Skip to content Skip to footer

Cultural intelligence is a core part of inclusive marketing.

I would even go as far as to say is you cannot do inclusive marketing well if you don’t have a firm foundation and cultural intelligence of the communities that you are specifically trying to reach and engage.

That’s one of the reasons why you hear me talk about cultural intelligence quite a bit around here. So today, for this episode, I am so excited to have a sit down with someone who actually wrote a book on cultural intelligence for marketing.

Doctor Anastasia is a wealth of knowledge, and she takes both a practical and an academic approach to cultural intelligence through her methodology, I’m so excited for you to hear this conversation.

So after this short break, you will hear my chat with Doctor Anastasia all about cultural intelligence for marketers.

Sonia: Hey, Anastasia. Thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Anastasia: I’m doing well, Sonia. Thanks for having me here. Very excited about our conversation today.

Sonia: Oh, I am too. We’re gonna have a really wonderful one. I say that all the time, but, like, each one is so rich, and I’m always thrilled to have the conversation. Okay. Before we get too far into it, tell the people who are you and what you do.

Anastasia: I am a cultural theorist, turned brand strategist. All I still, bring is my cultural theory training, I guess, to the work that I do now. I am a senior insights lead at Reddit.

And, in my thought leadership, I engage with a lot of questions of the inclusive market of conscious marketing. How do we really understand the role of brands and culture? And so recently, I wrote a book, Culture Intelligence for marketers, which kind of builds on that.

So that’s what I do and trying to bring, more cultural insights into the world of marketing.

Sonia: For sure. Alright. Well, we’re gonna talk all about cultural intelligence today and how to integrate those things. But to make sure that we get everybody on the same page, can you just tell us what is cultural intelligence?

Anastasia: I love that question because, you know, due to my academic background, I just believe that definitions are very important. And as I write in the book, we can go online and look at different pieces, different pieces of thought leadership, and all of them kind of define cultural intelligence, in different ways.

So, originally, the concept comes from cross-cultural management studies, and some marketers have picked it up and applied it in a similar way to suggest that cultural intelligence, really refers to our ability to speak to people from different cultures.

I come more so from the background of trends research and market research and really helping understand the role that brands have as culture is evolving.

So I kinda built up on that original definition to define cultural intelligence as a practice of tracking, analyzing, and understanding where culture is headed.

So cultural movements, social causes, trends within the cultural marketplace, and using that cultural knowledge to help brands and businesses create commercial advantage, and at the same time, impact culture and society in a positive manner.

Sonia: Very cool. Very cool. Okay. So, in your book, you state that culture and cultural intelligence can be sources of competitive advantage for a brand. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I imagine not a lot of people realize why or that this could even be the case.

Anastasia: I feel very passionate about this question because, in the marketing discourse, I find more and more there’s kind of collapsing anything that has to do with cultural and social issues into the idea of social purpose.

So brands doing well in the world and doing good for the benefit of people. But what seems to be missing sometimes from where I sit is the understanding that regardless of the fact that some brands have a social purpose attached to their business positioning,

All brands are engaged in culture and are looking to harness trends and stay relevant. That question of relevancy is key to any business that wants to continue to thrive and keep up. And so for that reason, cultural intelligence is really speaking to that broader need for businesses to understand their consumers and understand how their expectations, how values, and their needs are evolving along as culture evolves.

Culture intelligence really offers brand-driven businesses an opportunity to look at culture, to understand their role, not only within the category, but within culture and society more broadly, and use that knowledge to position their business in a way that really speaks to what consumers are looking for at one point or another.

Sonia: Yeah. So a lot of times, we will see brands engaging in the culture from a standpoint of language and slang, and that’s often how they started to dip their toe in because they want to feel like they’re cool and relevant with what’s going on and the way in which people are talking.

But sometimes people are unable to relate to it, and other times people aren’t, and they’re like, I wish brands wouldn’t do that. I’m interested from your perspective to see what your thoughts are on where brands commonly struggle when trying to embrace the culture and apply their understanding of cultural intelligence in their marketing.

Anastasia: I’m so glad you asked that question because it seems that that’s precisely the area, where most mistakes happen as brands are trying to be relevant and engage cultural communities.

But let’s be real. Marketing is still a very white industry that’s dominated by people in decision-making roles that are not necessarily connected to the communities that we often speak to.

And so this example of language is something that I specifically feel passionate about and why I think cultural intelligence is so important because we see brands wanting to speak to Gen Z audiences, right, young people.

And a lot of times they do so in a way that’s not our only, not particularly compelling on or authentic but is actually appropriate of, of African American vernacular of, black vernacular cultures where that comes from.

And what happens when brands go to market?

Papa Jones, I believe, is a recent example of that, of using the black vernacular, for instance, to speak to young people without really understanding, well, where that vernacular comes from, what kind of communities have been the producers of those linguistic traditions or cultural art artifacts that brands are borrowing from.

And so for that reason, it seems very important to treat cultural intelligence not only as, you know, doing well for culture or doing well for society and contributing, but really taking the time to understand where are we getting the elements of marketing that we are harnessing for the benefit of the business.

And that kind of raises the question of, well, what ethical considerations are marketers obligated to consider when trying to resonate with consumers while borrowing from culture communities that are not respected in the process.

Sonia: Sure. For sure. Alright. So I wanna get into the details a little bit because you’ve outlined a bit of a framework for cultural intelligence that you’re calling the 4 c’s. Can you walk us through what those 4 c’s c’s are so we can start to give a foundation of, like, what what does this even involve?

Anastasia: Absolutely. The 4 c’s from the framework are meant or I tried to design it in a way that would help marketers navigate some of the challenges, and nuances that I just was talking about. So 4 c’s framework really, goes through 4 pillars, which are culture, communication, critical consciousness, and community.

And the way that I imagine it and conceptualize it is this culture is the central pillar where all starts. In the book, I talk quite a bit about the importance of brands understanding the role that they play in culture and in their category at the same time.

So it’s really about thinking of brands not only just as businesses or entities just floating, you know, in the marketplace, but, brands as cultural agents that are drawing on communities, on cultural artifacts, on traditions, or linguistic traditions as we just talked about and are signaling something to the world.

And so, that brings us to communication, which is helping marketers understand how messaging travels into the marketplace. We can think of multiple examples where brands failed miserably with inclusive marketing strategies. And you might agree that for some of us, we would have seen that coming miles away. Right?

Many of these mistakes happen because the right people are not in the room to provide input and to consult and supervise that, but also because brands are not anticipating the potential interpretations that some segments of their audiences might have.

So communication really says, how do we anticipate some of those interpretations that could arise when we put something into the marketplace? And then critical consciousness really focuses on how we infuse values of equity, social responsibility, and diversity into the core of marketing practice, not as an afterthought or an add-on.

And community speaks to customer engagement and engaging with communities in a way that feels more reciprocal and less extractive and appropriative, which as we know, has been how brands have operated in decades past with no real accountability for the culture that’s being borrowed from communities and then profited from.

Sonia: Yeah. So that was one of the things I wanted to dive into a little bit more because I see this a lot. More brands are starting to engage in inclusive marketing, which I’m thrilled about, but they’re doing it in a manner that just feels like they’re extracting from these communities because we’re like, okay.

We’re gonna start marketing to you so you’ll buy more of our stuff without actually uplifting the community, investing in the community, collaborating with them. As a result, a lot of people from underrepresented and underserved communities are skeptical of brands that suddenly decide to start engaging in inclusive marketing.

So what are your thoughts on how brands should prioritize the community aspect of your 4 c’s of cultural intelligence to make sure that they are doing this in the right way?

And the second part to this question is, does this come from the brand, like, the actual marketing team, or is this something that feels like it’s coming from, like, corporate communications or charitable contributions if it’s something from there? So I know it’s a big question.

Anastasia: I guess I will pick up on your second question, first, which I’m a believer that marketing plays an important function because that’s how a brand goes to the marketplace.

That’s how a brand puts out its messaging and its ideas into culture. But I don’t think it should be necessarily restricted just to the marketing function.

And I have heard that quite a few people outside of the marketing profession as such have picked up the book and found it useful, which is what was my intention to, really present these ideas to various functions within marketing and beyond.

And part of what we talk about inclusive marketing is so valuable and so, should be welcome, as you said, but also cannot be divorced from the business’s broader social responsibility, the practices, labor practices, supply chain practices, and so on.

And I think that that part of the conversation we haven’t even unpacked yet, and we should because that’s how performativity and kind of superficial justice of inclusivity, arises when businesses present marketing messages that are inclusive but are not quite inclusive and equitable, in running the business. So I do wholeheartedly believe that both should coexist.

And to your first question about the community, it seems very important to me for us as marketing professionals to actually be honest that part of what it means to go to market as a business is to be opportunistic to some extent.

I was just writing about this last night, for a piece I’m publishing where I was talking about how in order to speak to communities in a more authentic real way, actually, as marketers, we should be very honest about what our function is.

Like, without romanticizing brands as some saviors, you know, as entities that can go and create inclusivity. Right? There’s some sense of humility that I think this work requires. It starts by saying, that historically, businesses have appropriated and, frankly, exploited a lot of cultural communities.

So what does it mean to give back? And I am a firm believer in integrating material impact and financial contribution into any kind of purpose-driven marketing campaign, an inclusive campaign that not only speaks to or most often ad communities, but actually treats communities as partners.

That can look in a variety of ways, such as contributing financially to existing cultural organizations that are already doing the work, as well as bringing members of that community as paid consultants and part members of the process and compensating people directly related to these communities in very tangible material ways.

Sonia: I love that because I think that this really goes to the whole concept of what it means to build an inclusive brand. It’s not just about the marketing and the campaigns that you produce.

The entire brand needs to be thinking about inclusion and thinking about how we serve these communities and be involved in that format, and be involved in that.

And so, corporate contributions, other types of programs that are happening at the brand level, in addition to the marketing, in addition to the hiring, etcetera, it really speaks to letting consumers know that, yes, this brand is about what they say they are, and it’s not just here so they can sell more stuff to, you know, specific communities.

They understand that it means investing in the community as well, and that happens in a multitude of ways.

Alright. So, what are your thoughts on how brands should go about embedding cultural intelligence into their marketing team, so it’s not just something that they read a research study about, that they go out and they know what’s happening, and they understand what’s happening in the communities.

Anastasia: Well, I’m a big believer that we need a total paradigm shift on how we approach inclusive marketing or how I have started more often calling it conscious marketing.

And I can unpack why I’m starting to use the language of consciousness. And it’s precisely because so much of this work is still treated as a kind of afterthought and an area of work that might be more relevant to explicitly purpose-driven brands rather than all brand-driven businesses that are going to market.

I find it so important to talk about this idea of nurturing and understanding our own biases as marketers and our assumptions that get ingrained into the work that we do now.

So from my point of view, this work doesn’t necessarily have to start for a brand with a purpose-driven campaign right away or an inclusive marketing campaign. It starts with embedding certain values within our teams and organizations, where that sort of thinking is valued, normalized, encouraged, and supported by the leadership.

And what does that mean? You know, I find that cultural intelligence can be thought of as almost a professional skill that we need to develop, a matter of cultural literacy as a skill set that modern-day marketers need to acquire and develop over time.

And it starts with leaders normalizing that conversation and centering that conversation, and pushing back against some of the broader cultural conversations that we’re having right now that are really not only pushing back but actively attacking equity and inclusion work.

And so within brands, I think we need to actively resist that by reframing the conversation to say, well, to be a modern-day marketer in this day and age, serving the communities of people that we serve as businesses, that has to be part of the skill set.

And so in the cultural intelligence for marketers, the way that I conceptualize that work is not a specific campaign, but rather a set of skills that marketers need to acquire, which starts with questioning our own assumptions.

Because I often find that we look back at incredibly, egregiously racist and sexist advertising that has been put out throughout history, and we kind of try to distance ourselves from it to say, well, that was offensive.

But we don’t really think about how ourselves as marketers, we are also producing media, and we must have biases and prejudices that are baked in. So for me, it all starts with nurturing a culture of questioning within organizations.

Sonia: For sure. This is a related question that is about marketing teams as well.

Because I’m starting to see more and more that brands are having people whose job is inclusive marketing, and multicultural marketing, is your what are your thoughts on is your what are your thoughts on making sure that as brands are thinking about cultural intelligence, they’re not making it the job of 1 person who has this title, or that they’re like, as a brand starts getting more well versed in cultural intelligence, what is the role of integrating that with people who actually have lived experiences that are part of that culture? Because there are a lot of nuances and building blocks, I imagine, that ensure that the right voices are being heard while everybody is developing this skill.

Anastasia: Absolutely. I think that’s so important. And that’s why I try to draw a pretty clear line in my own work between expertise and lived experience and being part of communities.

I have 2 degrees in black studies. I did my bachelor’s in African American studies and my PhD in race and gender studies, focusing on black feminist studies.

So oftentimes, I can speak broadly to these issues, but I should not be involved in a campaign that is speaking to black communities.

For example, I’m not from that community. And I think there is a kind of confusion around the lack of clarity, I should say, within marketing circles between our collective responsibility as marketers to check our biases, to ensure that our work is inclusive, to ensure that, we are checking our work, that we are being conscientious and self-aware enough of how our own lived experiences are actively affecting the world that we produce versus who gets to be behind the camera, who gets to write the script, Who gets to be the creative?

I mean, I feel like, some of the most egregious marketing fails that we see, which seem inclusive but just don’t feel authentic enough are because the rooms are full, I mean, frankly, of white people who have no connection to the communities as we speak to.

And we see, you know, multicultural agencies that are you know, some of them are now black-led and, specifically led by leaders from those communities. But that has not always been the case, and I think there’s still a segment of marketing where that is not normalized.

So I draw that line between our collective responsibility to check our biases and our assumptions, and our responsibility to actually create hiring opportunities for people from those communities to bring them in.

And so for me, that kind of balances out of, where we should take responsibility ourselves and when it is the right thing to do to step back and ensure that correct people are at the decision-making table as part of the creative process and so on. So that’s how I think about it.

Sonia: Yeah. Like, you’re going back to what you said earlier, it’s a big paradigm shift, right, in terms of how we think about this, how we go to market, how we build and shape our teams so that we can engage with these communities effectively.

Alright. So one other question before we switch gears a little bit. Let’s say brands like, okay, we understand cultural intelligence is critically important. It is a source of competitive advantage. It is what we need to do to connect authentically with the communities that we want to serve. Where do we get started? What what’s your what’s your advice?

Anastasia: I would I mean, realistically speaking or idealistically speaking, I guess, the answers, differ of, you know, from what I hope will happen, which is that brands and businesses more broadly kind of create space institutionally, in terms of resourcing to do this work because we can talk all day about what brands should do.

However, if the leadership is not invested and is not providing resources and a platform to do this work within the organizations. Again, as you said, it falls onto the shoulders of select people, who then are less focused on doing the work finding the bureaucracies, and spending their time convincing the leadership that, this work is valuable.

And so, I truly believe that the future of marketing is the creation of cultural intelligence teams in-house where brands can invest in cultural literacy as an organizational value.

And, again, do I see that happening shortly? Not necessarily. I think we still have a long way to go. But at the very least, I think brands, should begin by bringing in consultants, members of the community, and audiences to which they speak and engage them in the process, at the very least. I speak in the book a lot about co-creation.

I think the era of marketing where brands just speak to consumers and the rooms where campaigns are made are not only representative of people that brands are is coming to an end.

And consumers are more skeptical, scrutinizing brands. There’s just no way that brands can succeed without tapping into that co-creation. In the book, I spent quite a few pages talking about partnerships with cultural communities, what it means to bring in not only a consultant as a one-off, you know, check-the-box kind of project, but engaging people in the work.

And it might sound like an extra investment when we know marketing leaders are struggling with budgets and financial priorities. But I just don’t see how any brand can be successful, not only near future, but in the long term future of 10, 20, 30 years, without investing institutionally in that kind of function within their organizations.

Sonia: Yeah. So as you were explaining that, one thing that kinda of brought up a thought is would you think it would be good for a brand? Because every brand of a large size, medium size has a market research department or an insights department or team.

Does cultural intelligence fit into that, or should it be its sort of area specifically where we’re constantly staying in touch with culture, including co-creation, and things like that, and then sort of dispersing that on the team? Is that kind of how you’re explaining it, or is that something is that my imagination?

Anastasia: I do think that it can be, well suited for insights teams. I guess it just depends on how that team is structured. You know, I said on the insights team myself, and, that is precisely what we do, understanding where culture is headed, what community conversation is telling us about what consumers value, what they expect, how to speak to them in a way that’s really relevant and emotionally resonant.

And the reason I find it important for there to be a firm intersection between insights function and cultural intelligence, is because as I said earlier, conscious marketing cannot be an afterthought, and it has to start from the beginning.

And where do we start with research? With an understanding of the consumers. And so I am less inclined to think of consumer and market research as completely separate from cultural intelligence.

If anything, I think the practice of cultural intelligence needs to be more firmly embedded within the market, and consumer research function so that the insights we produce about the consumers that we speak to have that quality of the principle of equity and inclusivity baked into the work that we do and the work that informs the broader strategy down the road.

I talk quite a bit in the book about this idea of universal human insight and how historically what we call universal insight is a perspective of white dominant audiences.

So for that reason, I find the integration of cultural intelligence into that research process to be, extremely important.

Though, of course, in an ideal world, I would love to see a separate function dedicated to the study of culture within our brands. But, of course, we have to operate within the realistic parameters of the work that we do in organizations.

Sonia: Very cool. Alright. So let’s switch gears slightly. I’m curious about your perspective as a consumer. Can you tell me about a time when a brand made you feel like you belonged?

Anastasia: What a good question. I think of the most recent example that perhaps isn’t some award-winning campaign, you know, that we would often talk about and examples of, you know, well-executed inclusive marketing.

But from a very real human perspective, I was in New York City the other week for the launch of my book, and I was using Lyft to move around the city.

And I opened the app, and I have read before about their woman plus initiative that offered, me as a customer, as a rider to opt into being matched with a female or nonbinary driver whenever that is possible.

Now there are certain flaws to that structurally because, in our society, there are just many fewer female or nonbinary drivers in such a male-dominated profession.

But at that moment, as somebody who has had to worry about my safety, and that’s, like, really part of my lived experience, as once a girl, now a woman, I felt connected to the brand that there was that consideration in place for what it means for me as a woman to move for the world in regards to my safety.

And although in those days, I did not get matched with a female driver, again, structurally, they’re just much fewer drivers of the same gender as me. I did feel a connection to the brand and feel very seen for my experience.

So it’s an imperfect example within a system that is imperfect by design and functions in a particular way. But it is an instance where I was like, oh, I feel really seen in my customer journey. So that’s that’s the one that comes to mind.

Sonia: I love that, because and even your description of it. Because I think that sometimes when it comes to inclusive marketing, people feel like it’s gotta be perfect from the beginning.

Like, we can’t do it unless it’s perfect, and that’s not really the essence of it. I think sometimes seeing people as an example of lift, it just makes it goes a long way.

And then through the process of cocreation, you know, identifying, you know, ways in which we can make that better, you can improve something over time.

But it all starts with seeing people and understanding and recognizing, acknowledging that different people have different experiences.

So how can we, as a brand, make sure that we work with those? Right? So love that example.

Where can people find you if they wanna know more about you and your work? I’m gonna drop a link to your book and the show notes, in case they wanna follow along. You’ve got a very lively LinkedIn account.

Anastasia: I do. I do. I was about to mention that. Well, I feel very passionate about curating those critical conversations because I speak to a lot of marketers who really wanna do well, but don’t know where to start or feel alone in their journey.

So I am quite active on LinkedIn, where folks connect with me. I am also on Instagram, although I should wear my content is a little bit more inclined towards activism. But I always, talk about the need to expand our point of reference as marketers.

So, if you’re interested in perspectives of grassroots activist communities where, you know, I’ve had 15 years of experience being in the social justice movements, my Instagram is a little bit of a different window into my life outside of marketing.

Sonia: Well, I will put links to all that in the show notes. I love following along with you. I love, your boldness and how you talk about things, and you’re fearless.

And I love the fearlessness that you have in your content and just talking about issues. So definitely, I recommend that people follow you.

Anastasia: Thank you, Sonia. I, am so, humbled and have been following your journey for quite a while now. So, just happy that we got to finally meet face to face and chat, and hope this is just one of many conversations to come.

Sonia: Absolutely. It will be. Any parting words of wisdom for marketers and business leaders who want to do a better job of incorporating cultural intelligence into their inclusive marketing strategy, into their marketing strategy, period? Let’s just say that.

Anastasia: Let me just double down on the point that I just made about extending our point of reference. I find that oftentimes working on brands, we kind of can be detached from the outside world and consumed by the brands that we manage or branding clients that we serve.

And I find that my superpower is my connection to ordinary communities, as somebody who probably was boycotting and criticizing brands 10 years ago.

And so, I would just invite marketing colleagues to engage in culture beyond the realms of business and see what people are talking about outside of the bubbles of LA and New York City, Chicago, you know, where life is lived.

That’s what my favorite cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, really teaches us. Culture doesn’t happen in trend reports. It’s happening in ordinary lives that are lived in experience.

So, expand your point of reference and be open to uncomfortable conversations because that’s really how we innovate and advance forward.

Sonia: Very cool. Thanks so much, Anastasia, for stopping by. This has been a Trishie, and enjoy.

Anastasia: Likewise. Thank you.

That was such a fun conversation.

I hope you enjoyed it just as much as I did and are inspired to go out and start to incorporate more cultural intelligence into the way in which your brand operates.

And I just love how we chatted a little bit about the end, about maybe embedding that as part of your overall market research process.

I’m curious. How will you start to think about how to engage or incorporate cultural intelligence insights into your marketing on an ongoing basis? Definitely, let me know. Send me an email. Let’s have a conversation on social. Continue the conversation.

I wanna hear all about the ways you’re in which you’re thinking about this. Also, if you are enjoying the show, I would so love it if you could leave a rating and review for it, any of your podcast players of choice. It does go a long way toward helping more people discover the show as well.

Are you getting the inclusion in marketing newsletter? If not, really, really, really, what are you even doing? Each week, I send you news, tips, insights, stories, and all kinds of good insights to help you build an inclusive brand that attracts and retains a bigger, more diverse customer base. Go to inclusion in to get signed up. I’ll also drop a link to it in the show notes for you, so you can access it easily.

Until next time, remember, everyone deserves to have a place where they belong.

Let’s use our individual and collective power to ensure more people feel like they do.

Thanks so much for listening.

Talk to you soon.