Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Cattolica International

Cultural evangelism: finding and preaching to your brand's congregation

by Nicole Brini, International Reputation Manager at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore


Marcus Collins is an award-winning marketer and cultural translator. He is a former Head of Strategy at Wieden+Kennedy, New York, and currently serves as a marketing professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. He is a recipient of Advertising Age's 40 Under 40 award and Crain's Business' 40 Under 40 award, and an inductee into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement. Most recently, he was recognised by Thinkers50 with the Radar Distinguished Achievement Award for the idea most likely to shape the future of business management. He has also served as a jury for the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity. Prior to his advertising tenure, Marcus began his career in music and tech with a startup he co-founded before working on iTunes + Nike sport music initiatives at Apple and running digital strategy for Beyoncé. Marcus has authored a best-selling book, For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be, which examines the influence of culture on consumption and unpacks how everyone, from marketers to activists, can leverage culture to get people to take action.


The idea that our culture and identity, and our community (or congregation, as you refer to it), plays such a pivotal role in our lives and consumer actions, really resonates with me. I believe that as marketers we all know that the “hard sell/value proposition strategy” is not enough anymore to reach our goals.

In your book “For the Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, and Who We Want to Be” you write: “The power of a shared worldview provokes us to move because of who we are. This is referred to as identity-driven effects, where people tend to pay more attention to stimuli that relate to who they are. When a  stimulus is aligned with who we are and how we see the world, we are more inclined to notice it, prefer it, select the media source that projects it, and adopt the behaviours associated with it.” Given the identity-driven affects you discuss in your book, what approaches can universities adopt to take an active role in cultural conversations at both national and global levels?

It all starts with the university. First, we need to understand how universities perceive the world beyond their primary function of imparting knowledge. Most universities tend to view themselves just as institutions of higher education, with their main focus being knowledge acquisition and dissemination. However, universities must broaden their perspective and acknowledge their role in shaping the world beyond knowledge. By doing so, universities can actively participate in matters beyond education and make a significant impact on the world.

At the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, we strongly believe that “doing good is good business.” This belief gives us the freedom to express our opinions on any issue related to doing good, not just on knowledge acquisition and dissemination based on our perspective.
However, if we consider ourselves only as a school, then we limit ourselves to discussing school-related matters, just as a toothbrush brand can only talk about brushing teeth and not about broader worldviews. Nike and Dove are examples of brands that have identified their unique worldview and have been successful in conveying it to the world. In Europe, Persil's "Dirt is good" campaign through the message “Dirt is the receipt of a well-lived childhood” has helped it grow from a $400 million business 10 years ago to a $4 billion business today. Similarly, institutions of higher learning have the same opportunity to express their worldview and beliefs. Now we have an opportunity to weigh in on matters that go beyond knowledge acquisition and dissemination.


You often refer to the author and educator C.C. Chapman, quoting from your book “When we’re trying to make emotional connections, our communications should start with soul and end with the sale.” You state that the biology of decision-making and behaviour adoption reveals that people are not driven by rationality, they are driven by emotions, and nothing is more emotional than “US.” Can you share an example of a brand that has successfully tapped into the identity of its community and fostered an emotional connection, and elaborate on how they achieved this?

In discussing popular brands, Dove, Patagonia, and Nike are often mentioned. However, let's shift the focus towards Barbie, which was created in the 1950s as a representation of the idea that girls could achieve anything. Ruth Handler, the founder of Mattel and creator of Barbie, had two children, a boy named Kenneth and a girl named Barbara. She believed that due to societal norms, Barbara would face more obstacles and limitations than her son, which she saw as a tragedy. To counter this, she created the Barbie doll, which aimed to inspire young girls to believe in their limitless potential and Barbie has been a symbol of that for decades. However, around 2014, the cultural landscape surrounding women's body autonomy, body positivity and self-esteem began to change. Critics argued that Barbie's unrealistic body  proportions no longer aligned with the ideals she purported to inspire. The Guardian published articles questioning whether Barbie was still relevant. In response, Mattel started producing dolls with more realistic body types that represented a diverse range of people, including those with disabilities. This shift culminated in the release of the 2023 movie, Barbie, the perfect distillation of Barbie’s point of view about the world, and the cultural production that people who see the rules similarly to Barbie could use to communicate their own identity.
So here are people who have invested their time, money, and identity in a plastic doll. Not because of what it is, but because of what it represents and what it means.
That meaning is culturally mediated, therefore some people who identified with Barbie's message of empowerment saw the movie as a way to communicate their own identity. Others, however, viewed it as an affront to contemporary manhood. It represented two different things and two different people. However, Barbie wasn't talking to those people who didn't “believe” Barbie’s worldview; Barbie talked to its “believers,” and those people took the brand and its work and used it to communicate their identity. The number of times people requoted or reposted America Ferrera’s speech as the snapshot of that belief system is a testament to this.


You’ve worked with some top personalities and brands – to name a few: Beyoncé, Sprite, McDonald’s, Eggo Waffles – and in your book you share both successful and failed strategies. Reflecting on the failures you've encountered, what is the single most valuable lesson you've learned?

I have learned that those who understand the underlying physics of humanity are more likely to win sustainably in the marketplace, whereas those who don't have to rely on luck. The more I understand people, the better my work as a practitioner and scholar has become. I believe that understanding humanity is the cheat code for anyone who wants to engage with the social world. Whether it's persuading people to buy, download, watch, subscribe, vote, recycle, enrol or take any action, the better we understand them, the more likely we are to succeed.


What is your top advice for recovering from a misstep?

Depending on the culture, people may have space for redemption when they humble themselves, repent, and ask for forgiveness. It may require you to fade to the back a little bit, maybe be “in the doghouse” for a while. These relationships are like our personal ones. If there’s a true relationship there’s typically space for redemption  when one's apology is sincere to make things better. In purely transactional relationships, however, there is no investment, and forgiveness is less likely. The more invested we are in a relationship, the more willing we are to forgive. If we invest in our relationships, there is room for redemption and forgiveness, depending, of course, on the severity of the infraction.


There are over 26,000 colleges and universities in the world. It can feel daunting to be a higher education marketer sometimes. Having yourself a foot in the world of practice and a foot in the world of academia you understand very well the struggles of higher education institutions. Considering the unique challenges of higher education marketing, how do the strategies for "finding your congregation and preaching the gospel" compare or contrast with those used by consumer goods brands?

The challenge with higher education is that most schools offer similar programmes, making it difficult for students to determine which school is the best fit for them. While professors may differ in their teaching methods, the content being taught is largely the same across schools. Chemistry at one school isn’t different from chemistry at another school. Entropy is entropy.  The experiences students have at a particular school (both inside and outside the classroom) can be the differentiating factor, but it's challenging for prospective students to determine which school will offer them the best experience. For many students, travelling to visit various schools is a privilege they cannot afford. This makes relying on rankings and other forms of social proof necessary. Schools that rank highly or have many applicants benefit from this, while lesser-known institutions may struggle to attract students, even if they offer an exceptional experience. And this is true not only with university rankings but with Amazon reviews or Twitter trending topics as well. To address this challenge, higher education institutions need to do a better job of creating social proof. They need to activate networks of people, including current students, alumni, and other stakeholders, to promote the school (“preach the gospel”) and create those exogenous shocks to the systems to get people’s attention. At the University of Michigan, we are well-known for our sports which is great. The challenge, though, is that we don't get a lot of attention when it comes to the scholarly work that we do even though people like Daniel Kahneman did a postdoc here and Adam Grant did his PhD at the University of Michigan. However, that's not the part of the talk about Michigan. So not every gift, is a gift, and everything has some trade-offs to it.


What strategies would you suggest for educational institutions to harness digital storytelling in a way that not only facilitates but also nurtures an inclusive community culture?

Storytelling is a community act that helps us socialise information about who we are and how we see the world. It works to our benefit by getting attention and  capitalising interest among potentially like-minded people. Some stories retail as a school, brand, or institution that typically come across as advertising, and they get our attention. However, they may not always have a lasting impact. The goal of storytelling is not just for our stories to be heard but to hopefully catalyse other people to tell stories on our behalf. This is because those stories will benefit us, projecting our identity and reverberating to benefit the storyteller, whether it is a school, retailer or individual. For instance, when something great happens in Michigan, the University of Michigan will post something and people will take that post and share it to project their identity as a Michigan Wolverine, leaders and best, go blue, or Michigan difference. This projection of identity and storytelling benefits the storyteller, who gains more credence as more people see and hear the story.


You mentioned the University of Michigan as an example of higher education. Do you have any examples from the consumer goods industry?

Have you ever come across an advertisement for Zoom? Probably not. Yet, during the pandemic, hundreds of millions of people started using Zoom. This should have been the perfect opportunity for Skype or Webex to dominate the market, as they were the go-to technologies for years. However, without any advertising, we all found ourselves on Zoom. The question is, why did we choose Zoom? The reason is simple - we joined Zoom because everyone else was on it. This is also how we tend to create brand stories. Similarly, we may not always see advertisements for a brand like Patagonia (except the famous Black Friday “Don’t buy this jacket” ad). However, we are influenced by people more than any marketing communication, and we often hear stories about the brand through movies or headlines that people talk about. These stories help us form a firm frame of what Patagonia is as a brand and influence our purchasing decisions. As marketers, it is important to understand that our story is not the entire story but rather the first chapter of stories that people will build on top of. Therefore, we should tell stories not just for ourselves but to catalyse others to tell stories on our behalf so that our message can reverberate and benefit us.


Based on your expertise in the influence of culture, what guidance can you offer educational institutions aiming to boost their global reputation and appeal to a diverse student body with culturally responsive marketing?

Every day, there are exogenous shocks to the system, which can have a significant impact on society. As a result, people try to make sense of these events by interpreting them and deciding if they are acceptable to people like them. For brands, particularly institutions of higher education, these events present an opportunity to communicate their perspective on the situation. Rather than simply reporting the news, brands can offer their point of view and explain why it is important.

Nike believes that every human body is an athlete. When something happens in the world of athletes, Nike feels licensed to say something. They have a point of view on the world as these things happen in the zeitgeist and discourse happens. The brand goes, "Hey, here's our point of view on it based on how we see the world." Someone goes, "Yeah, I like that.” That's how Nike sees the world. Should athletes be considered role models? What's the importance of failure? Why is it important that young girls play sports? What does it mean to be an elite black golfer in a world that is almost all predominantly white? These questions are important, and Nike has a point of view on them. 

Similarly, for higher education institutions, no one sees an ad and says, "I'm applying to that school." There are many stimuli in the world that people bump into that ultimately inform those decisions, much like buying a car. Let's say someone has seen the brand of the car and they've seen a few people drive it. They've seen these ads. The alchemy of all these things ends up influencing their decision based on consumption. This is the same thing that happens with universities and higher education. So, the idea then is what catalysts are we creating? What external shocks to the system? What stimuli are we creating that allows us to communicate our point of view on the world so that someone goes, "I have to go to that school.”?