From holidays to social movements, environmental crises, sports events, musical tours and celebrations of human achievement, cultural moments capture our collective attention and emotions, offering shared experiences that transcend the everyday. Many profoundly influence social norms and values, making engaging with them a matter of strategic consideration – and perhaps even more meaningfully, societal contribution – for brands.

And yet today, the meaning of a brand engaging in a cultural moment is about more than a simple act of showing up. As consumers, employees, investors and other stakeholders increasingly demand sincerity from business leaders, scrutiny of how brands participate in shaping our collective narrative has intensified…. Pushing them to move beyond performative gestures and engage in ways that genuinely reflect their core beliefs and purpose.

Participation has the potential to demonstrate shared passion, alignment with people’s values, commitment to social causes, support for marginalized populations and, ultimately, reinforce a brand’s role in driving positive change. So it should come as no surprise that superficial engagement can risk both reputation and revenue, while thoughtful involvement can differentiate a brand, enhance loyalty, attract talent and grow the bottom line.

To avoid the pitfalls of tokenism and performative activism, today’s heightened awareness insists on a purpose-aligned approach that underscores a brand’s role as an active participant in culture, social discourse and societal progress.

Spanning the Spectrum: Reflecting to Shaping the Zeitgeist

Beyond the Moment: Principles for Purpose-Driven Brand Engagement in Our Cultural Landscape

Guided by purpose, participating in cultural moments is a nuanced decision that extends from pure engagement with cultural events, celebrations, and holidays to taking bold stances on pressing social issues. Each step on the spectrum represents an opportunity to align with audiences, reflect or shape the zeitgeist, and contribute meaningfully to societal progress.

  • Pure Engagement: At this end of the spectrum, brands participate in cultural moments through actions that resonate with broad audiences without taking a societal stand. Examples include YouTube’s Earth Day Collaboration, IKEA’s “As-is online” Service and Airbnb’s Themed TV Show Sets.
  • Engagement with Social Resonance: Moving along the spectrum, brands start to infuse their engagement with societal undertones, subtly addressing broader issues through their initiatives, as seen with MTV’s “Get Out the Vote”, Adobe Stock’s Gender Stereotype Challenge and L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator.
  • Active Social Commentary: Here, brands begin to explicitly engage with social issues, providing resources and support for causes that reflect their values, demonstrated by Visa’s Support for Refugee Athletes, P&G’s “Thank You, Mom” Campaign and Bumble’s Relief Fund for Texas.
  • Commitment to Change: Brands taking bold stances on social issues, actively advocating for change and aligning their actions with their core values, are seen in Sephora’s Pledge to Black-Owned Brands, Adobe’s advocacy for LGBTQ+ Rights and Microsoft’s Digital Skills and Inclusion Programs.
  • Taking a Stand: At the far end of the spectrum, brands fully embrace their role as change agents, using their influence to drive societal shifts, exemplified by REI’s Community Action on Climate and Equity, Airbnb’s Support for LGBTQ+ Causes and Ford’s International Women’s Day Campaign.
Principles for Effective Engagement in Cultural Moments

Five principles guide alignment with purpose and support a balanced, thoughtful approach to participating in cultural moments:

  1. Map Fit with Purpose: Understand your brand’s influence across relevant global and local narratives. Assess how purpose intersects with cultural moments and societal issues, identifying opportunities for engagement that resonate with your core values and for which key stakeholders, especially employees, expect you to show up. This mapping lays the groundwork for strategic, purposeful participation, ensuring relevance and alignment with your brand’s purpose.
  2. Embrace a Balanced Approach to Engagement: Carefully consider the spectrum of cultural moments, balancing pure celebration with the potential for social commentary or change. This approach ensures that your brand remains relevant and respectful across diverse moments, aligning participation with both lighthearted cultural celebrations and more profound social conversations.
  3. Communicate with Genuine Voice: Whether engaging in celebration or dialogue, use a tone of voice that is consistent and true to your brand—human, honest and reflective of your principles. Sincere communication demonstrates your brand’s evolution in response to societal shifts, showing how it remains connected and relevant to the zeitgeist.
  4. Empower Through Inclusive Actions: Move beyond representation to actively empower and amplify diverse voices. Seek opportunities to offer real support, using advocacy and community engagement to drive meaningful contributions. Actions should resonate deeply and result in tangible benefits for communities and causes.
  5. Continuously Assess and Adapt Strategies: Regularly evaluate the effectiveness and impact of your engagement efforts, adapting strategies to stay aligned with the shifting zeitgeist. This ongoing reassessment allows your brand to evolve alongside societal expectations and amplify its impact, maintaining relevance and credibility through cultural engagement.

 

The Power of Purpose-Driven Brand Participation

In navigating the cultural moments, brands hold the power to shape our collective narrative and progress society through the ways in which they participate. Truly meaningful engagement requires a purpose-driven approach that aligns with both a brand’s core beliefs and society’s expectations. In considering where we have permission to play, what we should say, and when we should show up, brands will cultivate connections that resonate on a commercial level while also fostering a deeper sense of community and social responsibility.

With purpose as their guide, brands can become more than observers of cultural moments…. They can become active participants in society, echoing the shared experiences that bind us. Through strategic, thoughtful engagement, brands have the opportunity to foster stronger connections with people (whether they be in the role of customer, employee, investor or other stakeholder) and also drive meaningful societal progress, growing the bottom line while also affirming their place as partners in shaping a future that values inclusivity, sustainability and shared prosperity.