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'Cultural Impact' Isn't What You Think it is

Brands that understand the meaning of cultural impact have deeper and more influential relationships with their audience, says Base Design creative director Daniel Peterson.

Recently I’ve been asking a lot of questions of my colleagues in New York, Brussels, Geneva and Melbourne in an attempt to articulate what connects our work across the oceans. What does it mean to work simultaneously with the largest tech company in the world and a small artist-run initiative in Melbourne? How might the experience working with a bank in Brussels relate to that of a watchmaker in Geneva? And why should we care?

Branding, at its core, is the act of influencing perception. Where marketing and advertising emphasise the extraction of value, branding focuses on strategically building value from the ground up: Rather than measuring success through an economic lens, the impact of branding can be considered first and foremost as cultural. Whether you’re a sole trader, a company, a market or even a nation, cultural influence is key—but it’s the brands that maintain this influence within their communities that go on to define entire industries. This is what we call cultural impact.

More than just a viral Twitter meme, the concept of cultural impact isn’t new—but it is ever-changing. Any business that survived 2020 will tell you brands need to evolve as the world transforms around them. But this doesn’t mean being a "crisis chameleon" and rehashing your brand at every turn. It actually suggests the opposite: that brands with a strong sense of who they are will adapt to change far better than those without. These are brands with the most potential for cultural impact.

Cultural impact starts from within

Unless your team truly believes in it, the reality is that your brand is nothing but a PDF. In other words: cultural impact always starts from within your own company culture.

When a company’s vision is strong, inclusive and honest, team members are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and pride in that brand. A grandiose manifesto may look good on paper but if it isn’t grounded in reality—and actively upheld by its creators—then it’s really just a concept. But when that manifesto plays out in the day-to-day operations of a business, that influence naturally ripples outwards and enables public perceptions to shift. This is where cultural impact really begins.

I recently saw this at work with PSLab, an innovative global lighting brand founded in Beirut, Lebanon (and a longstanding client of ours). PSLab eschews the flashy visuals and luxurious production values typical of their industry in favor of honesty and cohesion: there are no catalogues, no standard molds, and no logo. We helped PSLab frame these ideas in a pragmatic eight-point philosophy that underpins everything they do—but their idiosyncratic way of working was already there.

Elsewhere, I like to look to the example of Telfar. When their signature bag became virtually impossible to find outside of the wildly inflated secondary market, it would have been easy for them to capitalize on the hype the way we’ve seen brands like Supreme, Off-White and Chanel do. But Telfar did the opposite: by launching its ‘Bag Security Program’—a 24-hour sale offering every size and color for pre-order—it made its most coveted product more accessible. It’s one thing to have a lofty tagline like Telfar’s (“It's not for you—it's for everyone”), but it’s quite another to actually embody it.

It’s my belief that brand (and by extension, its impact) can’t be manufactured—it must be revealed, cultivated and continually built upon over time. Good branding is a process of uncovering something that’s already there, articulating it clearly and pinpointing (or creating) its place in the cultural landscape.

It’s about more than "authenticity"

“Nothing is original,” declared filmmaker Jim Jarmusch in a 2004 interview, in which he encourages aspiring directors to steal from anywhere that fuels inspiration, whether it’s films, books, paintings, trees, shadows or even overheard conversations. (Even Jarmusch’s declaration itself is adapted from a quote by his contemporary Jean Luc Godard.) Tongue firmly in cheek, he continues: “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

Nowhere is authenticity a more slippery concept than in the realm of branding. In recent years, the shift toward so-called ‘authentic’ brands has relegated the term to jargon and the concept close to meaningless. And if Jarmusch is right that nothing is really original, then "authenticity" is nothing more than the admission that this is true.

I always encourage the brands I work with to be honest about who they are and what they offer, but it’s a fine line: try too hard to "keep it real: and you’ll end up on Brands Saying Bae; don’t try hard enough, and you’ll fade into the background. When it comes to cultural impact, it’s the brands that are honest with themselves that maintain a stronger sense of identity and that go on to foster loyal, long-lasting relationships with their audiences.

It’s easy to assume these kinds of brands are the exception, but more and more I find they’re becoming the rule. Look at Muji, Ikea, Patagonia, Vegemite, Chobani, and Aldi—just a few of the brands that demonstrate the power of honesty and cultivating relationships. Oatly is another great example: a brand that embraces an "it is what it is" approach to the degree that it becomes almost subversive. Or the egalitarian (if you can afford it), word-of-mouth independence of Rachel Comey. Connecting these brands is a certain self-awareness and an acknowledgement of both their context and their limitations. It also doesn’t hurt that they take care not to subscribe to current trends.

Cultural impact ≠ mainstream appeal

Cultural impact isn’t just the domain of global names like Nike, Apple and Google. For smaller brands, tapping into the mainstream is always tempting (who wouldn’t want the opportunity to speak to everyone, everywhere?) but in reality, very few brands find success with such a broad audience. At the core of cultural impact, really, is subculture.

Nowhere is this truer than in the music industry. Brian Eno summed it up well in 1982 when he said: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” He’s referring to the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico: completely undervalued (not to mention a financial failure) in its time, but an album that would go on to become one of the most influential ever released in history.

It’s a story all brands can learn from. Daring to deviate from the more polished sounds and PG-rated lyrics of their peers, Lou Reed and the Velvets didn’t bother trying to position themselves in the mainstream; they kicked down the door and carved out their own place instead.

With this in mind, I always operate on the assumption that each and every client—no matter the scale of the company—holds the potential to do the same in their sector. This means considering who your brand is for, above all others, and zeroing in on that audience. It may seem counterintuitive to preach accessibility while recommending exclusivity, but the hard work of defining your brand often only comes through this focus.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution

Working with brands of all shapes and sizes, I know the meaning of "cultural impact" will inevitably vary in every context—but each project we take on is underpinned by the same sense of responsibility and custodianship around what makes each brand special. As Mazdack Rassi, owner of Milk (one of Base’s long-standing clients) says: “One of the things we try not to do is define what our brand is. It should be up to others–depending on where our brand touches them–to define what we are.”

When it comes down to it, ‘cultural impact’ isn’t about having the widest reach or being everything to everyone: it’s about knowing your community, knowing your place in the world and embracing it in every step of your story.

Written by Base Melbourne co-founder Daniel Peterson.