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Cultural Codes

With the turn of each new year come three certainties: the scramble to book annual leave before your co-workers nab the best spots, the self-promise to live a happier life, and a rush to identify the biggest media trends of the year ahead.

But just as New Year’s Resolutions fall by the wayside, so cultural trends fluctuate. Often, by the time a trend is identified, it has evolved into something new.

While we recognise that how people will respond to each emerging socio-economic situation is difficult to predict, we can anticipate events, and track cultural signals that will shape the year ahead.

Embracing this challenge, we have developed our Cultural Codes framework. Using a combination of semiotics analysis and consumer data, we will identify the themes that shape societal shifts in the way that people feel and behave. Ultimately, the framework reveals how they consume, both in the mainstream and leading edge.

Once a cultural code has been identified, it will be plugged into our social and web data monitoring platform, the Cultural Insight Engine, allowing us to surface insights in real-time and track them at both a macro and micro level.

So far in 2023, we have identified nine such cultural codes which are shaping consumer mindsets: Collectivism, Nouveau Nostalgia, Hybrid Hype, Anti-Mentality, Edit Create Copy, Ephemeral Experimentation, Ripple Effect, Cycle of Love, and Predictable Unpredictability. In particular, the latter two hold relevance amongst younger audiences.

Predictable unpredictability highlights Gen Z’s rebellion against toxic positivity. With the successive crises of Covid lockdowns, climate change, and the cost of living having proliferated for much of their lives, Gen Z would be forgiven for lacking optimism. But rather than succumbing to the ‘permacrisis’, this generation looks to satirise it through fashion trends such as #avantapocalypse. Further, four in five say they actively seek out content that reflects both the highs and lows of life.

Cycle of love mirrors how Gen Z are acutely aware of their purchases’ impact on the planet and place cyclical values at the forefront of their thinking. For two-thirds of 16-24s, it’s no longer enough for brands to simply tell of their sustainability credentials – this generation wants to see them in action. Reflecting this, some brands have taken purpose-led approaches to their marketing. Rubicon created a special build in the heart of London made entirely from recycled cans, whilst H&M also sought to improvise with sustainable OOH – by turning their posters into shoppable tote bags.

Understanding how these codes develop and influence each other will be crucial to making sense of the emerging cultural landscape and explaining sentiment during key events throughout the year. But this work is far from static, and we expect some codes to grow or diminish in importance as new trends emerge.

If recent years have taught us anything, it’s the impossibility of fully predicting the year ahead by the time spring has sprung – just ask your March 2020 self how they expected the rest of that year to go.

But, short of inventing the crystal ball, developing this cultural framework, and tracking codes as the landscape progresses, offers our best chance to harness relevant insights for our audiences. By recognising and understanding these codes, brands can build positive relationships beyond their product and maintain relevance – even in unpredictable times.