Do you need to have a working knowledge of pop culture to be effective at marketing?

This is the question that I’ve been mulling over for a bit. The cultural competence part came in when I read a piece about therapists and building up a cultural competence of those who are “extremely online.” In marketing, it doesn’t seem like we call it cultural competence. Instead, we create buyer personas and market research. We do focus groups and ask if someone’s interested in such and such product, dutifully noting down their demographics.

The term “cultural competence” first occurred in a 1989 seminal research study on mental health and minority populations.

Here the model called “cultural competence” is explored. It involves systems, agencies, and practitioners with the capacity to respond to the unique needs of populations whose cultures are different than that which might be called “dominant” or “mainstream” American.

Since then, the phrase has moved beyond the medical community to general inclusion and diversity efforts.

Improving cultural competence in the workplace can improve your productivity and performance, but takes time and a commitment to education.

It seems to be a catch-all phrase that one could use to say that their company provides training in cultural competence. When in reality, it’s more likely that they have something that covers the surface of communications but not the underlying structural issues (most DEI programs fail).

My familiarity with it is from business people talking about the various customs and traditions they need to know before doing business with those of a different international culture (i.e. US businesses trying to capitalize on the Chinese market). It made sense to me: knowing what to do and what not to do would go further in gaining respect than approaching every international business deal like it’s a US business.

To me, it seems like marketing and cultural competence go hand-in-hand. Understanding and keeping up with pop culture appears to be a subset of this. Yes, you can tweet out general marketing messages, but what if you anchor one of them with references or a meme to say…Bridgerton. Or Stranger Things. Your targeted group will shrink, but this group’s interest in you increases. It reminds me of an interview I did a few years ago with David Yake, co-founder of Camber Coffee, where he talked about serving up a drink called “Old Gregg.” The drink’s name is a reference to a character in a British comedy series.

And my business partner was really thrown off by it and was texting me when the post went live on Saturday morning, like “What is this?” He wasn’t familiar with the meme or the video. And so he had no frame of reference – “Why are we talking about drinking things out of shoes?” and “This is really gross. This is so off-brand, what are you thinking?”

But on the flip side, we got an overwhelmingly positive response to that post and also to the drink. I don’t think it had any negative impact on the drink sales or how people perceived it or enjoyed it. So I think if we could go back, maybe we would change the caption slightly but I think we would do it again.

Pop culture knowledge has always been a black hole for me. Because my parents didn’t grow up in the US, I didn’t get exposed to shows like Golden Girls or movies like Top Gun (still haven’t seen either, they’re on my very long list of things to watch). I don’t have TV channels anymore so I don’t watch anything “live.” I’d rather binge. However, I do try and watch some current shows or read articles for ones I don’t want to watch.

This all being said, I believe that keeping up with pop culture can only enhance your marketing skills. It also gives you a good reason to watch that show (any show) that everyone’s been talking about. If you can’t relate to your customer base, putting yourself in their shoes or identifying them in any way, you end up sequestered away in an ivory tower, dictating marketing strategies that aren’t quite honed in on your customers.