In 2015, REI launched a bold Black Friday strategy. Instead of following the lead of other major retailers and opening its doors at the crack of dawn, the outdoor recreation shop announced that it would close all of its 142 locations, suspend online sales, and pay its employees to #OptOutside and enjoy nature.
The campaign was a huge success. State parks are usually closed that day, but hundreds of them opened their gates, and 170 other businesses and organizations followed REI’s lead and shut down for the day. Even better (for the brand), REI experienced its highest Black Friday sales ever that weekend.
Why did such a massive gamble pay off? Because of culture, says Marcus Collins, an award-winning marketer and cultural translator who’s worked with brands like Google, Nike, Beyoncé, and the Brooklyn Nets. In his book, For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be, Collins explains how you can harness the power of congregations, rivalries, linguistics, and meaning making to create a larger community behind your brand.
- Don’t look for an audience when you can find a congregation instead.
In the run-up to the 2011 holiday shopping season, Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with a provocative headline: “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET. ” “It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns red to black and starts to make real money,” the company explained below the fold. “But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red.”
It was a courageous plea for sustainability that communicated the company’s core principles, and similar to REI’s #OptOutside campaign, Patagonia followed up with concrete actions. They not only promised to repair every single product that they’d sold — indefinitely — but they also offered to repair non-Patagonia products as well. In addition, they opened an exchange to help sell second-hand products and offered to exchange unsalvageable products for store credit. The message to consumers was clear: Patagonia cares about the environment, perhaps as much as you do.
With this campaign, Patagonia didn’t waste time trying to make the case that reducing, reusing, and recycling are important. It took that as a given fact for its congregation. As it relates to culture, a congregation is a group of people who share the same worldview, which influences their shared way of life, outward expression, commerce, and collective consumption. Congregations buy your products as an outward sign of their beliefs, as opposed to a target audience, which buys your products because of their perceived value. Congregations don’t need to be persuaded. They just need to be discovered and activated.
- A rivalry (and the community behind it) is stronger than a brand.
The Brooklyn Nets hadn’t even played their first game, and already public perception was against them in the fall of 2012. Not only was the NBA team being transplanted from New Jersey and coming with a losing record, but it was also taking over the Barclays Center, a polarizing venue that had been frequently protested by locals for displacing businesses and homeowners.
So, Collins knew that the best strategy was to avoid referencing the team directly, at least at first. He and his team leveraged something even more powerful than Brooklynites’ love of basketball: their home borough pride. They asked notable hometown heroes, like Gym Class Heroes frontman Travis McCoy, to tweet a canonical Beastie Boys phrase — “Hello Brooklyn” — without mentioning the Nets. The goal at this stage was to build anticipation and excitement, not to hard-sell the new franchise.
Collins and company then rented billboards in the highest-traffic areas of Brooklyn, and they started teasing the team’s debut with slogans like, “Brooklyn’s always had balls, now it’s official. #HelloBrooklyn.” Then they really upped the ante. Brooklyn has always had a love-hate relationship with the borough across the river, which Collins capitalized on by buying ads at the most highly trafficked subway stops from Brooklyn to Manhattan. “Bridges will be crossed. #HelloBrooklyn.” Brooklynites love their neighborhood even more when it’s stacked up against their New York City rivals.
For months, the team never directly mentioned basketball, Barclays, or the Nets. Instead, they slowly revealed details about the franchise, and the stealth campaign worked. Before the roster of the team was announced, the team had sold more gear than the New Jersey Nets typically sold in a year. Why? Because Brooklynites had bought into what the posters, hats, and jerseys represented: pride in their borough (and a pie in the face to their frenemies across the river).
- You must use the right language to connect with your community.
In the 1980s, Texas was spending nearly $20 million a year to clean up litter, and lawmakers responded with a fleet of “Do Not Litter” signs posted around the state’s highways. These were, to no one’s surprise, a colossal failure. No one, especially not Texans, appreciates being told what to do, and the littering continued.
A Texas-based ad agency then tried a different strategy: As opposed to lecturing Texans, they appealed to their pride. Their new signs read “Don’t mess with Texas,” a linguistic shift that really did change people’s behavior. Between 1987 and 1990, litter decreased 72% statewide.
Words matter, and how we understand them comes from four primary sources. The first is from advertising, like the anti-littering campaign in Texas. The second is the media, which promote words and phrases, like the “Great Recession.” The third is high-esteem individuals. For example, Beyoncé inverted the meaning of the seafood chain Red Lobster when she said, “When he f* me good, I take his a to Red Lobster (‘cause I slay).” The fourth is fringe society, which can adopt and give new meaning to words and symbols, like the LGBTQIA’s use of “queer” and the rainbow flag.
- What you intend may not be what the audience takes away
In 2019, Peloton released an ad for its high-end stationary bike. In it, a woman named Grace shares videos of her Peloton journey, from nervously riding her first day to slowly developing a daily habit to eagerly jumping out of bed to have a spin at 6 a.m. At the end of the video, we realize that the clips are part of a thank-you video that Grace has made for her husband, who gifted her the bike.
While well-intentioned, the spot immediately ignited controversy, with one Twitter user writing, “Nothing says ‘maybe you should lose a few pounds’ like gifting your already rail thin life partner a Peloton.” The company’s stock reportedly fell by 9% as a result of the backlash, and Peloton eventually issued an apology about how the spot was “misinterpreted.” However, the problem wasn’t that the audience misread the meaning.
Especially at a time when many people were challenging the objectification of women and the prevalence of diet culture, Peloton failed to “read the room.” If they had slightly tweaked the script to give Grace more agency (by having the husband say something like, “Hey, I got you the Peloton you wanted”), the interpretation of the ad would likely have been different. Grace would’ve been seen as the driving force behind getting the bike, not a passive participant, a meaning that many more people could’ve gotten behind.