Helping brands to explore and fully realise their cultural relevance is a core theme in what we do. Crowd DNA consultant Alice Ellen explores the roots of such thinking; the work of Pierre Bourdieu in particular.

Academic theories and concepts often fall by the wayside when entering the world of consumer insight. Many books and articles are decades old and densely written in dry academic prose; definitely not something you can have a quick flick through on the commute to work. However, taking a little time to digest these theories can prove extremely beneficial in helping us understand our participants, by building upon and borrowing from relevant information.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction is one such text that contains some interesting and important ideas, including a framework that can still be used today, given a little tweaking. Cultural capital, in particular, is a useful concept to decode the world around us.

In a nutshell, Bourdieu identified cultural capital as one form of capital that your status might be derived from, together with economic, human and social capital. Cultural capital can be displayed through embodied expressions like tattoos and piercings, or by depicting our status through the material objects that we own.

Examples might include:

So what does this mean in terms of consumerism and branding? Delving into how people display their cultural capital can be an extremely useful way of pulling out the differences between various social groupings, especially when thinking about demographics and recruitment; it can help us move away from the sometimes reductionist approach of grouping consumers based on income and qualifications alone. Cultural capital is therefore a valuable concept and analytical process – one we can use to capture the nuances between social groupings and in mapping what different groups value.

A good example of how Bourdieu’s theories have been built upon for use in an up-to-date, culturally relevant context is Sarah Thornton’s work on youth cultures in the 1990s. Here she draws on the idea of cultural capital and extends it into the world of subcultures to explain how different social groups express their identity. Thornton describes “subcultural capital” as the way members of a subculture depict their status and differentiate themselves from other social groups, by obtaining cultural knowledge and expressing taste and style through commodities. Therefore, it is important to understand that different tribes in society express their cultural or subcultural capital through shared passions, as a way of measuring their cultural worth in the world.

This is why cultural capital, and more broadly speaking, culture in general is so important for a brand to both understand its target audience and relevance within the world. For, brands, as we know, don’t exist in a vacuum. Brands that understand this, instinctively focus on how to cultivate cultural capital first, playing an intrinsic role in consumers’ lives, and thus not just planning at a market level but really honing in on cultural strategy to gain a competitive edge and boost brand value.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold

Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire feature, 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold', is one of the greatest studies of celebrity ever. With insight and innovation in mind, Crowd DNA managing director Andy Crysell explains that it also demonstrates the power of observation over interview...

‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ ranks as a defining piece in so-called new journalism; a painstakingly detailed, powerful and fascinating under-the-skin read. It was, however, a state of affairs forced on Talese through Sinatra – recoiling at soon being 50; experiencing a number of career pressures; indeed suffering from a cold – refusing to talk to him. Celeb gawking aside, it serves equally as a prime example of the benefits of observation over interview (or, in ‘…Has A Cold”s case, in observation alongside only questioning those on the periphery of the scene, rather than the target ‘audience’).

Ethnographic-style reporting, next to visual documentation, brings a richness and a discursiveness to stories that regimented interviews don’t always allow for. Vitally, the broader cultural context becomes clearer and, often, less anticipated and potentially more advantageous ground gets to be covered – something that it can be a struggle to achieve when there’s a lengthy set of highly granular questions to crunch through in a discussion guide.

We’re not prescribing project method designs that are devoid of interviews in all work (sometimes highly granular questions really do need answering through very direct interviewing) – rather to highlight that, when well considered, there can be rigour and process in observation, too. And returning more particularly to the example of ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’, while skilled ethnographers practice observation as a matter of course, exploring the journalist skill-set as well opens the doors to bringing better reporting techniques and a storytelling mentality to ethnography.

It’s this blending of social science and journalism – ethnography with a more potent sense of interpretation – that’s particularly pertinent to how we work at Crowd DNA. Better thinking, being agile, ensuring impact – we like to think that we cover off all three of our guiding principles via this type of primary method.

Gay Talese’s story for Esquire begins as per below. Click the link thereafter to read the full piece

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold