Marketing, in its simplest form, is the art of making your brand relevant to your audience. "Relevant" in this context translates to 230% more revenue and 1,000% more growth, as detailed in the Prophet Brand Relevance Index for 2019.

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But becoming (and staying) relevant vexes large and small organizations alike. Best-selling author Jonah Berger and Initiative's global head of strategy, Stefan Burford, provide a road map to brand relevance in their new book, Cultural Velocity: Making Ideas Move.

In the book, they deconstruct the marketing approaches of various successful brands, including Nike, Google, LEGO, Volvo, and KFC. Using insights from that analysis, the authors detail a series of road maps for brands on using insight to make their ideas "move" in culture. This "cultural velocity" is the fast track to relevance and, therefore, more growth.

I invited Jonah and Stefan to Marketing Smarts to discuss the book and to explain how cultural velocity benefits brands. 

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

"Cultural Velocity" can help brands to overcome short attention spans and achieve relevance (02:08): [Jonah]: "I think we often see things in the world catch on: brands, campaigns, ideas. They get a lot of attention. They get a lot of word-of-mouth. They get a lot of PR. They get a lot of people talking about them online and offline. And you might wonder why. Why do some brands—and some ideas, some messages, some campaigns—why do some of them have high velocity, moving through culture quickly and getting a lot of attention, why others don't. The folks at Initiative coined this term, 'cultural velocity,' to help us explain and understand how these things happen."

[Stef]: "If you think about the landscape, consumer attention has never been so valuable or so difficult to achieve. The media landscape is moving so fast, and there's more chance for consumers to avoid or skip traditional advertising than ever before. We also know that trust in the more traditional forms of advertising is getting lower and lower. The opportunity to create brand ideas that consumers want to share, talk about, and pass on is a powerful way for brands to become more relevant."

To create marketing that resonates, you have to listen first (04:25) [Jonah]: "First, listening, really picking up data signals within culture, not just coming up with campaigns outside of culture. But saying 'what is going on in culture at the moment,' 'what is going on with the consumer or customer I'm trying to reach, and how can I design my campaigns to be more effective based on what's happening in culture.' So listening to culture and then using culture as a channel, a diffusion mechanism, to get the word out. Both of those are critical to making successful campaigns.

"You can't just say, 'Oh, here's an idea; we came up with it by ourselves,' drop it into the world, and hope it'll succeed. You have to listen to cultural signals, use data that's available, and then deposit that campaign in culture and use it to diffuse the message."

Sometimes it pays to 'agitate' (07:00): "This idea of cultural agitation is that rather than standing on the sidelines, [you're] taking a controversial issue or person and taking a stand. We can think...of Nike and Colin Kaepernick...or similar sorts of campaigns. In the book, we talk about a German grocery store called Edeka who takes a stand in the immigration debate.

"Obviously immigration is a hot-button issue in the United States... Germany's no different. People are worried about immigrants coming in. Other people are saying 'immigrants make our country what it is....' Right-wing politicians are harnessing this to build anger and anxiety and political messages. What does a grocery store have to do with this? Well they take all the products that come from other countries off their shelves. There's no French cheese. There's no Italian tomatoes. There's no Spanish olives, or whatever it might be. They take them all off the shelf.

"You walk into this grocery store and it's completely empty. There are some things in there, but almost nothing. And they used this to make a stand against immigration. They said, 'Look, without all these things from all these other countries, your shopping experience, your life, wouldn't be the same as it is today.'

"Did everyone love that message? No. Some people didn't like it, but they got a lot of attention and some people agreed with it. And it really helped that brand to break through, even though it was a grocery store, which is not a category you think of as the most exciting. So that approach—taking a stand on an important issue, even if not necessarily everyone agrees with you—is a great way to help ideas move."

"Cultural Collision" is another route to relevance (09:00) [Stef]: "Cultural Collision is all about bringing two unexpected things together to create something that's surprising, exciting, and interesting. You see this a lot when brands and personalities come together. You see this where brands that, seemingly, on the surface, from two different worlds come together. And they come together to create interest and excitement and conversation.

"You see this a lot in fashion. It's a relatively well-used technique in that world, but if you take it out of that world and into a more familiar setting, let's say fast food. KFC is a brand that consistently uses this sense of cultural collision to create excitement and conversation. This is a master stroke because they have a huge competitor in their category, so they need to outsmart and outthink their competitor to create ideas that create conversation.

"The kinds of things that they do...they partnered with a really hip clothing brand called Human Made and created an exclusive line of clothes that had the Colonel on the jacket and all their iconography. But it was hyper-exclusive streetwear that was labeled 'KFC.' Why they did this was to gain attention for the brand in a new setting and in a new world. And it was to create conversation in culture about that brand and how interesting it is and how unexpected it is. They deploy this strategy consistently around the world in subtle and culturally astute ways."

"Cultural Velocity" drives relevance, and relevance drives sales (15:00) [Stef]: "We talk about some studies in the book that show a direct relationship. If you can improve your relevance as a brand, it will improve your sales. And that's a piece of research we quote in the book which gives a view that this more emotive style of brand marketing using culture as a vehicle drives relevance and relevance drives sales.

"Obviously the sales cycles are different in each category, but the prevailing relationship is true across any category. Because, if you think about it in a really top-line sense, if a brand becomes more relevant to an individual or a group of individuals, then the likelihood that that individual will go on and purchase that is greater. That relationship between relevance and sales exists. We know that. The to create relevance that drives sales."

To learn more, visit You can also follow the authors on Twitter at @j1berger and @stefanburford, and be sure to get your copy of Cultural Velocity: Making Ideas Move.

Jonah, Stef, and I talked about much more, including how to measure success (using other metrics in addition to increased sales), examples of how B2B and B2C brands have achieved cultural velocity, and the skills your team needs to achieve cultural velocity, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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