Book Review: For The Culture, by Marcus Collins


Marcus Collins straddles the worlds of marketing and academia, as the head of strategy at Wieden + Kennedy while also a professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. In For The Culture, he shares a combination of scholarship and personal insights based on his experiences.

You can read For The Culture as someone who appreciates marketing as a curious outsider, an actual marketer or entrepreneur who wants to up your game, or even as someone who despises marketing and wants to know how it’s all done. I suppose I possess a little of each of these contradictory tendencies. Collins himself expresses some odd ambivalence about the field, alternately praising its manipulative tendencies and emphasizing the need for ethics.

I recently read an old classic for the first time, Robert Cialdini’s Influence (which he recently updated). Collins quotes and praises Cialdini in this work, while the renowned author (who also kind of combines academic and hands-on marketing) provides generous praise of Collins’ work. Both works mine topics such as social psychology and anthropology to explain how influence and persuasion operate.

Fans and Customers as Tribes and Congregations

Collins, as insightful as he is, doesn’t really question the validity of a world where everything is a commodity. For example, he makes the now familiar metaphor of a tribe to describe people who are loyal to a brand (I believe this was invented or at least popularized by Seth Godin).

Collins also brings in the notion of a congregation as a group of tribes. However, if you really think about it, isn’t there something a bit off about equating consumers with members of a tribe? A tribe, as Collins well understands and explains, is a group of people who share values, beliefs, and behaviors. After all, his book is called For The Culture. But can culture really be reduced to our buying choices?

Objections have been raised to using “tribe” as marketing jargon because it appropriates the original meaning of the word and its association with indigenous people. Collins actually addresses the issue of cultural appropriation but it apparently doesn’t bother him in this context. For example, the brand Yeti no longer uses the word in its marketing

To me, the issue isn’t so much cultural appropriation (words are constantly being used in new ways and in different contexts over time) as misunderstanding what a tribe really is. I think it’s at least worth closely examining whether strangers clicking on the same “Buy” button on Amazon can be meaningfully compared to a group of people who live together and share a lifestyle, customs, and strongly held beliefs. 

Ethical Dilemmas in Marketing Campaigns

Like most people who inhabit the world of marketing, Collins never really asks fundamental questions about whether it’s a good thing, or even normal, that marketing and brands play such a fundamental role in modern society.

Collins goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of ethics and genuine values as crucial to marketing and in forming enthusiastic tribes and congregations. In particular, he admires the way brands such as Sprite could help to include previously under-represented communities in their ads. Collins was personally touched by how the “Obey Your Thirst” campaign made members of the Black and hip-hop communities feel included.

He also acknowledges the sincere values behind Patagonia, which was driven by a commitment to practices such as “clean” rock climbing where equipment that could harm the rocks is avoided.

At times, Collin recognizes the culpability of brands and marketers who use their influence to guide consumers to harmful behaviors, as with the iconic cigarette ads featuring the Marlborough Man. However, he also has some blind spots when his own agency is involved in supporting questionable brands. 

Collins describes campaigns on which he worked to overcome serious objections to a brand. For example, when the basketball team the New Jersey Nets planned their move to Brooklyn in 2012, there were serious objections from local residences and businesses that were concerned they’d be displaced by gentrification. Collins boasts how his agency inundated Brooklyn with billboards and other propaganda appealing to local pride. The campaign was a success (or at least played a part in the ultimate success of the team’s transition) and ethical objections were soon forgotten. 

Collins also helped with a campaign to help McDonald’s overcome the negative effects of the 2004 documentary Supersize Me, which highlights the potentially harmful consequences of eating too much of the fast food chain’s junk food.  In both of these cases, Collins is so caught up in the power of influence that he doesn’t seem to stop and consider the ethical implications of these actions.

Getting People to Move in a Predictable Fashion

In the final chapter, Collins exhorts readers to keep ethics front and center when using these principles. Yet the very last paragraph of the book is a bit cryptic to me:

The better we understand these cultural characteristics, the richer our insights become, which will ultimately produce the kind of ideas that inspire people to move in a predictable fashion. Now who doesn’t want that?

I suppose when you want people to buy something or convince them to conform to a certain dogma or set of rules, you’d want them to act predictably. But this isn’t exactly the same as encouraging people to think for themselves and follow their own conscience. Speaking of which, something Collins writes in the introduction gives me pause, when he compares modern hipsters to the hippies of an earlier decade.

“Like hippies hipsters challenged the ideals of capitalism and bought into the ideals of egalitarianism. But instead of the tie-dye and bare feet of their predecessors, hipsters wore plaid shirts and suspenders, ironic facial hair, and dark-rimmed glasses. And their adult beverage of choice? Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, also known as PBR.”

So drinking a certain brand of beer is evidence of a rebellious, anti-capitalist spirit? This is a perfect example of what Thomas Frank wrote about in Commodify Your Dissent, how capitalism is able to absorb, co-opt, and profit from symbols of non-conformity. T-shirts portraying Che Guevara are an obvious example.

I bring this up as an example of how muddled it can get when we think of marketing, advertising, and consumer choices as rooted in deeply held values. You can enjoy and even love a product, but supporting a company that’s making a profit is not anti-capitalist.

The Value of For The Culture

While I’m being rather critical of the book’s immersion in the assumptions of modern marketing (i.e. that consumers are the equivalent of a traditional tribe), I still found the book enjoyable and educational. 

For The Culture, especially in the early chapters, effectively conveys how social science pioneers such as Emile Durkheim and Raymond Williams mapped out the way culture drives human motivations and behaviors. He doesn’t specifically refer to the original definition of “meme,” as defined by Richard Dawkins, but that’s a very similar point that’s very relevant to marketing.

Regardless of how you feel about marketing, advertising, capitalism, and the human tendency to follow the crowd, these and related forces are extremely relevant to how modern society operates. Therefore, a book like For The Culture, which in some ways can be seen as a companion piece and perhaps an updated version of Influence, is well worth absorbing.

I’d suggest reading this book, along with Influence and other works by astute marketers. But also read “anti-marketers.” Off the top of my head, I can only think of some older books, such as No Logo, by Naomi Klein, and the aforementioned Commodify Your Dissent. An even older, more abstract, but also insightful look at the manipulative aspect of marketing is  Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord.

Though I found certain aspects of For The Culture problematic, I still recommend it for anyone interested in marketing, social psychology, propaganda and persuasion, and the overall mindset of modern day capitalism.


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