Six years ago I moved from the US to the EU to break from American culture and try something new. But in this short time, I’ve seen Amsterdam, my adopted home, morph into a place that can sometimes feel culturally more like San Francisco than a major European capital.
My anecdotal experience is the result of a larger commercial exchange between Europe and the United States reaching new heights. A flurry of retail investment apps inspired by America’s Robinhood are getting Europeans, historically more prone to saving, to invest their money for the very first time. Mobility startups looking to replicate Uber’s success have flourished in Europe with copycats like Bolt and Gett. And the European food tech ecosystem saw explosive growth through the pandemic as Europeans experienced the new convenience of having their food and groceries delivered on-demand.
Working daily across both markets, we at SYLVAIN see this blending of cultures as a state of ‘Europicana’ – a feeling of sameness in consumer culture and brand offerings in both markets.
You could argue this, or any cultural blending, creates more commercial potential for brands to scale across borders by catering to like-minded consumers. And there’s no doubt that companies can benefit from global consistency. Every business-building playbook will advocate for it because it’s cost-efficient, builds equity, and aids scalability. Tech companies, in particular, follow this guidance. With pressures to scale fast and gain ground in a market, it’s also easiest to create a one-size-fits-all global strategy.
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But what is lost when brands expand without a sense of cultural consciousness and nuance? While business models can travel well, the same cannot always be said for brands, for which culture has always been the lifeblood. In fact, consumers are increasingly pushing back against homogeneity and yearning for a return to communities, spaces, and subcultures that reflect their uniqueness. Demonstrating this point — a 2022 survey revealed that 68% of consumers feel more positively about brands demonstrating cultural knowledge, while another 2023 report showed businesses that used cultural data in their marketing strategy saw a 19% increase in engagement. And in the US, 38% of Americans shop local because they want to feel a sense of connection back to their community.
Others are rescinding loyalty to mass cultures that have lost the nuance that made them special. Sneakerheads hate how sneaker culture has been gentrified, and even the UFC, once a fringe sport, now has a mainstream audience, and many are claiming “casual fans” are ruining the viewing experience.
So how can brands bypass these traps to steward culture, and what role can tech brands play in the emerging movement against homogeneity?
1. Anchor through an authentic sense of place or space
Culture is formed around a shared physical (or proverbial) place, whether that be a city, cuisine, language, or myth. And brands with ambitions to grow big don’t need to dilute this in order to appeal to mass audiences.
How might tech brands travel around the world while remaining ‘rooted’ in a sense of place? Perhaps the best examples to learn from are FMCG brands that have proven this. Muji oozes the simplicity and functionality of Japanese lifestyle in all of its 700 stores. Havaianas takes consumers’ minds to the laid back beaches of Brazil. Desigual celebrates the vibrant, creative energy of its native Barcelona.
While the majority of tech companies are inherently placeless, they can still represent an idea, story or set of values through product, service or brand experience. For example, Apple has infamised “designed in California” as an homage not only to its headquarters but also to its design ethos, proving that tech brands can also ground in a sense of place.
2. Tap into the subcultures that transcend physical borders
If the 20th century’s greatest brands exported the mass culture of a place, the 21st century’s might be rooted in more niche subcultures that can be formed anytime and anywhere, much like tech companies.
How might tech brands, which often grow popular first by solving for niche audiences, maintain relevance within subcultures? Tech brands like Nike showcase the breadth of NYC dance subculture by weaving together interviews and moves from real NYC dancers in Own The Floor. Van Moof brings a Dutch POV on the role of cycling in smart cities through its e-bike business. And our recent work with Disney embodies the full complexity of the Black experience in its digital platform Andscape.
3. Re-centre the voice of the consumer
Ultimately, cultures require people to generate, nurture, and protect them. Rather than seeking to own, arbitrate, and express culture themselves, brands can set egos aside, re-centering and elevating the voices of the people who are at the centre of the cultures themselves – their own consumers.
How might tech brands, often leaning on personalisation as a solution, let consumers truly lead the way? Patagonia answers to the calling of environmentalists and treats them as stakeholders in the wider business. And Airbnb’s “experiences offering” elevates hosts to cultural experts who bring an on-the-ground, human voice to the brand experience, to name a few.
For how ubiquitous tech brands are in our everyday life, they can have an outsized role in the anti-homogeneity movement. And consumers will reward them for it. Ultimately, it’s up to digitally-native tech brands to lead a next era of branding which celebrates and nurtures culture, rather than losing it.