Cultural encounters of the third kind(s)

Cultural encounters of the third kind(s)

We need to understand ‘the most powerful force to influence consumer behaviour’ to leverage them on behalf of brands.

Have you ever seen the iconic movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind? I’ll be honest, I hadn’t until I came up with this headline. So, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I asked ChatGPT for a synopsis. It turns out that some of the key themes overlap with a subject closer to my heart: cultural encounters.

Culture is an omnipresent force that shapes our lives. It influences how we think, behave and make decisions. When we subscribe to a culture, it defines how we see ourselves and the world around us. And, like outer space, it can feel nebulous, mysterious and perhaps alien to those outside a specific cultural group.

Marcus Collins’ brilliant book For the Culture outlines how culture is “the most powerful force to influence consumer behaviour”. If that’s the case, we need to understand the key drivers of culture and how we can leverage them on behalf of our clients and their brands.

In the film, we follow government investigations into symbols and signals as they attempt to unearth mysterious happenings. This investigative approach is also key for us to understand culture, as groups and tribes adopt language and artefacts to represent their beliefs.

When brands adopt these signals correctly, it can allow them to be assimilated into a cultural group and gain a greater influence on people’s lives.

So we must be obsessive about the pursuit of cultural understanding, much like (conveniently for my tenuous narrative) when lead character Roy Neary forms an obsession following a close encounter with a UFO.

Contributing to culture

By understanding how people behave in certain groups and the signals they use to demonstrate their belonging, we can determine how to transition from a brand interrupting their culture to a brand integrated within their world.

Too often, we attempt to connect brands to cultural moments by merely showing up around them, rather than actively contributing to them.

Whether it’s an influencer’s post on Instagram, the FA Cup final or last night’s Big Brother, each interaction with a cultural moment is an opportunity to enhance people’s experience of a brand and contribute to the culture.

There are three kinds of these “cultural encounters”:

  • Influential voices: these are the catalysts of opinion, ranging from celebrities and TV moments to micro-influencers and fanzines
  • Active communities: where conversation and participation happen, sharing a specific connection or moment
  • Euphoric fandom: the passions and interests that capture a disproportionate share of people’s attention and engagement


Enhancing cultural encounters

Resourceful marketers have been leveraging cultural encounters for decades. The fun lies in bringing these encounters together, optimising towards those that have a disproportionate influence on our specific audience and their cultural subscriptions. This allows us to better communicate our brand messaging in an ever-changing environment.

The proliferation of technology has supercharged our ability to discover, participate in and consume culture. However, it has also made it harder to navigate and penetrate with impactful brand messaging.

Instead of returning to conventional thinking with “paid, owned and earned” frameworks or planning by channel, we should strive to enhance people’s cultural encounters by better understanding how to add value to the moment, rather than just surrounding it.

To do this, we need deep cultural intelligence to understand how to be in culture. This means adding value to cultural moments and contributing to the overall experience.

This doesn’t mean that traditional approaches don’t work, but it challenges us to think beyond them to strive for something better — something out of this world.

According to ChatGPT, Close Encounters of the Third Kind explores themes of curiosity, wonder and a desire for connection. If we apply the same principles to our brands, perhaps we can use cultural encounters to have a greater influence on consumer behaviour.

Sam Bird is managing director, content and brand experience, at Wavemaker

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