Culture, Context, and Commerce — the Trinity for Brand Growth revisited in the Age of Web 3.0

The pandemic pushed us into the second era of digital early. Brands with innovative products that resonate with the culture stand to win…

The past year was an extraordinary one in many ways. Personally, I have learned new things, reframed things already learned, and tried to unlearn some old stuff. Here’s my shot at what’s coming and why I’m super optimistic about what lies ahead.

12 months ago, I wrote about how we jumped into a “remote first” world because of Covid-19. To illustrate, I borrowed an analogy from the history of the automobile. The first 50 years of the automobile industry — from Carl Benz’s patent motor car in 1886 to the construction of the first Autobahn in 1936 — were about starting car companies and figuring out what cars should look like and what they should be. The second 50 years, on the other hand, were about designing a world around the ubiquitous PC (personal car). Only then was it possible to move to the suburbs, work in the city and do your weekend shopping in the middle of nowhere.

Turning to our industry, the first 50 years began with the invention of the PC in 1976. Thanks to Covid-19, we jumped to the second half of the cycle a few years early. Accenture’s Julie Sweet calls it compressed transformation. The roads (the cloud) are already paved, and the cars (PCs/smartphones) are both nearly perfect and ubiquitous. However, unlike in the automotive era, the direction of travel has turned 180 degrees. People are no longer driving to things, but things are coming to them — as data. That allows them to work, communicate and consume. 

Thus, my conclusion culminated in the imperative: everything that can be done remotely will be done remotely in the future, in the main. 

The Digital Ages

Today, we find ourselves asking how will the world be shaped in the remote-first age? How can we help our clients succeed and grow? Will it just be about the Metaverse and Web 3.0 in the future? Not quite, and my versioning of the Internet looks a little different to most people’s vision.

Let’s think about how each part of this era has shaped business:

Internet 1.0: Commerce (1994-)

In the Internet 1.0, era we create relevance for clients by making them transactional to their customers. We develop commerce platforms, integrate their products into marketplaces, and run appropriate marketing promotions and processes. 

We transform clients into direct-to-consumer businesses.

Internet 2.0: Context (2007-)

Then, during the Internet 2.0 age, we create relevance by contextualising brands. We develop communication and content formats for owned and paid channels. Embracing the Internet 1.0, every digital touchpoint becomes an entry point for a transaction. 

We transform clients into direct-to-consumer brands.

Internet 3.0: Culture (2021-)

On Internet 3.0, we create relevance by seeking and reinforcing cultural resonance for brands. This has been the key insight for me over the past 12 months. In the book I wrote a few years ago, Transformational Products (Hardcover/Kindle), I was still justifying behavioural changes of people exclusively through the transformational aspects of digital products (such as a 10x better experience). Now, I feel that this approach falls short, and we also need to consider psychological and sociological dimensions.

In this sense, we must support our clients to not only be transactional in contextually-enriched channels but also to innovate products that are an excellent fit into today’s culture. Embracing Internet 1.0 and 2.0, every digital product could become a culture-changing artefact. 

We transform clients into culture-shaping brands.

Culture, relevance, and resonance

Three terms are essential here:

  • culture
  • relevance
  • resonance

Thanks to the work of Clifford Geertz and Max Weber, we understand humans as living entangled in self-spun webs of meaning. We call these webs culture. Relevance reflects the meaning of a brand in human minds. In the words of Hans Domizlaffrelevance implies for brands a way “to secure a monopoly position in people’s psyches.” Following Hartmut Rosaresonance ultimately characterises the relationship of people and brands as a vibrating cultural system with significant feedback loops. 

Following this logic, innovative products that generate resonance become culture-shaping artefacts. They are culture cast in code. They must be designed to be as popular as possible; to work immediately without intermediate stages or mental effort. The starting point for creating these products is always a deep understanding of people and their specific cultural context.

This approach diametrically separates the design and build process from traditional software development, which starts with legacy systems and business processes and ends with users. In contrast, we start the other way around with the experience and context and develop from there back towards technology and processes. 

Designing for shared culture values

Digital products — compared to physical products — are only successful if people use them regularly. Sustainability is built-in by design. Digital products create the most value through network effects the more frequently and the more people they are used by. They then resonate with the culture and give it direction. 

The transmission belt that connects people and brands is a cultural consensus on shared values. 

If this consensus is missing, something in the system breaks. You can see this at work in the hype topics of the past year. The idea of decentralisation drives Web 3.0, which often involves blockchain technologies, such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). It’s about building assets (money, rights, code, contracts, etc.) in the form of tokens into the inner workings of almost everything we do digitally. This goes all the way to concepts of decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs). All this happens without the involvement of central institutions. 

The culture conflicts to come

At the core, cultural battles break out around these ideas.

For example, there is a deep distrust in one part of the society for the central institutions (from Big Tech to government actions on Covid-19 and vaccinations). This anti-establishment attitude has its roots in both the libertarian and left-wing cultures.

In contrast, other parts of society that support central and vital institutions rely on a democratically legitimised mandate to shape them. Here, Web 3.0 is sometimes judged as “a new anarcho-casino-capitalism world where every fourteen-year-old kid can launch a fly-by-night Ponzi scheme and pump it on social media all from the comfort and anonymity of their parent’s basement.”

Examples such as the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs show that these conflicts revolve around different cultural phenomena, too. In this case, pop culture resonates exceptionally with a digital and financial elite seeking new exclusive markers of distinction.

Opportunity in upheaval

So, times are a bit confusing. But times of cultural upheaval also offer incredible opportunities.

From the ideas just described, we can derive a super-simple formula:  

  • Innovative products at the intersection of code and culture,
  • Contextual amplification, and
  • Transactional ability.

Brands that focus on this trinity will have massive growth opportunities in the coming years.

In this spirit, I wish you curiosity, energy, and joy in 2022, and above all: stay safe!

Photo by Aaron Jones on Unsplash