Thought Leadership

Should the creative industry be doing more to elevate culture?

We asked industry leaders how the industry can ensure that culture is more than just an empty buzzword

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


Culture. It’s the most-used word in marketing, but all too often it is used without thought or meaning. Yet at its core, marketing is in the business of entertaining and connecting, and reflecting culture is core to that.

From KFC teaming up with GK Barry to Just Eat tapping into the clout of Christina Aguilera and Latto for it’s latest spot, culture is a competitive advantage for marketers.

Tapping into culture is not always about tapping into entertainment, it is about understanding the experiences of the audiences you seek to connect with. A marketing opportunity that was arguably missed by brands who failed to understand the unique culture of women’s football during the Women’s World Cup this year.

Culture isn’t a tactic a brand should keep for ‘best’ understanding the reality of your customers’ lives, and therefore the role your brand plays within it should be an everyday imperative. Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, recently described culture as the ‘soup’ which surrounds us.

Understanding this ‘soup’ is vital to meaningfully connecting with consumers, as opposed to marketing your products to often entirely-invented audiences. From representation to the radical creativity of the Barbie movie, cultural relevance is the key to commercially effective creativity. Yet all too often in the creative industries, the language of culture is adopted while steadfastly maintaining the status quo.

Creating at the speed of culture demands radically different decisions in everything from hiring to casting and assessment of cultural impact.

With this in mind, we asked industry leaders should the creative industry be doing more to support brands in connecting with and reflecting culture?

Alice Saleh

Alice Saleh, Head of Consumer Brand & Campaigns, Just Eat.jpg

Head of Consumer Brand & Campaigns

Just Eat

Without getting too philosophical, let’s quickly start by looking at what “culture” is. The behaviours, beliefs, values, symbols and other “stuff” people accept, trust and come to rely on to make sense of the world. Quite simply, humans understand humans through culture. It’s symbolic communication, or storytelling, at its core.

We live our lives through stories. But - we want to be told stories we want to hear. Gone are the days of introspection. Now, brands must look outwards and position themselves firmly in culture, crafting meaningful and relevant stories that connect with consumers (and make advocates out of them).

But how do you do it? Whether it's by driving positive change, standing proudly for something, or simply speaking the right language, as artisans in storytelling the creative industry must do more to support brands in connecting with and reflecting culture. McCann London’s Depzman authentically rallied against knife crime through a powerful story rooted in culture. BBH’s Voice of the Checkout understood and spoke the language of TikTokers. Our very own The 101 (by Dark Horses) highlighted the progress made (yet journey still to go) in women’s grassroots football, and remains one of our best performing pieces of content to date.

But the ones that really get it right create and shape culture themselves. So prominent are they in audience lives that they create their own meaning and representation within consumer identities. I’m looking at you, Patagonia.

Essi Nurminen

Essi - Born Social headshot.jpg

Head of Strategy

Born Social

In all honesty, I think the industry has lost its way with culture. Not so much the application of it but rather, what’s meant by it. Most client briefs seek to either integrate brands deeper into culture or tactically tap into it to drive relevance. We're constantly reminded of studies that state it's absolutely essential for brands to harness culture and tap into Gen Z in order to be more successful. But very few have an understanding of what culture actually means. It’s become an abstract, vague concept that’s expected to be the answer to most problems but in lacking definition, it becomes the problem.

For me, the first and most helpful step is to stop thinking about “culture” as one overarching entity. We are no longer part of a monoculture: moments of shared context are far less frequent. Agencies need to be able to help brands find the subcultures most relevant to their audiences and commit to serving them in the long run. Secondly, a strategy should take into account the different speeds of culture, fast and slow. Fast culture reacts to the latest episode of Love is Blind or a TikTok trend, it lives in the here and now and drives immediate peaks of fame. Slow culture evaluates macro shifts in the economy and the current mood of the nation, aligning brand values with those shifts to generate long-term relevance. Both are valuable and should be used in tandem to effectively immerse a brand in culture.

Hamid Habib

Hamid Habib - pub poke.jpg

Deputy Managing Director

Havas Entertainment


Full disclosure, Havas Entertainment is a full-service agency that only works on culture brands across arts, film, gaming, music, TV, tech and more. I might be biased but the evidence is out there.

The correlation between cultural relevance and sales growth is 75%. Brands with higher cultural relevance have six times greater brand growth compared to their less culturally relevant counterparts. Of course, there are more factors and, yes, that’s correlation not causation before you start grumbling but the connection is there. 

More worryingly, our Meaningful Brands research shows 89% of the UK wouldn’t care if brands disappeared tomorrow. And this number is going up.

How do you combat diminishing relevance? Better connect with culture. But that’s the language of adland and quite nebulous. Put simply, be more interesting, better connect with the things people care about, be more shared, more talked about. 

Or keep dropping assets into social landfill like the other brands and hope something different might happen… definition of madness maybe?

In summary, yes, any (interesting) brand that wants to outgrow their competition should be more culturally connected. And the creative industry should be encouraging them to sacrifice some reach and invest more time, more energy and more £££ into being and doing what everyday people (not marketers) actually give a shit about.

Jovi Bathemass

Jovi Bathemess, IMA-Home.jpg

NYC Account Director

IMA-Home Global

Yes, the creative industry should do more to support brands in connecting and reflecting culture. Culture has a profound influence on creativity. It forms the growth environment, but it also shapes people and the creation and functions of products (Ludwig, 1992). Suppose you look at some of the most successful marketing campaigns over time. In that case, they have one common theme: they were successful because they could connect appropriately with the product culture they are trying to market.

A great example is RUN DMC and adidas. adidas Superstars “Shelltoes” were what the cool kids were wearing, and by embracing this counterculture, turned mainstream, adidas embedded themselves in those communities, and the two are now synonymous. A relationship that started authentically with no promises of financial gains but built on embracing those that are organically in love with the product.

And let's take it a step further, where brands give back to the cultures and communities they promote by hosting events or giving back. They become an active participant. They are never fake, always authentic. I don’t think you can talk about the creative industry credibly without including a real connection with culture. I would challenge that all good briefs need to consider culture at the start, to produce their most creatively relevant work that resonates with their core consumer base.

Zenia Lampropoulou

Zenia Labropoulou - Landor.jpg

Design Director


The world of creativity is like a bridge, linking brands with the beating hearts of their audience. Every single day, fresh brands are born, adorned in the latest design trends, each one a unique canvas vying for affection. But amid this bustling parade, only a select few have the power to truly move, inspire, and stir the souls of those who behold them.

Bridging heritage with innovation is the key to building brands that evoke deep emotions, foster a genuine sense of pride, and radiate authenticity to connect with an even wider audience.

For example, we recently collaborated with Saudia Airlines to refresh the brand and create a new visual identity ushering it into a new era while celebrating Saudi culture. The rebrand breaks away from global airlines’ current brand practice, instead focusing on what makes Saudia Airlines unique as an airline – the Kingdom’s national identity. Leaning into Saudi’s personality, the rebrand has been positioned to celebrate Saudi culture and the role of the Airline as a national carrier. Following the launch, the positive response from not only the people of Saudi Arabia, but the global audience, stands as a powerful reminder of the transformative influence brands can wield when they embrace and champion their rich culture.

Catherine Hope

Catherine - Sunshine.jpg

EVP, Creative and Entertainment


We’re an industry of pretty good storytellers. Merely connecting with or reflecting culture is selling ourselves short. Culture is there to be co-created, invested in, and reimagined. In today’s modern media landscape, the brands of tomorrow are storytellers in their own right; authoring enduring, meaningful narratives through diverse mediums beyond the 30-second spot.

The opportunity shift is happening at the hands of audiences through the stories they seek out and the formats in which they choose to digest them. Documentaries awaken discovery, able to change the very culture in which it exists. Drama or comedy develop cult followings, sometimes inadvertently setting product trends. Podcasts accompany us on our commute, events become immersive spectacles and games now monopolise attention.

The world of advertising isn’t dead. But we can create things that can be advertised; to create culture is to create “things” that live in them. And not in a way that cynically co-opts the culture of our audiences for fame. Fame can be bought but popularity is to be loved. To be loved is to be additive in their lives. Build things that last to build brands that last.

Yes, we can be doing more. There is absolutely no rule in the universe that says this domain is not open to us. We do it everyday at Sunshine. As the canvas of creative expression widens, so too should the creative ambition of brands. Story drives community and community drives value and growth. Be overly ambitious. In a world where anyone can do anything, the truth remains: the best story wins.

Ruby Carter

Ruby - truant.jpg

Cultural Strategist


When brands co-opt culture without authentically engaging or understanding it, the outcome is doomed to become a monopolised echochamber, where culture quickly becomes a one-dimensional idea repurposed for branding.

Culture is not a mere trend to be brought off the internet and neatly packaged. It’s born out of countercultural pockets existing outside of the mainstream - the emotions, actions, and connections groups of people build through community. Brands face a dilemma when authentically connecting with this, often settling for surface-level attempts that barely scratch its essence. True cultural reflection demands more than repurposing—it compels brands to genuinely connect, comprehend, experience, and live within it.

In order to authentically reflect culture, brands need to be guided. This kind of engagement takes time, and the avenues in which we explore and unearth cultural cornerstones is abundant. From ‘hard’ academic research, to niche corners of the internet, to striking up conversations with strangers at your local, the time and effort to dig for cultural insights in any way, shape, or form is essential for genuine engagement. Culture is not a mainstream trend, but understanding the fundamentals of how audiences think, feel, and connect.

The creative industry should bear the responsibility of being a research backbone, delving into how people truly experience and connect with culture, uncovering the correlations between emotions and societal norms. The creative industry thrives in the counterculture, and they understand how culture cannot be stumbled upon, but must be thoughtfully unearthed and understood.

Nicky Forrest

Nicky Forrest, Managing Director, Phipps Relations.jpg

Managing Director

Phipps Relations

First off, what makes a brand culturally relevant? It’s about a brand creating a genuine connection with its audience and articulating its brand purpose and story in a way that is not only authentic to the brand but that is also ‘of the moment’ in terms of the cultural landscape. All brands should be aiming for that. But it has to fit, it has to ring true. As an industry we can encourage brands to support social causes, incorporate the right technology, embrace diversity and save the planet but if it isn’t meaningful then none of that matters. 

Global brands that stand out for me time and time again are Nike with its Move to Zero campaign aimed at ‘protecting the future of sport’, a lofty but worthy aim. And on a smaller scale, Patagonia for its Action Works and Worn Wear campaigns which encouraged consumers to participate in local environmental causes and to mend their clothes. Brilliant.

Should the creative industry be doing more? Yes, but to an extent it can only work with what it’s been given – it’s the brands themselves that need to stand up and be counted. It’s the brands that create the DNA that forms the basis of creative campaigns and some might even say that brands that are the very building blocks that help to create culture. With all the wizardry in the world the creative industry can’t do that.

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Culture consumer industry