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E263 | The Cultural Phenomenon: How To Influence Human Behaviour Through Culture with Marcus Collins

If you’re feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by your inability to effectively influence behaviour, despite your best efforts, then you are not alone! You may be tirelessly implementing marketing strategies, leadership tactics, or political campaigns, only to witness minimal impact on the desired outcomes. Instead of influencing behaviour, you find yourself facing resistance, indifference, or even backlash from the very individuals you are trying to engage.

Drawing from his experience in the advertising world and his academic background, Marcus Collins stands as a beacon in understanding and influencing human behaviour through culture. He’s put his theories to practice crafting successful campaigns for mammoths like Google and Nike, earning him widespread recognition including a spot on Advertising Age’s 40 under 40. His insightful book, For the Culture, accentuates his understanding of culture’s profound influence on behaviour. Nowadays, Marcus continues to influence minds as a professor at the esteemed Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

In this episode, Marcus talks about how to get people to do things that they didn’t necessarily think they wanted to do, whether that’s buying an iPod or supporting the Brooklyn Nets. Because this is about moving people. How all of those tools and the knowledge that has been garnered by the advertising industry can be applied in churches or organisations to get people to move? Also, as leaders, what can we do to build a culture? What are the elements that define it? What makes people behave the same way as another person? How do you make things attractive to people so that they want to move?

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • Understanding the power of culture to influence behaviour
  • Leveraging shared meanings in advertising
  • The role of culture in personal development
  • The concept of ‘moving people’
  • Defining brand and its cultural implications

Follow Marcus Collins:



For The Culture

How to create connections through culture

Dr. Marcus Collins is an award-winning marketer and cultural translator. He is the former head of strategy at Wieden+Kennedy New York and a clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan.

He is a recipient of Advertising Age’s 40 Under 40 award and an inductee into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Achievement. Most recently, he was recognised by Thinkers50 and Deloitte among their class of 2023 Radar List of 30 thinkers with the ideas most likely to shape the future. His strategies and creative contributions have led to the launch and success of Google’s “Real Tone” technology, the “Made In America” music festival, and the Brooklyn Nets, among others. Prior to his advertising tenure, Marcus worked on iTunes + Nike sport music initiatives at Apple and ran digital strategy for Beyoncé. Marcus holds a doctorate in marketing from Temple University where he studied social contagion and meaning-making.

He received an MBA with an emphasis on strategic brand marketing from the University of Michigan, where he also earned his undergraduate degree in Material Science Engineering. 

Harnessing the power of culture in influencing behaviour

Culture is a ubiquitous yet often overlooked force that shapes our behaviours and interactions. It binds us together, guiding our actions and expectations within a shared framework. At its core, culture is a constellation of shared meanings and symbologies that we express, consciously or otherwise, in our daily lives. Navigating this complex web of shared meanings can be challenging, but it brings with it the potential to cultivate deep understanding and powerful influence.

When we develop this understanding, we become better equipped to align our actions, decisions, and communication with the prevailing cultural norms and expectations. This ability to tap into and leverage cultural dynamics can be instrumental in diverse domains, from marketing and leadership to personal growth and beyond. Drawing from his experience as a brand strategist and his academic pursuits, Marcus shared how understanding and utilising the complexities of culture can lead to improving brand performance and human interactions. 

Marcus highlights how culture is not just about what’s happening internally within an organisation but also how the organisation and its offerings are perceived externally. It’s critical for brands and individuals to have a shared understanding and language of culture to effectively leverage its influence. Understanding the dynamics of culture and its influence on behaviours is invaluable not just for marketers but for anyone interested in effecting change or cultivating meaningful connections.

“If you ask five people to define culture, you’ll get 35 different answers, and that’s a problem. So pragmatically, I thought the more we have a better understanding of the language we use, the more enabled we’d be, and the more capable we’d be to leverage and harness its power. And for culture, that’s extremely important because there’s no external force more influential to human behaviour than culture.” 

Understanding and leveraging shared meanings in advertising

In recent years, there’s been an emphasis placed on understanding and leveraging shared meanings within the world of advertising. These shared meanings or cultural references serve as a common language that helps resonate with audiences on a more personal and profound level. This tactic goes beyond simply selling a product or service. It’s about weaving those offerings into the cultural fabric of our daily lives, making them integral parts of our conversations and experiences. 

The more deeply an ad is rooted in shared meanings, the more impactful it becomes, forging stronger connections and driving consumer behaviour. Marcus unfolded the intricate layers of shared meanings in advertising. He illustrated this concept with two campaigns – McDonald’s ad in the UK and Budweiser’s iconic ‘Wassup?’. These campaigns were not just about promoting fast food or beer, but leveraging shared meanings to create a realm of relatability. 

The McDonald’s ad tapped into a common language, using humour and relatability to push an idea or a social norm that fans could align with. 

“That ad worked well in the States too, which says to me that when people see it, it resonates. There’s some truth in there, whether it’s aspired truth or at a macro level that there is an unwritten rule, there’s an unwritten language that we can signal to each other about what we do together when things are as salient as let’s go to McDonald’s.”

Similarly, the Budweiser campaign revolved around a single word yet became a cultural phenomenon, resonating with audiences worldwide. Marcus’s insights highlight the significance of shared meanings in advertising, illuminating their potential to influence behaviour and connect with audiences on a deeper level. 

“Culture helps us establish these expectations for how we work together, how we live together and how we navigate life together. I think that’s really, really powerful, not only when it comes to consumption, but also our social organisations, be it work, be it religion, be it sports, and even society at large.”

Delving into why this key takeaway is crucial, the understanding and application of shared meanings in advertising allow businesses to transcend the traditional boundaries of promotion. Not only does it provide a more significant consumer impact, but it also creates a stronger brand affinity. When a brand can tap into the shared experiences, emotions, and cultural contexts of its target audience, it’s more likely to trigger a positive response. It’s about achieving a more profound connection, echoing sentiments that are already present in the consumers’ minds, and becoming part of cultural conversations. 

“That’s what culture is. It’s a meaning-making system that helps demarcate who we are and what people like us ought to do. So this idea of shared belief helps us connect with people like ourselves and also creates the guardrails that govern how we show up in the world such that we’re able to create expectations on how the world will respond to us.”

Role of culture in personal development and aspiration

The influence of culture shapes our thoughts, actions, and aspirations. Culture, being the shared framework of meanings, behaviours, and understandings that we collectively navigate, fundamentally drives our personal and professional development. It is an omnipresent force that crafts our aspirations, and critically, the path and decisions we take to realise those dreams. 

Yet, despite its enormity and its absolute presence in our life, we often overlook the extent of culture’s influence. From growing up in Detroit with expectations to become an engineer, to his realisation that his true passion was music, Marcus shared his personal journey illustrating the prevailing influence of culture. 

“When I graduated from undergrad, I went straight to the music industry, and that really was what kicked off my career. Here’s the interesting part, and this is the revelatory part of writing the book. I realised now that back then I didn’t have the language to describe the impasse that I was filling with my parents. I felt social pressures telling me to do a particular thing because of what was expected of me, but my wants, my desires, and my disposition were not in line with those expectations, and I didn’t have the language to express that.”

Recognising and harnessing the power of cultural dynamics can lead to profound shifts in our understanding of our aspirations, our motivations, and subsequently, how we attain our goals. It can provide us with the tools to better navigate our personal journey and professional paths. By understanding this, we can create deeper, more meaningful connections, both with ourselves and those around us. Whether we’re marketers trying to reach a particular audience, leaders intending to motivate a team, or just individuals striving for personal growth, acknowledging and leveraging the role of culture can be a transformative experience.

Using marketing to ‘move people’ 

For Marcus, the core function of marketing is to get people to adopt behaviour. Don’t buy this, buy that. Don’t go here, go there, don’t go see his movie, go see my movie. Don’t vote for him, vote for her. Everything we do as marketers is to get people to move, he says. 

“Even if you don’t have ‘marketer’ in your title, you’re a marketer. You’re trying to get people to move. You’re trying to get your employees to adopt a policy. You’re trying to get your boss to acknowledge your work. You’re trying to get your kids to eat peas. We’re trying to get people to do things all the time. And culture is the biggest, most powerful, influential force to get people to adopt behaviour. And it’s anchored in the shared beliefs that we have.”

When it’s cold outside, it’s raining, it’s dark, let’s keep moving. That’s essentially the ethos of Nike. Nike believes that every human body is an athlete. Big, small, short, tall, able, unable. We’re all athletes. And the only thing keeping us from realizing our best athletic self is us. Therefore, we should ‘just do it.’ 

That’s Nike. And because of how it sees the world, because of how it communicates itself to the world through its voice, it, therefore, becomes a stand-in, a signifier for what it means to be an athlete. And that’s who Nike talks to, athletes. There are people who are not athletes who buy Nike sneakers, but Nike is talking to the athlete inside of us.  

“And Nike hardly ever talks about value propositions. Nothing about where the leather is sourced, nothing about how shock absorbent the air bubbles are in the air maxes, none of that stuff. They only talk about a point of view. At least they start with a point of view. Because what we know of human behaviour, what we know of the biology of decision-making, is that if we’re able to evoke emotion, then the emotion will have a far greater impact on the possibilities of us adopting behaviour.”

What is a ‘brand’?

Is there a difference between the brand, the external manifestation of the business and the internal culture? To answer this question, Marcus starts by defining what brand is. As literature refers to it, a brand is an identifiable signifier that conjures up thoughts and feelings in the minds of hearts of people as it pertains to a company, a product, an institution, an organisation, or a person. It signifies something so that it conjures up things, realising that emotions drive behaviour. So the question becomes, can a brand mean something out in the world? And that meaning not be internalised, manifested and demonstrated internally? And that, says Marcus, is really hard.

So, when there is incongruence between what is being displayed in the world and what’s actually happening internally, these things don’t hold up long until it becomes great cognitive dissonance.

“If I project to the world that I am a vegan, but I eat burgers on the weekend, I leave myself vulnerable to get exposed. Or at the very least, I have to do a great amount of cognitive acrobatics to help find some neutrality to get over the dissonance that comes from me not doing what I say I believe. And I think the same thing goes with companies, that if you don’t do what you say you believe, the people who work in those companies go “pff, rubbish.”

It all comes down to what do we believe? How do we see the world? What’s our point of view in the world? What conviction do we hold that’s informing all things that we’re doing? And because of what we believe, who we are, how we see the world. 

“We find the people who see the world the way we do. People who share the same ideology, not the same people who want their water in a can as opposed to a plastic bottle, or people who want a closer shave. Not the people who are looking for value propositions, but people who share the same belief.”

Once we identify those people who preach the gospel, we communicate that conviction in a way that activates the limbic system, the part of the brain associated with behaviour and feelings, not headlines and copy or taglines. 

“And we communicate with those people activating the emotional part of the brain. And those people will take action not because of what you are, but because of who they are. And then they’ll take action as a way of making their culture material, as a way of making their identity manifested. And then they go tell other people like themselves, because we are social animals by nature, we just can’t help ourselves.”

Book recommendations 

The Society of the Spectacle

The Kingdom of Prep

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