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Culture: The Dark Matter of Capitalism

May 28, 2021


Culture: The Dark Matter of Capitalism

I recently stumbled across this essay on how design has abandoned the “culture” concept. McCracken traces how we’ve moved from culture as tradition to culture as change. He also points to fragmentation alongside flow. That’s something I think a lot of us have felt: in the 1950s, “culture” was (on the surface) unified. Today, we see hundreds of little cultural groups—niches—operating.

McCracken calls culture the “dark matter of capitalism,” because it can’t be quantified. It doesn’t fit into algorithms. It’s emotional, not rational; social, not individual. And that’s why we’re tempted to leave it behind—it doesn’t seem useful to us. But he argues that culture does a lot of work—and even more now.

McCracken wants designers to take up the culture concept. I also wondered if there’s a place for it in marketing.

Culture Is All about Meaning

Marketing is all about messaging, which means we’re communicating meaning. Everything we do—from the colours we put on our website to the words we use in our slogans—has to do with that message.

And this means marketing is directly related to McCracken’s “culture concept.” Culture is about meanings, he says, meanings that we, as groups, define.

That’s why meanings shift and change between places. If you go to England, masculinity is different to British men than it is here in Canada or in the US. That’s because, as groups, we have different ideas of what it means to be a man. That leads to different rules, different ways of acting. If you hop over to China or Japan, you’ll see a new set of rules again.

These meanings also change within different subgroups—niches, mini-cultures, if you will. Masculinity in biker gangs is different than masculinity for comic book geeks or construction workers. Of course, lots of us have membership in multiple groups or multiple “cultures”—so a construction worker might also be a comic book geek or a biker (or all three!).

The point still stands: groups make meaning, which is what “culture” is all about. I’ve talked before about metaphor, how we’re always using it in marketing. That ties back to McCracken’s culture concept. Language conveys meanings—which are the rules, the fabric that make up culture.

So, what marketing does is twofold: we’re both decoding culture and encoding it. We’re looking for trends or currents, the meanings and metaphors, in any of our audiences. Then we can learn how to “speak” to them. And then we’re also encoding meanings. Sometimes, we’re mirroring meaning back. Sometimes we’re actively involved in making it.

What Does This Mean for Brands?

I think this is important at the moment, because McCracken is right: culture has changed. Even if culture has always been changing, there has been a big shift in the last 20 or 30 years. That’s thanks to the Internet—which gave space to a lot of “subcultures,” letting them flourish in new ways. It's not unusual for someone to hop online to discuss their favourite TV show with a group. Thirty years ago, you would have been part of nerd culture—and definitely not “normal.”

The Internet let these subcultures connect like they’d never done before. That made them more mainstream, more "normal." And it let them grow. People saw more chatter about comic books and they wanted to get in on it. So now we can have big-budget MCU films. Everyone is talking about WandaVision or The Mandolorian.

In short, this subculture has gone “mainstream.” But what’s more here is that it’s not just that this subculture has “gone mainstream.” It’s that we can see all these different subcultures that were invisible to us before. And it’s easier than ever for people to move between groups, joining this subculture or that one over there. There’s a lot of overlap, and that means any “small” group can blow up and become more “mainstream.”

Basically, we can see way more subcultural groups and it’s easier to “belong” to any or all of them, easier to get traction. That’s where we end up in the constant state of change, like McCracken says. Culture is now all about change—here today, gone tomorrow. Change is the only constant.

Where does this leave our brands? Again, we have to think of our roles as encoders/decoders of meaning. We both interpret and make meaning.

And that’s why brand identity is more important than ever. We have to know who we are if we want to “join” any group. Think about all the talk about marketing to Gen Z right now. Sure, we can “decode” their language and mirror it back at them—but that’s hollow.

Why? Because we’re not picking up on the culture—the rules, the metaphor, the deeper meaning behind the language. To get at that, we have to understand identity—and identity comes from values, purpose. We then communicate identity as a way of relating to each other. So, we need to understand our own identities—meanings, values, purposes—and how those relate to a Gen Z identity.

It’s easier to see this in action. We know Gen Z is skeptical of brands, but we also know they want to trust us. They want to get fired up about a brand, to “stan” us, if you will. To do that, though, they have to figure out if our identities “click." Are we speaking the same language, communicating the same messages? In short, do we share the same values, the same rules, the same culture?

So, for Gen Z, trust means that we put our money where our mouths are. We don’t just talk the talk; we walk the walk and we put it all on social media authentically. We need to “be real” with them.

So, let’s say honesty and integrity are two values our company holds dear. That plays back into trust: we want our customers to be able to trust us, to know they can turn to us. We’re reliable in a sense.

For Gen Z, that doesn’t mean we need to be stuffy or stodgy. If we rely on our reputation, slogans like “like a good neighbour,” we’re not communicating with Gen Z the right way.

So we have to adapt to their culture—the rules of honesty, integrity, reliability are different. They’re enacted differently in this culture. So if we want to be part of it, we need to decode/encode meaning and metaphor for this group.

That means we have to be sure of our own values and identity before we begin. So, start with the why!


A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!

I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles, I have written to inspire others

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