Now is the time to be confident in the soft power of cultural relevance

In a broadening media landscape, advertisers need to seek out culturally relevant ways to connect with consumers

Daniel Wood

Managing Director Creative Futures, EssenceMediacom


The latest IPA Bellwether report signals big opportunities ahead.

The quarterly temperature check of 300 UK marketers found that over a quarter of respondents had their budgets revised upwards in the final quarter of 2023.

As soon as we see these signs of growth our first impulse should be ‘What does this mean for our brands? How should we act to create maximum advantage? How can we remain distinctive?’

That requires a mindset change: Almost half of businesses say that they haven't altered their advertising in five years. The industry is saturated with repetitive adverts, and audiences are tuning out rapidly. 44% of adults find advertising a waste of their time, with one in four willing to pay to avoid it.

Put simply the status quo isn’t working for lots of people.

These statistics matter in a communications economy where people now wield the power. With over half our time spent on ad-free platforms, people control what people watch. If we want to do better than settle for just reaching consumers, we have to find new ways to be relevant.

We urgently need to rethink long-term brand-building and maximising growth. Advertisers must grasp the audience’s ability to avoid messages they don’t relate to and understand the rising importance of creators, influencers and non-traditional media channels.

The biggest opportunity for brands at the moment is to understand the soft power of cultural relevance. Word of mouth and talkability are more important levers to pull than just how much money you’re spending.

The rules of the game have changed - and we need to change with them.

Daniel Wood, Managing Director, Creative Futures, EssenceMediacom

Rethinking engagement 

The good news is, people aren’t harder to reach. They are just harder to reach with traditional advertising alone. The rules of the game have changed - and we need to change with them.

Just look at TikTok; last year, videos were viewed over 22.6 trillion times on the platform. Or what about gaming - the industry is worth over $145 billion. These are brand-new horizons that advertisers would be foolish not to explore.

The playbook on how to generate cultural relevance has been well documented by incredible successes such as the drinks brand PRIME and the Barbie Movie. Brands that dominated the headlines not just by buying ad space, but through the collaborations and word of mouth they created through influencers, gamers and the wider social landscape.

A less famous example is the phenomenal $750m growth story behind the Stanley Cup Craze. Stanley’s CEO has taken directly from lessons learned as CMO of Crocs to transform a 110-year-old brand into a social meme juggernaut. Collaborations with Starbucks and Target have been used to create genuine in-store stampedes for their cups, whilst an opportunistic response to one customer’s Stanley Cup surviving a car fire, literally set the internet alight. Everything Stanley does is designed to give you a reason to talk, share and like - because it's stuff they know their audience loves.

To thrive in this new comms economy, we must grasp the importance of cultural relevance. Realising that individuals craft their own advertising ecosystems based on the content they love the most is essential. In a world where we choose what we value, showing audiences how you can share their experience, and what’s more, enhancing it, becomes crucial. 

Giving the people what they want 

eBay is another brand that understands how the power of culture can translate its messages to new audiences. Through its partnership with ITV’s Love Island, it was able to pull the ultimate judo move by using fast fashion’s biggest icon to explain the virtues of pre-loved fashion and position eBay as the go-to marketplace for sustainable fashion finds.

Listening to the conversations, and finding the right fit is key. Following the success of the Love Island collaboration, eBay did the same thing for car parts and accessories. Noticing the absence of car culture in the mainstream – bar the exploits of Clarkson and his pals on Amazon Prime Video – it took its message out of the niche performance environments into prime-time TV with Bangers: Mad For Cars, an eight-part ad-funded programme on Channel 4. The partnership enabled eBay to engage with real car lovers, giving a fresh diverse overhaul for a new audience.

By connecting with people on topics they are passionate about, eBay improved perception of their car parts and accessories offering by more than 40%, spontaneous awareness doubled and consideration quadrupled. In terms of Love Island, the pre-love fashion campaign generated a whopping 7000% increase in search for pre-love fashion. With statistics like this, you can’t say soft power doesn’t work.

Softly does it

You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This doesn’t mean we have to abandon traditional advertising. Instead, as an industry we need to be more open to taking new approaches, exploring new partnerships, and embracing the power of culture to identify the routes that can connect a brand with a new audience.

During a time when consumers struggle with ad fatigue and standing out is harder than ever, the industry needs a change of perspective. Tapping into cultural relevance, and sharing in the moments that matter, will power more engaging campaigns, and help break through to our audience’s hearts, minds and souls.


In his role as Managing Director of Creative Futures UK, Dan is focused on bringing the worlds of media and creativity together to create breakthrough growth for clients. He leads a diverse group of content and creative specialists who build big ideas that drive cultural relevance (through Branded Entertainment, Sports, Gaming and Brand Partnerships), create addressable campaigns that enhance personal relevance (through our Addressable Creative and Creative Analytics offering) and transform the performance of algorithmically driven media to power platform relevance (via Influencer Marketing, SEO and Social content).