How Brands Are Built With Cultural Credibility

Michael SolomonMay 3, 20215 min

Sociologists refer to the set of individuals and organizations that create and market a cultural product such as a record album, a movie, a shoe style, or a football game as a culture production system (CPS). The structure of a CPS determines the types of products it creates. Factors such as the number and diversity of competing systems influence the selection of products from which we choose at any point in time. For example, an analysis of the country/western music industry showed that the hit records it produces are similar to one another when a few large companies dominate the industry, but when a greater number of labels compete we see more diversity in musical styles.

A culture production system has three major subsystems:

  • A creative subsystem to generate new symbols and products
  • A managerial subsystem to select, make tangible, produce, and manage the distribution of new symbols and products
  • A communications subsystem to give meaning to the new product and provide it with a symbolic set of attributes

An example of the three components of a culture production system for a music release is (1) a singer (e.g., Beyoncé, a creative subsystem); (2) a company (e.g., Columbia Records distributes Beyoncé’s CDs so it’s a managerial subsystem); and (3) the advertising agencies and corporations that promote the product as a communications subsystem (e.g., PepsiCo works with Beyoncé’s company Parkwood Entertainment to promote her music and arrange for her appearances in venues including the Super Bowl and even on a limited edition set of Pepsi soda cans).

As we know all too well, not all cultural products succeed. In fact, the large majority never makes it past the cutting room floor. Indeed it’s literally impossible for every clothing label, new album, potato chip flavor, or lamp design to thrive. Consumers simply don’t have the time, bandwidth or money to buy everything that gets thrown at them (much as some may valiantly try). They need agents in the system to winnow down the options for them, lest the hyperchoice tsunami sweeps over them. Think of this vast ocean of options pouring into a giant funnel – only a (relatively) small proportion of these choices trickle out at the other end for shoppers to consider.

The need for these gatekeepers illustrates why, for example, amateur bloggers have become such a force to be reckoned with in industries as diverse as apparel, tech products and wine. Contrary to what some observers proclaim, we still need “experts” to sift through the ocean of options for us. What has changed is that the potential pool of expertise no longer is confined to the people and institutions, such as “intellectual elites” and legacy publications like Vogue that traditionally held the reins of power.

The Gatekeepers And Tastemakers

That’s where marketing agents enter to provide value. Many cultural gatekeepers or tastemakers have a big say in the products we consider. They filter the overflow of information as it travels down the “funnel.” Gatekeepers include movie, restaurant, and car reviewers; interior designers; disc jockeys; retail buyers; magazine editors; and increasingly a fan base that obsessively follows and shares the latest gossip, styles, TV and film plots, and other pieces of popular culture. Sociologists call this set of agents the throughput sector.

But here’s a twist: Today many of the new gatekeepers are algorithms, as AI (artificial intelligence) applications take center stage to sift through reams of data and recommend choices to us. For example, startups like Mezi and Hello Hipmunk learn clients’ preferences over time, so they can customize travel recommendations for picky vacationers.

The Credential Kings

This sea change presents both a challenge to traditional centers of expertise and a golden opportunity to newcomers. Today there is huge market value in credentialing, i.e. demonstrating that according to some standard one is in fact eligible to opine on the “correct” clothing styles, the best wines, the most cutting-edge tech, etc.

One illustration of this battle for credibility is the trend toward the awarding of microdegrees (or nanodegrees) in the tech space. These credentials, offered by online education disruptors such as Coursera and Udacity, do an end run around legacy higher ed agents in the CPS. Microdegrees certify expertise in a specific skill set that employers desire without the price tag of an entire degree program.

Similar “guild issues” regarding the consensus about who is an expert – and thus qualified to curate consumers’ choices — are roiling fields as diverse as physical conditioning (e.g. the National Strength and Conditioning Association versus “upstart” regimens like CrossFit), psychiatrists versus social workers, and even the right of Orthodox rabbis versus those in other branches of Judaism to certify who is a Jew. There will be winners and losers for sure, but we can count on a growing demand for agents to provide these services – and many opportunities wait for companies that recognize this need and move to fill the gaps in this growing market.

The democratization of the Internet ironically amplifies the need for professionals to select and curate worthy content. That’s why it’s important to appreciate the role YOU play in the vast marketplace ecosystem. While no single designer, company, or advertising agency creates popular culture, each has a role to play and adds value to what end consumers wind up wearing, listening to, reading, eating, and driving. Opportunities abound in virtually every vertical for intermediaries who assume the role of curator. Consumers crave simplification, and they’re willing to pay a premium for services that separate the wheat from the chaff.

End users also want to demonstrate that they are able to distinguish between a silk purse and a sow’s ear, so there’s also a huge market for credentialing services that provide nanodegrees focused on very specific skill sets. We are slowly moving away from the one-size-fits-all degree model. The new one gives students of all stripes a la carte options to customize a resumé with a collection of “badges” that signal proficiency in very specific competencies, whether computer coding, SEO or film editing.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of “Marketers, Tear Down These Walls!.”

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