The Evolution of Culture and Brands
November 22nd | 2016

It was “Too Many Cooks,” the Adult Swim video released a couple years ago, that made me realize something important was happening. At the surface, it’s a comedy based on the opening credits to a stereotypical sitcom (which gets progressively weirder and weirder). But its true genius is that it’s using cultural nuance as the basis of its comedy.

It recognized that culture had become a shared language. That our grasp of culture and fluency in culture have never been higher. I wanted to understand why.

A look back at brands and culture

It’s important to note that for most of human history, the role of culture was to limit progress by preserving traditions and rituals and ensuring that ideas were handed down faithfully from one generation to the next.

That changed relatively recently with the invention of mass media. Television reshaped communal life — lessening the impact of family and other members of your community. Media, both its owners and its sponsors, had more influence on culture overall. They understood culture could be manipulated to create demand.

The re-launch of Braniff Airlines in 1965 was the zenith of this. In a time where air travel was militaristic, planes were drab, and flight staff wore fatigues, Braniff Airlines created a lifestyle for people to aspire to — jet setting. They created a culture that reshaped the world and established the idea that brands could create and drive culture toward commercial goals.

Braniff Ad, via The Dallas Morning News

The belief that brands drive culture still exists in certain circles, but in the 90s the situation started to change. Media fragmented and culture followed. Post modernism became the central cultural theme — the breakdown of institutions, and the dissolution of barrier and borders. Tools of culture creation fell into the hands of everyday people with the affordability of personal computers and mobile phones. Culture creation became democratized as people expressed ideas by appropriating, cutting and pasting.

Brands could no longer clearly claim to be the sole creators of culture, so new ideas about branding emerged.

In 2004, Douglas Holt published his first book on cultural branding — the first time culture was formally integrated into any theory of brands. Holt proposed that postmodern culture had created fractures through tension, and powerful brands were ways to resolve that tension by aligning with values. Successful brands tapped into beliefs that cut across different societal divisions and helped reconcile those divisions.

It was an admission that the relationship between brands and culture had changed — culture drives brands and not the other way around.


Brands and culture today

The last decade has brought even more change at an even faster rate. Culture is more fractured and fragmented than it has ever been, but our response to these rifts is different.

Cultural researchers are starting to see a new movement emerge — a post-postmodern culture. It borrows the same technique of appropriation and remixing from postmodernism, but where postmodernism was about protest, post-postmodernism is about progress.

We aren’t looking for simple reconciliation between ideas or happy endings. In fact, we prefer messy, complex authenticity to overly simplistic stories that we’ve heard before.

Post-postmodern culture contains more stories, more ideas, and more complexity. Stories that are rich in nuance and meaning. Stories that are at once disruptive and subtle. This is evident not only in the media that we consume, but also in the media we create.

We have developed a cultural vernacular that allows almost anyone to quickly communicate ideas that carry an enormous amount of meaning. It’s why “Too Many Cooks” works so well.

It’s not simply that culture has shifted; there’s actually been a profound shift in the role of culture. Rather than holding us back, culture is moving us forward faster than ever.

Charles Perrault, a professor in human evolution and social change, conducted a study examining the relationship between cultural evolution and human evolution. His research confirmed the hypothesis that culture is essentially a second inheritance mechanism that operates in conjunction with our genetic system.

But, unlike our genetic system, which can't change very quickly, culture allows us to evolve over short-time scales, which are normally accessible only to short-lived species. The reason culture now moves quickly is because we face an evolutionary need to adapt, one that our genes can’t keep up with, so we’re using culture as our proxy.


Not surprisingly, this shift has created new thinking about brands. Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch have the most convincing thinking yet. Their model says brands are platforms that deliver a set of valuable services to their customers.

Today’s brands aren’t simply driven by culture, they serve culture. And the vital service today’s brands perform? Help people live in the future. As evidence:

  • Zara brings designs from the runway to retail in 14 days and have blown up the typical seasonality trend with constant refreshes.
  • Nike finally released its self-lacing shoes from “Back to the Future.”
  • Apple innovates continually, yet still isn’t fast enough for many of us.
  • Tesla had more than 35,000 orders for a car that doesn’t exist yet.

Brands today enable cultural progress, which enables human progress. This isn’t simply product innovation. Brands are also addressing issues of social progress like gender, income, and sexual preference equality. The demand for progress has created huge opportunities for brands to help.

All of this has huge impact on our roles as marketers. While we can no longer drive culture, we can serve it. And we can make change real in the world through the choices we make about the future(s) we enable.