Navigating Culture Today

Navigating Culture Today

Most Shook Kelley projects focus on brand reinvention through strategy and design. One of the key strategy tools we employ, however, does not come from the worlds of business, marketing or design. It’s the capacity to navigate the cultural contexts where we live today.

Shook Kelley likes to watch. We like to watch how people encounter, use, perceive, digest, remember and catalog their everyday world. We love being professional voyeurs and learning about other cultures, whether they be surfers, bikers, bankers or chefs. We are up for partaking in just about any activity that involves culture and convening. The more obscure and obtuse, the better. We like to scan, sort, filter and catalog all of the culture we can find. And we like to explore how those cultures might relate to commerce, society, design and the human experience.

In the past year, as people search for answers to help explain the unexpected presidential election, a lot of journalists and observers have questioned the nature of American culture. In particular, they’ve asked: How did we not recognize what’s happening in Middle America? What’s really going on in the “flyover states”?

It’s not the answers, but the very framing of the questions that make us cringe.

Traditionally, most of Shook Kelley’s client brands have a consumer base in these so-called Middle America flyover states. In over two decades of experience working with these organizations, we have yet to encounter anybody who felt trapped in rural Illinois or imprisoned in West Texas. This may be surprising to some, but these guys—clients and consumers, both—don’t really care how we do things in Los Angeles!

Navigating culture and cultural sensitivity is critical to the work Shook Kelley does for clients around the country. We’re in the business of understanding all people: consumers, clients and their organizations. To be clear, we don’t know much about predicting elections or offering insights into politics, nor do we have much to say about the future of democracy. What we do know at Shook Kelley is how to tell a brand story with a genuine hook for any audience anywhere, the kinds of stories that get translated into distinctive, memorable and engaging retail environments.

Convening Before Community Was Cool

Working with Niemann Foods, Inc, based in Quincy, Illinois, Shook Kelley helped develop a new food retail brand called Harvest Market. The first Harvest Market store is located in Champaign, Illinois, but there are considerations to open more stores throughout NFI’s regional base in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Iowa. The story of this new brand was recently featured in Progressive Grocer. As you’ll read in more depth there, the brand’s story is a celebration of family-owned farms and pays homage to the value of farmers. The brand’s retail experience seeks to connect customers to the farm, through in-store storytelling, carefully selected product offerings and merchandising displays, among other vehicles. 

The Harvest Market brand story has drawn comparisons to Whole Foods, a brand that shares interests in food origins and agricultural processes. But without criticizing that very successful chain, there are important and somewhat subtle distinctions in the two brand stories’ that reveal significant cultural differences. For starters, the Whole Foods brand story actually represents a critique of the agriculture industry in America today, including critiques of factory farming, pesticide usage, humane treatment of animals and the intervention of massive global corporations in food production processes. Whole Foods offers consumers a form of critical resistance to many practices they disagree with, though they often do so as an undertone to increasingly well-received messages of foodie offerings and gourmet indulgence. Meanwhile, Harvest Market seeks to demonstrate a measure of gratitude for farmers and the well-established culture of farming. That’s not to say that the leaders at Niemann Foods don’t engage in the ongoing debates around the future of farming in the United States. They certainly do. But what’s often misunderstood by audiences outside of more agricultural-focused regions is that farmers and others whose livelihood is related to agriculture in one way or another have a different understanding and some highly original perspectives on these debates. For them, many of the contentious issues around agriculture and the food system are not clearcut or black and white, because these concerns are entangled with complex issues, such as economies of scale and the power of real consumer demand among Americans. If the Whole Foods cultural vision for the future of farming is having a New Yorker quit their high-stress job to start up a goat farm, the Harvest Market vision is rather about Midwestern farmers and makers digging back into their own food traditions and bringing back great cultural traditions. American farmers were into “organic” before organic was a thing, they were country before country was cool.

Meet the woman who quit her NYC job to run a baby goat sanctuary” Mashable

Leaving Academia to Become a First-Generation Farmer” The Atlantic

Leaving the Corporate World to Start Over on a Farm” Wall Street Journal

Another great client that has taught Shook Kelley a lot about American culture is Harley-Davidson. Mid-life crisis working class men are much maligned these days—and let’s face it, that’s the cultural core of the Harley audience (though arguably not always the brand’s demographic core customer). But once you get to know the Harley tribe and peel back the criminal misperceptions and angry male stereotypes, deeper cultural truths reveal themselves. Themes of patriotism or rugged masculinity are important elements of the brand’s image, but those stories alone still don’t quite get to the core cultural value of the brand. Instead, Shook Kelley’s work with Harley and a handful of Harley dealerships around the country have focused on the brotherhood, friendship and community that this great American brand generates. That’s the Harley brand’s Power To Convene. In our brand strategy and experience design work for Six Bends Harley-Davidson in Fort Myers, Florida, for example, we focused on creating a massive hangout, a sort of community center for like-minded people. It’s a place that makes people feel good, celebrates where they’re at in life and shows them that they’re part of the club. Harley has always been a tribe, and the brand has always owned a unique power to bring people together. This convening was happening just about anywhere. A primary goal of Six Bends was figuring out how to create a place that purposely convenes people at the dealership itself, and then might derive other benefits from drawing larger crowds of people who linger and seek out activities, including shopping, eating and drinking.

Some Thoughts On Finding Cultural Relevance

Telling a brand story well requires understanding the cultural values of a particular place and audience. Not every brand does this well, but some that we call “culturally aware brands” do.

Great brands change people. And for brands seeking reinvention, this is especially important. But if you want to navigate culture in a sensitive way you have to embrace, rather paradoxically, a philosophy of acceptance. Don’t try to change people. So what to do then? Understand that people want to change. And then listen to how they would like to change, how they’re already changing and how they want to make change happen. Consider the example of SoulCycle, a fitness destination focused on spinning. Their goal is to change people, on a physical and perhaps spiritual level, by tapping into and building a unique community. (Click here to learn more about SoulCycle’s secret to  building community as Kevin Kelley interviews Senior Master Instructor, Stacey Griffith.)

Great brands respect people. They speak most effectively when they speak in everyday language and in a voice that relates to people. When in doubt about how to do this, Shook Kelley always goes back to the client to bounce ideas and make sure that our clients understand without needing much extra explanation. Clients offer perhaps the best direction when they stick to the cultural roots of their consumers. We usually don’t need clients to be arbiters of taste or provide aesthetic direction—that’s not usually a position they’re best suited for, though there are exceptions—as much as we need clients who can be honest about who they really are and self-reflexive. Of course, many organizations out there find themselves in an identity crisis: they don’t understand exactly who they are and/or who they’re becoming. Shook Kelley’s best work usually happens when we hear a client tell us that we’ve told their story well, that we truly and deeply understand who they are and who their customer is. One recent client described his new store prototype as a kind of autobiography of their organization, but told through the medium of a retail environment.

There are many great examples today of brands that demonstrate respect. One favorite is Patagonia, a clothing and outdoors company, whose mission goes well beyond the values of a typical fashion brand. Patagonia is deeply involved in environmental activism issues, not only by donating to causes, but also by telling stories to customers online and in their catalogs which read more like magazine content. They take the message even further, providing detailed information to customers about actual factories where products are stitched. Defying nearly every convention of the fashion industry, not only does Patagonia criticize the fast-pace of fashion cycles today and the waste it produces, they are actively helping consumers mend their old, worn clothing—as their CEO puts it, “repair is a radical act.” By respecting the product, Patagonia also puts its values out there and creates meaningful connection with many consumers.

Great brands care about people. They respond, react or engage with many of society’s great fears, but they also find ways to genuinely engage with people, too. No group of Americans can simply be described as angry or hateful. What the media representations of so many Americans today are putting on display is defensiveness. Underneath that is a layer of hope, care and, perhaps above all, gratitude. When working Americans listen to critical messages coming from the media world today, we understandably hear a lot of defiance and defensiveness. That’s because the critique is aimed at them, their livelihoods, identities and values. But if we take the case of Harvest Market, you can see a brand that is concerned about the problems of the food world, but is also grateful for the work farmers do.

Universal principles for brands, retail design and human experiences exist. They’re real and typically withstand different cultural contexts (unless you’re considering a new store in a very exotic location). And Shook Kelley employs many of these universal principles for every project we work on. 

But increasingly, the era of big, one-stop brands that can capture the entirety of American culture has faded. We live in a diverse, multicultural world, defined by pluralism, which impacts everything from voting preferences to the kind of food we eat. While we all continue to have common bonds and ways of communicating, we’re also seeing culture flourish, multiply and expand. Brands in various industries, from food to retail, and from finance to automobiles, are all part of this rapidly expanding field of cultural production. And brands that can best capture the cultural values of a given audience are also well-situated to benefit and prosper, too.


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