Michigan Ross Professor Marcus Collins Explores the Importance of Culture in Marketing
Successful marketing should focus less on selling and more on understanding people, Ross School of Business Professor Marcus Collins argues in a new book.
For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be explores what “culture” really means, why it’s so powerful, and how to harness that power and inspire people to act. The book discusses topics like the three systems that constitute culture, the importance of “tribes” and “congregations”, and the ways that meaning is made, including a fascinating discussion of how the process can go wrong.
Collins draws on a variety of real-world examples — from his own successful marketing career as well as history and current events — to bring his points home. Each chapter ends with a section highlighting how professionals can put its lessons into practice.
Collins answered a few questions about some of the insights in the book:
You note that you never really thought that writing a book would be something you would do in your career. What changed to bring this book about?
During the pandemic, I began to host office hours online for students, entrepreneurs, job seekers, and the like who are looking to level-up their skills and broaden their perspective. I realized that I could scale my potential impact by writing a book and helping more people realize their potential.
The word “culture” is used a lot, but its real meaning is often misunderstood. What is the single biggest thing that people get wrong about the concept?
The challenge with our understanding of culture is that we don’t have the best language to describe it. Culture is abstract and amorphous, and we tend to describe it as such. Moreover, since we don’t have concrete language to describe culture, it becomes terribly difficult to operationalize it.
I tend to think about culture through the perspective of Emil Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology. He describes culture as a system of values, norms, and symbols that demarcate the expectations and convenes of a given group of people. It’s through this frame that I find my favorite definition of culture: culture is a realized meaning-making system. Said differently, culture is the system by which we translate the world around us, which influences our collective behavior.
What makes culture such a powerful force in influencing behavior?
There’s no force more influential to human behavior than culture because culture is the governing operating system of mankind. Culture informs how we see the world and, consequently, sways how we show up in the world.
What we buy, what we wear, what we drive, where we go to school, if we go to school, who we marry, if we marry, how we vacation, how we bury the dead, and just about every decision we make is a byproduct of our cultural subscription, and culture moves forward based on one simple question: “Do people like me do something like this?” If the answer is “yes,” we do it. If the answer is “no,” we don’t.
How well do you think that today’s typical marketing department understands the importance of culture?
Today’s marketers intuitively understand the importance of culture, which is why we say things like, “let’s get our idea out into culture” or “let’s inform our idea with culture insights” or “let’s study what’s going on in culture so that our idea resonates with people.” We get the importance, no question. However, we fall short in our ability to extract these understandings or even pinpoint exactly what to look for in culture or how to use it.
One powerful insight in the book is your point about persuading non-believers — that people convert people — and that therefore the traditional marketing “funnel” concept is inefficient. Do you think the entire field needs to make a major shift in thinking on this point?
Absolutely. The truth of the matter is that people rely on people more than they do marketing communications. In fact, we trust strangers more than we trust marketers — just consider how much we value Amazon reviews over value propositions of the product. We rely on the recommendations of people, especially our people. Therefore, it would benefit marketers to activate the people who already believe so that they might feel compelled to convert the non-believers.
You discuss how culture is constantly changing, and it’s critical to marketers to keep up. How can we become better aware of any particular blind spots we may have?
This is the paradox. We have more data than ever before, so marketers rely on the false sense of security that more information will help them get closer. But that’s not entirely so. Closeness requires intimacy, and therein lies the rub: we mistake information for intimacy. Yet, the two are not analogous.
If we want to reveal any potential blind spots, we have to get closer. We have to learn to see the world through the culturally constituted lenses by which people translate the world around them. We do this through ethnographic, netnographic, and anthropological research methods where we situate ourselves in the cultural setting of our target and learn how they make meaning.
How can marketers make sure they stay on the right side of the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is about power. It’s about people with power taking the cultural markers of a marginalized group of people, and giving these markers new meaning with no regard for its history or origin. This can be easily mitigated by having greater intimacy and more empathy.
Is there anything else in particular you’d like people to know about the book?
This is not a marketing book, it’s a people book. It’s a book to help people get people to move, whether you have “marketer” in your title or not. It’s a book for anyone with a vested interest in getting people to take action — from managers to entrepreneurs, politicians to activists.
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