KSA? What does this mean about entertainment in the region?

Brands that wish to be more culturally relevant could choose to follow either of two directions:

  • How can we be part of the cultural conversation?
  • How can we challenge cultural assumptions in a way that attracts people to our brand?

The main goal of producing brands and their branded content is to ensure they resonate with their audiences so that they connect with them and provide solutions to their life, making the brand more salient. Being culturally relevant helps achieve this goal.


Cover Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-group-of-men-wearing-assorted-scarves-holding-sticks-667200

Strong Brands ge​​​​t Angry.

Anger that is uncontained is a sign of not being present in the moment, and, therefore, being unable to manage our emotions . However, when used appropriately, anger can be harnessed to muster the courage to speak out against something we disagree with or to defend ourselves when being attacked.

I’m not espousing being angry at all times, nor lashing out at others, or hating on yourself, but if we use our intuition to recognise that a situation or person is causing us anger, then we can investigate what it is about that person/situation making us angry. If we are aware of what is making us angry, we can use that as a learning opportunity to uncover hidden feelings (guilt, grief, helplessness, disappointment, feeling trapped) or fears.

You can read more about anger and anger management from a psychological perspective on MentalHelp.net

My point is, understanding Anger or Tension helps recognise that an issue or misalignment exists, moves us to define a problem and seek a creative solution to it, and this practice applies as much to brands as to people.

What is Your Brand Angry about? 

From a communication or brand planning perspective, strong brands usually stand for something. They have a sense of purpose which creates a sense of community and common interest around the brand.

Another way I like to look at it, strong brands have identified an ‘enemy’ or something that makes them ‘angry’ and they address this with their product or service or communication campaign. For example:

Nike, ‘Just Do It,’ is against procrastination.

Ikea, ‘A better everyday life for the many people,’ is against hierarchy.

Patagonia, ‘If it’s broke, fix it! is against consumption that negatively impacts the earth.

Next time you’re thinking about your company purpose, or your next creative brief, start by thinking about answers to the following questions:

  1. What is your brand angry about?
  2. What problem does your brand find annoying that it aims to solve?
  3. Who / What is your enemy? And how can you speak out against it?

By defining your purpose this way, you ensure that your brand is of value and service to your users and community by solving existing probelms. And ultimately, this is what defines a strong brand.

Live consciously,


Telling your brand story.

Originally posted on Not another dinosaur.:
Previously, I’ve written about the progress of Marketing and Communications over time (Marketing Era’s; From-functional-to-aspirational-to-meaningful-economy). One might argue that such definition of trends and cycles is outdated even irrelevant, since the pace of change in society and culture today is so fast, things move on before we can even discuss…

I’ve written about the evolution and development of Marketing and Communications over time (“Marketing Era’s“, “From-functional-to-aspirational-to-meaningful-economy“). One might argue that such a discussion of trends and cycles is outdated even irrelevant, since the pace of change in society and culture today is so fast, things move on before we can dissect them.

But, I believe it is worthwhile to scope out the landscape we are working in, if for nothing else, just to know its modus operandi. Once we dissect and understand changes in people’s attitude and behavior, we will be better able to respond  – to inform policies, product development and even brand conversations. It is also important to understand the impact of these changes and how to navigate and inspire the future. After all, the intelligent brand | corporation | individual is one who can adapt and be ready for the future.

With that in mind, I believe that the current brand / communication cycle is one of conversation | experiences. It is one where stories shine. If we consider the rise of Micro-blogging sites WordPress, tumblr, Wordpad and even Pinterest and Instagram, I believe one thing they have in common is the idea of sharing our ‘stories’ with people. Even when we tweet we are sharing a ‘story’ of sorts.

Thanks to (as a result of) the digital revolution, people have become accustomed to giving more media more of their time. People spend short – sometimes long – chunks of time engaged in watching videos (Vimeo, youtube), reading (slideshare, blogs, facebook and twitter links), playing games (with all the emotions they involve). Only an interesting ‘story’ makes people do that.

If you look at the print ads below (source: Archive magazine vol.3 2012), you will see that they tell interesting stories. They engage people with an introduction, main plot and conclusion of sorts.

The notion of stories in marketing is not new. But what I believe is important is the way we look at stories from a brand viewpoint.

A brand story is not just a manifesto. Everything the brand does is part of its storyline. Unlike in the past, the ‘storyline’ doesn’t need to continue identically through all communication touchpoints. In fact, we can consider all touchpoints and all aspects of the brand as having unique stories with unique sub-plots, characters and settings across all touchpoints. They don’t all need to look or feel or sound identical. As long as they tell the story in total! At different points in time, one may outweigh the other.


So, next time you’re briefing your agency, make sure they understand and have a plan to tell your brand story though various touchpoints. And make sure each touchpoint has its own engaging story. That’s what we do for our brands ☺ It’s what keeps our work fresh, intriguing and interesting.

I challenge you to think positively about the #EtisalatChallenge

The laws of physics demonstrate that for every trend, there is an equal and opposite counter trend and I am a firm believer in this principle. There never is an absolute truth, rather a series of forces that shape our lives and we get to choose what suits us, there is no black and white but a series of grey.

And so it is with the #etisalatchallenge. For years people have been complaining that the Telco “doesn’t listen” “is old fashioned” and “doesn’t reach out to the community” – and then finally when it does, it gets bagged out on social media.

I know there are only 2 Telco’s in the UAE but that is precisely why the #etisalatchallenge is so bold because rather than rest on their laurels, Etisalat demonstrates that they are serious about offering best in market products and services. If you check the Etisalat website, they have offers that are first in the market and quite useful for various audiences.

What this campaign has done is create a conversation around Etisalat and it invites people to be part of that conversation either through the #etisalatchallenge or via opinions about the campaign and that’s what every brand wishes for, to start a conversation.

Rather than critisizing Etisalat’s move, we should support and encourage this gesture by a prominent and iconic UAE brand. Maybe it could have been done in a more relevant way (using meaningful brand ambassadors and having a better customer service response across social media) but it takes guts to challenge people and live up to the challenge. And, taking a Challenger position is not something usually done by an established player.

Brands that want to stay relevant constantly innovate and challenge themselves. And this is exactly what Etisalat has done. So now Etisalat should continue to challenge itself by listening and learning from customer feedback.

And I challenge other brands in the UAE to be open and transparent about their products and customer service and to put in place mechanisms that help identify and resolve customer complaints.


The demise of Sparta. And the rebirth of Greece.

Ancient Greece is a complex topic but from what I can summarise about Sparta, it was a wealthy state with a strong education system called the Agoge where elite boys would take part in physical training to mould them into the strongest and most disciplined soldiers. Spartan girls were also brought up to be strong and supportive so they could provide strong babies to continue the Spartan lineage. But Sparta ruled over the Helots – peasants who farmed the land and provided food for their wealthy Spartan overlords. Over time, resentment between the Helots and the ruling Spartans led to a war. Even though the Spartans won the war, this class struggle plagued and weakened them for a long time until eventually they had a war with Athens over the city of Thebes which led to Sparta’s demise.

Similarly, fast forward a few thousand years to modern Greece with huge levels of inequality and impoverishment leading to the election of Syriza on an Economic platform. Greece is saying “we’re going to be playing by our rules now and we will no longer be subjected to EU humiliation and Economic imbalances”.

To me, there’s a few lessons in Authenticity and Equality that my University Professor Yanis Varoufakis – the newly appointed Greek Finance Minister demonstrates.

  1. We can’t solve problems using established systems and entrenched models of thinking. We must be trailblazers even though it might ruffle some feathers along the way.
  2. The solutions we design must be based on symbiosis and nurturing a win/win scenario. The current mess that the world is in can be attributed partly to the inequality that many feel at the hands of the few.

If we want to improve our situation – or that of a corporation or brand – we should add real value to society, we should be authentic and we need to be fearless. References: Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over. By Suzanne Moore

Are we in for another Financial Crisis?
Are we in for another Financial Crisis?

How to get to where you want to go.

Not another dinosaur.

I think ‘strategy’ is the most over used word in this industry.  Too often it is misunderstood, and too often people use it inter-changeably with just ‘a thought’.

Good strategy is creative, just like good creative has to be strategic.

Good strategy is a jump from the mundane. It’s based on an idea. It makes a statement about what the brand is up to. Following from this people either buy into the brand or they don’t.

When you think about campaigns like Avis’s ‘we try harder’, or Honda’s ‘power of dreams’ it is very obvious what the brand is up to, the strategy stands out.

Here are some jump starters for writing good communication strategy:

1. Develop an insight or story, and then summarise it as a strategy.

2. Think ‘what is my creative angle on this problem’ what’s the larger than life proposition to the world?

3. Think ‘what…

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Qantas gives people a blank canvas.

A fun initiative by the Australian Airline Qantas. The initiative encourages travellers to get creative and design their own travel art using the inflight bag in their seat pocket, napkin, or boarding pass, and share it online using the #qantasblankcanvas hashtag.

Watch the Qantas Get Creative case study.
Watch the Qantas Get Creative case study.

What Your Social Media Likes Say About You.

Click the image to watch the video.

Watch this short yet insightful talk touching on consumer behaviour / modelling / data / predictions / privacy.

I believe creative agencies can’t survive if we don’t model consumer choices and drivers of behaviour.

Sure we might be Creative Engines but it doesn’t mean that data \ technology \ research shouldn’t be driving and informing the creative engine.