W+K's Marcus Collins on Why ‘Culture’ Is So Misunderstood

New book seeks to define the undefinable

Marcus Collins believes the concept of "culture" is badly misunderstood, and the Wieden+Kennedy strategy chief explores this phenomenon in his first book, For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be.

The idea sprang from his doctoral courses at Temple University. Collins studied social contagion within a cultural context, probing how brands and products spread within communities. He gravitated to hip-hop as the focal point, viewing it as a movement that touches virtually every industry: jewelry, fashion, auto, tech, beauty and sports.

For Collins, connections are common threads, from carbon chains joining to create plastics or music bringing people together. As a marketer, he is well-placed to dissect the meaning of culture and share what he knows with the masses. His goal: helping brands, politicians, leaders, managers and anyone with a vested interest in getting people to move in a desired direction.

Currently on a nationwide book tour, Collins spoke to Muse on why culture is so difficult to understand, how to grasp it and how he hopes this book will help people achieve their ambitions.

MUSE: What led you to write this book?

Marcus Collins: It's twofold—both from a practicing side and a personal side. I realized that in our industry—marketing, communications, advertising—we often use the phrases like "let's get an idea out into culture," or "let's make sure it's informed by culture" or "what's going on in culture." And those are all great statements. But if you ask five people to define culture, you get 35 different answers. And that's a problem. Because if we don't have the language to describe culture, we can't leverage it—'it' being the most powerful external influential force on human behavior.

As I was writing this book, I realized that there's something far more personal there. I'm from Detroit, born and raised, and did well in math and science in high school. And if you're Black, from Detroit and excelled in math and science, you're going to be an engineer, full stop. I was pursuing that degree because of conventions and expectations. During college, I realized I wanted to be a songwriter. My parents didn't agree and [at that point] I didn't know I could describe what was happening to me. Writing this book 20 years later, I could see that there were forces telling me what to do. And because I didn't have the language to describe it, I didn't have the agency to navigate it.

Why is the concept of culture so misunderstood?

Scholars have long said this is a hard word to define because it's so abstract in it nature, but it's realized tangibly, it's omnipresent…it's everything. So how do you describe everything? It's like explaining water to a fish, it's really hard to define, and because we don't have good language for it, we use it colloquially, we use it sort of haphazardly.

What is an example of something in your book that addresses all of this?

I'd say the biggest theoretical takeaway from the book is the idea of "meaning making," the act of constructing reality. The world is not objective, it's subjective. We translate the world around us through a set of lenses that are informed by the beliefs, truths, ideologies or stories that we hold in our minds and in our hearts. The meaning we assign to everything around us is a byproduct of our cultural subscription—who we are—which is manifested in our shared way of life: the artifacts we don, the behavior that are normative, and the language we use. So the idea for practitioners, whether you're a marketer or an activist, politician, clergy, leader, manager, etc., is to realize that what you say is not exactly what people hear. Because people are translating your messages through their cultural lenses. You have to understand how people make meanings if you are to ensure that our messages are received the way they were intended.

What is a favorite personal story, in practice, that you hope readers will learn from within this context of culture?

The Brooklyn Nets—with a focus on one of the cultural characteristics of what it means to be a Brooklynite. The brief from our client was that they wanted the Brooklyn Nets to be to Brooklyn what the Knicks are to Manhattan. We realized that these folks are the proudest group of people among the five boroughs. We decided to stoke Brooklyn pride. And we did that by borrowing a page from Edward Bernays' propaganda theory—he was the godfather of propaganda. He said that you can bring people together by declaring an enemy of the state. And luckily for us there was an inherent enemy of the state to Brooklyn: Manhattan. So, we decided we were going to excite/exacerbate this tension between them such that Brooklynites will use the Nets as a badge of identity, a way of showing they are residents—not because of the basketball team... this brand represents their identity. In June 2012, before the team played its first game, it went from being No. 26 In merchandise sales to number four. Because Brooklynites were buying the gear to say: "Oh, I'm from Brooklyn," which is really powerful.

What are the biggest takeaways from the book?

the biggest takeaway is that things aren't the way they are, they are the way that we are. The better we understand that, the better we'll be able to identify the things that influence us. Then we become better at interacting with other people. And the more equipped we'll be to leverage these mechanisms of culture to get people to adopt behavior, and the more agency will have to navigate cultural backgrounds.

What excites you the most about your journey?

The ability to help people—for people to have these aha moments now that the language exists to describe it. On the practicing side, I want marketers to say, "Let's stop thinking about people as machines and look at them as human beings." And how can we contribute to the cultural characteristics of their governing operating system? How can we help them facilitate community among them? And when we do that as practitioners, not only do we help our companies, but we help people get closer to things that matter most to them.

Shahnaz Mahmud
Shahnaz Mahmud is a contributing writer to Muse by Clio.

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