Marcus Collins on Decoding Culture and Connection for Brands

    Once we see the world the way other people do, we set aside our own biases.


    From Beyoncé to Budweiser, Marcus Collins has helped some of the biggest names in American entertainment and business better understand and connect with their audiences.

    A professor at the University of Michigan (Stephen M. Ross School of Business)—where he earned a degree in materials science engineering and a master’s in strategic brand marketing—he brought his academic insights and marketplace expertise together in last year’s bestselling For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be.

    God-is Rivera, chief content officer at Essence Ventures and former vice president for inclusive marketing at The Walt Disney Company, described Collins’ book as “a must- have for any leader, marketer, or simply any person who wants to understand how culture impacts the world around us and how they can [create] impactful contributions to the tapestry of what shapes human connection.”

    With a doctorate in marketing from Temple University in Philadelphia, Collins wrote the book as a primer for students and clients alike, the “starting ground for a conversation” about culture and how to engage with it effectively. He spoke with WayMaker Journal about his work in a conversation that has been edited for length.

    WayMaker Journal: Let’s start with the basics: what do we mean by culture?

    Marcus Collins: We use the word so much in our normal vernacular, especially in business: “What’s happening in culture?” “Let’s get ideas out in the culture.” “We have a good culture here.” But if you ask five people to define it, man, you get so many different answers… and therefore, we don’t do a really good job of operationalizing it. I think about culture through a Durkheimian lens: he was one of the founding fathers of sociology, and he talks about culture as a system of conventions and expectations that demarcate who we are and govern what people like us do. There’s a system of norms, there’s a system of language, of artifacts, of behaviors that are acceptable for people like us. It’s anchored in our identity, who we are, and that is multi-hyphenated. I’m a professor: that’s one referent. We have group references. I’m in a fraternity called Phi Beta Sigma. I’m a father of two girls, a girl dad: that’s an abstract referent. And because of who I am, I see the world a certain way. I have a certain set of ideologies, of beliefs that translate how I see the world. That’s why for some, a cow is leather, for others a deity, for some it’s dinner. Which one is it? It’s all those things. For some, a rug is decor, for others, it’s a souvenir, for some it’s a place of worship. Which one is it? It’s all those things, depending on who you are.

    WJ: Isn’t culture always changing, evolving? 

    MC: The way the literature talks about it is that there’s slow culture and fast culture. The slow culture is sort of the anchoring parts—the beliefs and ideologies. Those things don’t change as quickly; they change over time, gradually. But the ways by which they manifest—that is, fast culture—change quite rapidly. The clothes we wear: what was in two months ago may not be in right now. The language we use: terms that were cool a few years ago are not so cool now. Things that were acceptable before aren’t very acceptable today. As media consumption is so prevalent, salient and so fast, we get exposed to so many different things, and therefore we’re constantly negotiating: Do we do this? Is this cool? Is this in? Those things have a very fast cycle of change… this is where it becomes difficult for companies, for brands, for institutions, for organizations that want to be a part of a particular culture. They’ll do a big research undertaking in January, and they’re like, “We’re going to revisit this next January,” as if things aren’t going to change in those 12 months. Of course they’re going to change. So, what I always urge my clients to do and my students to do is to start with who these people are, how they self-identify, not the boxes you put them in. Not Gen Z, millennial, not that, but how do they self-identify? If we start there, we get a sense of who these people are… and that level of intimacy helps us not only understand today, but in many ways, sort of predict what’s going to happen, because you can start to read the tea leaves as if you were part of the community.

    WJ: How do you help businesses engage with culture?

    MC: Because most of us don’t have great language to define culture, the word becomes a shortcut for popularity, a shortcut for cool. So, if someone says, “I want to get my brand out in the culture,” what they mean is, “I want my brand to be popular.” We end up studying trends as a shortcut for culture: Where are people going? Where are they eating? All that is the manifestations of all the things that are happening underneath. Because we don’t have the right language, we sort of miss what it means. [When people say they want to reach Gen Z, I point out that] if you grew up in Westchester, New York, going to prep school, and you happen to be 17 years old, your lived experience and your reality of the world is far different than someone who lives just a few miles south of you in the South Bronx, who went to public school and comes from a family with lower socioeconomic status. It’s their lived experience that shapes their reality of what is true, that informs how they translate the world. The idea of tapping into culture, being a part of culture, is how do we be a part of the social facts that govern how they see the world and how they translate the world? That is, how do we be a part of the way by which people signal to the world their identity? How do we become the cultural production that’s not only expressive of who they are, but will reflect what people like them do?

    WJ: Can you be just a part of the culture, in the same way some people take parts of the Bible that work for them but not the parts that don’t?

    MC: Let’s stick with the religious metaphor, because I like that a lot. We talk about being “Sunday Christians”: you party Monday to Saturday, but Sunday you’ve got the Holy Ghost. [The New Testament book of] Revelation says you can’t be lukewarm. Be either hot or cold, but if you’re lukewarm, Jesus will spit you out of his mouth. I think that’s how it goes when it comes to anything social in nature. As people, we were wired to be connected. What that means then is that we find community, people like ourselves, and in these collectives, we negotiate and construct what’s acceptable, what is expected of us. If you are sometimes adhering to them and other times not, people go, “I don’t know if I can rock with that guy. I can’t trust him.” So, if you say you want to be part of, for example, sneaker culture, cool: you’ve got to be down when it’s good or when it’s bad. Because when you bail when things are not going well, people go, “Oh, you were exploiting us.” You should pick which culture, or cultures plural, you want to engage, contribute to, not because of their popularity, not because they’re happening or they’re the thing, but because there’s ideological congruence.

    WJ: Some brands that were vocal after the murder of George Floyd have gone silent. What about brands that can’t make the long haul?

    MC: I say then that you should not get engaged at all. It’s worse to have one foot in and one foot out, because you never really benefit. Diversity was hot in the streets after the public execution of George Floyd, because it was accept- able. It was expected for them to be. But then, soon as we’re onto the next hot thing, you start seeing DEI leader- ship roles obliterated, right? Brands take time to build. Relationships are a long-term time horizon. And if you’re thinking of tapping into culture to build relationships in the short run, then you are playing yourself. If you’re in it for the long run, that’s when you will benefit from it, truly. It means that not everything’s always going to be positive. There are going to be some wins and some losses.

    WJ: What are three things brands need to do to successfully engage with culture?

    MC: The first fundamental thing is realize that the world is not objective, it’s subjective. Things aren’t the way they are, they are the way that we are. So, your truth is not the objective truth. People live by different meaning-making systems. That’s why for some, a cow is leather, for others, a deity, for some, it’s dinner. What is the worldview of other people? How do they see the world? You’ve got to understand how they translate the world, and that requires empathy, self-aware perspective-taking. That requires setting aside your biases, set- ting aside your ethnocentrism, setting aside your truths to apprehend the world through the lens of someone else who abides by a different meaning-making system than you do. Then it gets to the third thing. Once we see the world the way other people do, we set aside our own biases, adopt the perspective of other people, and we go, “OK, how can I help them?”

    WJ: Help them?

    MC: Because social relationships are built on and fortified through reciprocity. In a community of people, you have to see it as a place to give, not a place to take. How can I identify points of friction and relieve them in meaningful ways? When that happens, the community goes, “Thank you so much.”

    WJ: Most brands are thinking more about how they can benefit than how they can help. How do you get them to make that turn?

    MC: That is the imperative. We look at relationships as transactional: I’m trying to sell you something; I’ve got to meet my numbers at the end of the quarter. But relationships aren’t efficient that way. I’m married, but if I went on a date tonight and I called you tomorrow and told you I’m engaged, you’d go, “What?” Because you know fundamentally that it requires so much more time and effort for people to be that connected. But we forget about that when it comes to business. We think that if people buy our stuff, they’re loyal. No, they’re consuming. Loyalty is a completely different metric, and that comes from connection. How do we fortify connection? We’ve got to get closer, and that requires looking at communities as a place to give: “How can I help?”

    WJ: What role has Black history played in shaping Black culture?

    MC: I think about growing up in a predominantly Black city like Detroit, where I’m from. My entire existence was Black . . . it wasn’t until I started finding myself in different orbits, different worlds, I realized that the whole world wasn’t Black. The retelling of stories, the mythology, the lore of these giants who built this country, on their backs, on their sweat, have created the freedoms that we’re able to experience now—those stories I heard all the time . . . those ideas, those ideologies, those stories have created the frames [by] which I see the world. The better we are at storytelling about what it means to be Black, what the historical references of Blackness is in this country, and what it means for us today, I think the more consistency, the more community we’re able to engarner, because we now share a lexicon, we share behaviors, we share artifacts, and we share a common truth about the world. Unfortunately, the marginalization that we’ve experienced in this country has made it very difficult for us to tell our own stories… that’s why BET is so important.

    There is no force more influential on commerce than Black culture, full stop.


    WJ: How important and influential is Black culture?

    MC: I would say unequivocally that there is no force more influential on commerce than Black culture, full stop. We see more innovation from marginalized communities than any other community. Why? By the very nature of being marginalized, they therefore have less and, as a result, have to be more creative to get value out of the things that they do, which is why we’ll take an aesthetic and restyle it, refashion it, rework it. We’ll take language and put a spin on it, refashion it, rework it. We’ll take a behavior, refashion it, rework it… We should be wearing that as a badge of honor, because we bring style, we bring that texture, to everything that we touch, from food to music. I mean, we are the first form of entertainment in this country. When the colonists came here, they didn’t make their own music. They used music from Europe. Their first form of music was minstrel shows, which were a mockery of Blackness: everything starts with us. If we understand that and say, “OK, I’m going to take ownership of this,” I think it puts it in a particularly different place. The challenge, however, is the stories that we’re told and, ergo, we tell ourselves and say, “That’s not possible,” and therefore we feel stifled. And that, I think, is the biggest crime.

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