Influence and culture are inseparable from one another like a single strand of DNA. They are intertwined, connected and dependent. Pulling one strand away from the whole would change the entire structure. Currently, many strands are being pulled in influencer marketing, and you can feel the whole thing coming apart. Extensive brand and culture work have confirmed the degree to which extractive values have corrupted influence. Look no further than the insane reasoning behind "baby influencers" to conclude that any fundamental understanding (and common sense) when it comes to culture is absent.
Living a #blerd life has made me a fan of Star Trek (among other things). Any Trekkers worth their weight in gold pressed latinum are familiar with the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order No. 1, prohibits interference with the natural development of encountered species. In the fictional world of Star Trek, intentionally or unintentionally shifting the destiny of encountered worlds was forbidden.
Strategic brand work exposed me to the structural barriers that made cultural attempts questionable. As a result, I developed what I call the Cultural Prime Directive, which became a blueprint for managing the relationship between brands and culture. The Cultural Prime Directive takes its inspiration from Starfleet's desire for non-interference and expands on it. Comprised of four principles: (1) Do no harm, (2) Rethink your time horizon, (3) Be brave and (4) Build a love-centered revolution -- the CPD is a sufficient counterbalance to the increasingly unhinged world of influence.
Influence operates as a social pact that is based on peer-to-peer trust and empathy. As an individual, you like service A or product B, recommend it to a friend and because of mutual trust, he or she decides to give it a try. Influencer marketing takes this concept and using digital tools implements it on a mass scale. Brands take a fundamental element of human social interaction, hotwire it and sell it back to us en masse. Influence has been weaponized, and the Cultural Prime Directive disarms it by creating a framework that encourages a positive connection with culture.
The first condition, do no harm, sets the table for how we interact with culture. It is the difference in being an ally or a gentrifier. Partners use their resources, financial or otherwise, to amplify culture voices. Gentrifiers use their resources to co-opt and take over. Culture comes from the margins and should be given a chance to develop, grow and mature on its own. What would hip-hop be if brands had jumped into the scene after the 1979 Top 40 hit "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang? The raw and unfiltered gestation period was necessary to create what is now one of the most influential global cultures ever. Brands must resist the urge to own culture. Too tight a grip and the influence they covet can slip through desperate fingers.
Influencer marketing too often chases trends. Short-term time horizons are usually the culprit as CMOs facing their short tenures are forced to pursue immediate results. Brands must rethink their time horizon to encourage real engagement. This past year saw Snap sue "influencer"/actor/model Luka Sabbat for breaching his contract in which he agreed to promote the brand via Instagram and wear the Spectacles product during various Fashion Week events. The decision to go with Sabbat was motivated by the allure of his immediate reach. Whether he aligned with their brand over the long term never seemed to enter into the equation. A hasty short-term move resulted in negative press for Snap while Sabbat just kept it moving.
In our current social moment, there are no sidelines. People are increasingly vocal about their values aligning with brand choices. Brands seeking authentic connection can no longer stay silent on issues important to their customers. Taking a stand means you have to be brave. You have to recognize you will isolate some potential customers. Campaigns by Gillette and Nike are recent examples of the commitment brands are making to value-based positions. Brand bravery doesn't require perfection, but it does require the ability to weather inevitable pushback.
Building a love-centered revolution is a tall order, especially since love isn't used in any serious way in marketing circles. Nonetheless, it is essential. As Che Guevara stated, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality." In that ridiculous spirit of love, fashion house Louis Vuitton tapped polymath Virgil Abloh to be their creative director. Patagonia's love for the planet informs every decision the company makes, including its decision to stand against the current regime and defend national parks. A revolution based in love is … well, revolutionary. Influencer marketing is filled with fear-based decision-making and, in turn, many marketers want us motivated by fear packaged as FOMO.
A Cultural Prime Directive overlay to influencer marketing can make brands the Medicis of culture instead of pariahs. A more thoughtful approach can put brands in a position to align, learn from and facilitate instead of distort, rush and homogenize.
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