Harnessing culture to inspire, influence and impact 

How does brand purpose allow companies to connect with consumers? How are buyers influenced? How do marketers leverage the relationships that customers build with brands? Marcus Collins, DBA, clinical assistant professor of marketing at Michigan Ross, studies consumer culture theory — the convergence of anthropology, psychology, and sociology in marketing — to answer those questions. He joined Michigan Minds to talk about consumption, culture, and community, and his recently published book For The Culture.

“Brands at their core are identifiable signifiers that conjure up thoughts and feelings, and the hearts of minds of people relative to products, companies, institutions, organizations, and people. They’re signifiers, they’re vessels of meaning that evokes emotions and cognitions,” Collins says. 

People develop connections and brands, making consumers more inclined to purchase. One’s culture — the beliefs they hold, the way they view the world, the expectations of them — determines what something like a brand means to someone. The products people purchase, the vehicles they drive, the clothes they wear, the hairstyles they choose, the schools they attend, the food they eat — these choices people make every day are influenced by cultural subscription 

“Consumption is a cultural act.”

Marcus Collins

“Daily living is governed by our cultural subscription, and the more conspicuous our behaviors and consumptions are, the more inclined they are to be influenced by our culture. There is no external force more influential on human behavior than culture — full stop. And the better we understand that, the more likely we are to leverage its way.”

Marketers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others want people to adopt behaviors associated with their brand — and culture is a powerful way to do that. People benefit from culture by contributing to it. 

“​​Humans are social animals by nature. We do everything we can to crash into each other. Evolutionary anthropologists would argue that the reason why we were able to evolve was our ability to cooperate, to socialize, and our consumption behaviors become ways by which we signal to the world like a peacock who we are, and to find people who are just like us,” Collins says. 

“Since culture is so influential to behavior, that becomes the biggest chat code for marketers.” 

Marcus Collins

“That’s why I wear Michigan gear anytime I travel, because the coolest thing happens. Even if I’m going to another country, I wear a Michigan hat and someone sees my hat and goes, ‘Go Blue!’ and I go, ‘Go Blue!’ In that moment, in that instance, I feel like I’m connected. I feel like I’m not on this continent by myself.” 

“We can harness that power by contributing to the cultural characteristics of that community that helps them connect with other people.”

Collins recently published his first book For The Culture, in which he argues that there is no force more influential on human behavior than culture. If you want people to move, you have to first understand the cultural characteristics that influence them. And while people might at first agree, Collins says many people can’t define “culture” — which is a concern since it can’t be leveraged if it isn’t understood. 

“The book provides some language that allows us to collectively describe culture by identifying the underlying physics, the system that is culture, and then it unpacks the ways by which we can harness its power to get people to adopt behavior,” he says. 

Marcus Collins on Michigan Minds

Collins uses the theory, research, and data that is available about humanity and then leverages his own research and experience running digital strategy for Beyonce and working for global brands like Google, Apple, and Nike to determine how brands contribute to culture, thrive in culture, and become the pinnacle of branding. 

“I hope the book itself serves as a cultural product, that it becomes text, it becomes literature that people refer to, to describe the world around them. That they use this as a way to express who they are,” Collins says. “At a higher level, I hope that people gain more agency to navigate culture.”

“I want people to know that this is not a marketing book, it’s a people book. I happen to be a marketer, so I put a marketing lens on it. But this book is all about people. I would argue that marketing is all about people, so it’s kind of one and the same. But at the core, this isn’t about teaching you to be a better marketer, it’s teaching you to be a better student of humanity. And I would argue that the best marketers are students of humanity, and the best people, our students of humanity as well.”