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Harvard Business School Professor

L’Oreal Chair of Marketing, Oxford

(former)

I developed Cultural Branding Theory, in my first book How Brands Become Icons. I showed that businesses need to reject conventional branding for a new model if they aim to build the strongest brands.

Eight years later, drawing from dozens of consulting projects, I developed Cultural Strategy, a pioneering innovation model that has revolutionized business strategy.  

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BUSINESSES ARE TRAPPED IN THE PRESENT

Cultural change generates extraordinary business opportunities and also vexing challenges. Incumbents get trapped in present-tense competitive battles and, so, are blindsided by these transformations that reconfigure their markets. Companies struggle to understand emerging opportunities until an agile entrepreneur beats them to it. Conventional strategy models ignore historical disruptions, and so they simply can’t help businesses navigate the future.

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EVEN BREAKTHROUGH TECH GETS STUCK 

Tech aims to disrupt categories, but often fails to even try, imitating the present instead. Celebrated start-ups struggle to establish profitable substantial businesses because they rely upon conventional marketing to take their innovations to market.  They spend wads of cash on “growth,” burning through hundreds of millions on generic branding and performance marketing that only creates ever-churning momentary customers. Tech companies don’t understand that they are actually in the business of cultural transformation. Breakthrough tech requires much more than great code. 

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CULTURAL STRATEGY: UNLOCKING THE FUTURE

Cultural Strategy is a systematic strategy framework that I’ve developed over the past two decades while I was a professor at Harvard and Oxford, grounded in extensive academic research and hundreds of consulting projects. Cultural Strategy is a new paradigm. It combines a new set of research methods, a new strategy model, and a new innovation playbook to execute strategy. I use Cultural Strategy to develop comprehensive detailed blueprints that companies used to build leadership positions in their categories. 

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PROFOUND RESULTS FOR COMPANIES WORLDWIDE 

I have built comprehensive strategies for hundreds of companies around the world. From global brands to tech start-ups, from social enterprises to NGOs. I lead every project, working intensively with each client. The results speak for themselves. I consistently deliver far more powerful, precise and actionable strategies than the big global strategy consultancies. Case Studies (hover to read):

Patagonia became an iconic outdoor brand in the early 1990s, driven by brilliant cultural branding.  The company mythologized a culturally sophisticated version of its “dirtbag” subculture for upper-middle class grads (which I analyze in Cultural Strategy).  Soon enough Patagonia ran into a major problem, becoming a victim of its own success. Every major outdoor brand began copying Patagonia branding, so what once was pioneering became the category convention.  How, then, could Patagonia become the pioneering brand once again?  The company hired me to revamp its (largely implicit) brand strategy. My cultural analysis unearthed a potent approach to revitalize Patagonia, which the marketing team ran with, achieving 30% sales growth in the first year.

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Converse was riding a huge wave of popularity when the company hired me: seemingly every teenage girl in America was sporting Chuck Taylors.  The company did not understand the mechanics of its brand—how it had become the “anti-athletic” bohemian brand when the Ramones and Patti Smith and the rest of the LES crew began sporting Chucks in the 1970s.  The cultural equities are gold, impossible to stage.  Nor did it understand the “bottom-heavy” risks posed by too many teenyboppers wearing Chucks.  As a result, the company was squandering its most valued asset: all of the marketing spend was on  activities that mimicked the many wanna-be brands trying to burnish their brands with rock n roll, street culture and the like.  Instead of authentic pioneer, Converse looked like a mediocre beer brand. If Converse was going to recapture its position as the most authentic bohemian brand then it needed to take bohemia into new places. I developed a comprehensive brand strategy that worked across all of the key lines underneath (Chucks, Jack Purcell etc.). which senior management used as a blueprint to rework all of the company’s branding efforts.

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SONOS is a classic radical innovation, pioneering multi-room hi-fi wireless audio system that is perfect for streaming music and podcasts. SONOS had the market to itself for a decade but could not break through from early adopters to the mainstream market due to a flawed marketing strategy.  SONOS hired me in the 11th hour (just as Amazon Echo was launching) to entirely revamp the brand strategy.  I used the strategy to redesign everything: I developed a new creative platform (which resulted in all of their subsequent advertising), revised their product development strategy, built a new PR, influencer plan and social media strategy.  The company has used this strategy ever since to carve out a successful segment fighting off Amazon, Google, and Apple.

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The Coca-Cola brand was in a funk globally, leading to a massive company-wide effort to “Revive the Global Icon.”  The company hired me to develop the new global brand strategy, applying my cultural branding model. I showed them how to revitalize the ideology that made the brand iconic in the 1970s. The resulting strategy directly informed some of the brand’s most impactful advertising in decades (including Wieden & Kennedy’s “Videogame” spot).

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America’s preeminent outdoor retailer, REI’s average member would soon be a senior citizen as the business was failing to win over under 40s. REI was losing out to Amazon on-line.  And had thrown away its equities at retail, becoming a commodity big-box store.  Jerry Stritzke, the new CEO, hired me to work with him and his team to rebuild REI into the country’s iconic outdoor retailer. I completely revamped the brand strategy from ground up using my cultural strategy model. The linchpin was to restore REI as a cooperative centered around John Muir’s vision of protecting America’s wild public lands, and inviting in all fellow travelers to become member-activists in this work.  Everything REI did from that point forward advocated for the cooperative (rather than acting as a conventional business). The team came up with #optoutside based on the strategy, which won the grand prize at Cannes.  REI membership and revenues grew by over 30% in the first two years executing the new strategy.

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Jack Daniel’s became a prestigious iconic brand in the late 1950s, reinvigorating America’s historic gunslinging masculinity, embraced by influential celebrities, dozens of films, and rock stars slugging from bottles.  Thirty years later, Jack had become a cliché of rebel drunk (remember Animal House). I was tasked by the company to rebuild the brand’s aspirational status value.  Conducting discourse analysis and lifeworld interviews, I discovered a powerful secret society affinity with America’s military and police who drank Jack communally as a symbol of their conservative political ideology.  I developed a detailed strategy built around championing this ideology, which still guides the brand today.

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Purina Dog Chow pioneered commercial dog food back in 1926, and soon became the iconic pet food brand in the USA.  But as expensive natural dog foods like Blue Buffalo pilloried the “industrial” ingredients in big brand dog foods, Dog Chow became debranded as cheap “industrial” dog food. The business got caught up in promotion wars, which killed margins and eroded the brand. I was hired by Purina to revitalize Dog Chow, build back revenue and margins. I developed a new cultural strategy that drafted on the pre-industrial segment as the value fast-follower. I developed new brand concepts which I put into a rapid “cultural prototyping” process using qualitative research to optimize the new brand platform. Then I developed the creative platform for the advertising and wrote the scripts, which Leo Burnett then executed.  The rebrand was launched in early 2016 and has been a huge success, leading to hundreds of millions per year in increased earnings

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Huawei was a massive Chinese B2B telecom company, which decided to jump into the world’s most competitive consumer market (smartphones) only in 2011. The company pushed up market ever since, and their flagship handsets soon were as good as Apple and Samsung, and for a lower price. While Huawei dominated the Chinese market, in the rest of the world they faced a fundamental problem—Huawei phones lacked the status value of Apple and Samsung. Huawei hired me in 2015 to make their brand as desirable as Apple and Samsung outside China. For three years, I worked with company and agencies to execute a global brand strategy that I developed using my cultural strategy model. Huawei’s global market share has climbed from 7.5% to 17.8%, blowing past Apple and now challenging Samsung as the world’s #1 brand.

THE CULTURAL STRATEGY MODEL

2004: I introduced Cultural Branding Theory.

For years, I was frustrated by conventional brand strategy. The model that every big company uses (still to this day!) had nothing to do with how the world’s strongest brands are built. So, I conducted detailed historical analysis of a dozen iconic brands and built a radically new theory that explained how iconic brands are built and sustained.  I showed that the conventional marketing model is badly dysfunctional when it comes to building the world’s strongest brands.  How Brands Become Icons became a seminal bestseller, which has influenced companies around the world to embrace a new approach to branding. 

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2010: I introduced the Cultural Strategy model.

The result of five years of trial-and-error in dozens of consulting projects, I transformed the theory into a practical strategy model. Cultural Strategy provides a detailed framework, supported by a suite of cultural analysis methods, that guides companies to become cultural leaders in their categories. Using this model, I am able to develop detailed transformative strategies in consulting engagements lasting only a few months. 

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2016: I showed that CULTURAL STRATEGY is ideal for social media.

Social media was supposed to lead to a golden age for brands.  The big brands would create lots of great real-time content that would pull in their fans.  Instead, I argue that the opposite happened—social media made conventional branding obsolete.  I show that social media has made Cultural Strategy even more powerful—the only strategy model that works for most consumer brands.

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Douglas Holt

 

 

 

BRANDING IN THE

AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

 

 

 

REAKTOR BREAKPOINT

Helsinki, Finland

2020: I introduced CULTURAL INNOVATION. 

In recent years, I’ve worked on many innovation projects, especially for tech companies.  The cultural strategy model is particularly suited for guiding major innovation initiatives. I discuss cultural innovation in a recent Harvard Business Review article, and in my forthcoming book.

 
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CLIENTS & SERVICES 

CULTURAL LEADERSHIP 

Many of my consulting assignments aim to help brands that are “stuck in the present.”  Clients come to me because their brands struggle to meet revenue and KPI objectives using the conventional marketing model.  Managers are frustrated because..

The business is trapped in a cycle of commoditization.

The brand has lost its cultural value and no amount of great creative or influencer spending helps.

Consumers don’t care about your “purpose.”

Social media strategies don’t work. 

Performance marketing, the new shiny object, just creates price-sensitive transactional customers.

 

I build strategies to transform these brands into cultural leaders of their categories.  USA, China, Europe, Latin America.

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BUILD NEW TECH INTO ICONIC INNOVATIONS

Tech companies have a marketing problem.  Even the most brilliant tech and the best unicorns struggle to scale and turn a profit.  Companies struggle because they are  growth marketing methods: from generic branding to (so-called) performance marketing.  These methods badly dilute the potential innovation and fail to solve the market problems that keep business from scaling.  I apply Cultural Innovation to build great tech into powerful profitable brands that scale rapidly.

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SOCIAL ENTERPRISE & CIVIL SOCIETY

NGOs and social enterprises that are working to create a positive social impact desperately need better strategy.  Cultural strategy is a perfect fit for world-changing organizations. We work extensively with these organizations. For small social enterprises and NGOs, we charge very low rates.  We also work pro bono on solutions to the climate crisis, such as the carbon tax strategy below. Tuba Üstüner (Harvard DBA) runs this practice with me.

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NEW PRODUCTS

We sometimes find time to work on exciting new businesses making products that we love.

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I’ve introduced Cultural Strategy to management audiences around the world.  I do a select number of speaking engagements every year.  If you’re interested, tell me about your event on the contact form.

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