How brave brands remain relevant today – VMLY&R EMEA CEO

by Louise Burgers. EMEA chief executive of VMLY&R, Andrew Dimitriou discusses the attraction of cultural magnetism for brands and how brands stay culturally relevant today.

by Louise Burgers. This is the story of how brands can remain culturally relevant today and how a global agency bought a porn magazine for some of their biggest, bravest clients and turned it into an award-winning women’s rights campaign which won a slew of awards last year.

EMEA chief executive of VMLY&R, Andrew Dimitriou, was in South Africa this week to discuss the attraction of cultural magnetism for brands, based on recently released global research by VMLY&R. The global advertising agency conducted the research because brands have never been more important to business than they are today, which puts them under more pressure than ever.

Cultural magnetism has been identified as a key driver for successful brands, because age, religion, geography and boundaries no longer hold a monopoly over defining communities and the agency advises that “brands have to transcend all of this to play the role of ‘uniter’”.

In an interview with Retailing Africa, Dimitriou described cultural magnetism as our point of view on the world. “Cultural magnetism as we define it is to create emotional, cultural and experiential connections with brands. And what we have done is quantify it as a brand evaluator tool to demonstrate that brands that actually have cultural magnetism have a better ROI (return on investment) over time. It is our point of view on the world and it actually informs how we go to market, specifically in the type of work we create for brands. For example, we always look for the opportunity to bolster emotional connections and that is really trying to elevate branding beyond the emotion and create meaning in people’s lives.”

Cultural connections with brands are often talked about, he said, but not always executed well. “Having a strong emotional connection is not enough these days, you need to embed that emotional connection into culture; and embed it in today’s world.”

The third pillar, after establishing emotional and cultural connections for brands, is the experiential connection, a set of meaningful emotional customer experiences associated with a brand. These three pillars are what the agency uses to approach all client problems with the lens of delivery, being cultural magnetism.

A magnetic brand

The Attraction of Cultural Magnetism is the report put out by Michael Sussman, CEO of BAV Group, and Amy Winger, chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. The report states that by reframing the world in fresh ways, marketers can unlock new perspectives and opportunities that go well beyond the next campaign cycle. “Creating cultural magnetism is a long-term approach to brand-building that starts with a reflection back on the philosophy, people, and processes that power a brand. Ultimately, building a magnetic brand will allow marketers to drive greater brand loyalty, stronger marketplace performance, and move from brand love to brand fascination,” write Sussman and Winger.

They explain: “Being relevant only gets a brand into the consideration set, internal BAV data shows, and forces brands to compete on price with other relevant peers. But brands with a cultural magnetism create their own gravity beyond the functional dynamics of their category, resulting in a far deeper customer advocacy.”

They go on to say that building a “magnetic brand” allows marketers to drive greater pricing power, deeper brand loyalty and ultimately, stronger marketplace performance.

Lucky Star campaign, South Africa.

Locally, Dimitriou referenced work his agency has done with the Edgars and Lucky Star brands.

Their work with Edgars delivers on those three pillars, he said: establishing an emotional connection and a role in people’s lives; delivering culturally relevant work; and delivering on the experience through the use of influencers and for example, creating an experience in store and with a customer who got to design their own fashion line.

With Lucky Star they are updating the brand to embed it in today’s cultural experiences. “The one piece of work I enjoyed getting under the skin of was the work we did for Lucky Star. It is a well-known brand, targeting a specific demographic, but maybe it’s lost its lustre. The work we are doing now is to associate the culture of today with our customer’s first moment – with their first job, their first paycheck – and their first Lucky Star experience in today’s world. We are taking a well-loved brand and creating a modern cultural spin for it.”

Push cultural boundaries

He emphasised: “We have a duty as marketers and agencies to really ensure we are pushing cultural boundaries and driving equality.”

That is how VMLY&R came to buy a porn magazine for a brand campaign for some of their biggest – and bravest – clients. “I still remember distinctly, we were having a regional meeting in Turkey, when the CEO of our Polish office comes to me and says, ‘Andrew, we want to buy a porn magazine. We have this idea and our clients have bought in, so I have to buy this porn magazine first, and the clients are going to support us.’ So, we approved it then and there on the spot. It’s not often you get to make a difference in society and bring brands together for a cause, we are very proud to be associated with it.”

The campaign, called The Last Ever Issue, out of the Poland office, involved buying one of Poland’s oldest porn magazines, Your Weekend, and closing it down – but not before they took over the last issue to promote a conversation around gender equality, sex education, sexism and so on, on behalf of their clients, a leading Polish news portal and Mastercard and BNP Paribas, two brands with a long-term commitment to empowering women. They all collaborated to produce the last issue, which was published on International Women’s Day. They kept the regular sections and columns, but reimagined the content around sexual education, gender portrayal, equal rights, sexism, and more.

“This is one of the campaigns I’m most proud of. I love it because it has a point of view on the world. It really resonated with us for purpose. It delivered on an emotional connection that went beyond existing categories, it really resonated in the lives of consumers.

“That work was creatively brave, for the clients and for us. It really started to change the conversation on culture [in Poland]. And that is the work that delivers on cultural magnetism,” Dimitriou emphasised.

The proof is in the long list of awards last year, including the Glass Grand Prix Lions for Change at Cannes  and Titanium Lion, Gerety Awards Grand Prix, Gold WAN-IFRA Print Innovation Award, Adweek’s 2019 Media Plan of the Year, Golden Drum Grand Prix, Graphite D&AD Impact Award.

Campaign video: The Last Issue Ever award-winning campaign for VMLY&R Poland.

Conversation on culture

For the last ever issue of the porn magazine, they turned it into a platform for sex education and gender equality, steered by famous female authors, actresses and influencers, so that when the unsuspecting male customer base bought it, they got to see ‘the other side’. The publication’s online platform was turned into a platform for ongoing sex education in Poland.

There has been a shift in consumer ideology in the past decade, which Dimitriou said can be tracked back to the rise of social media. In the past, communication with customers was a one-way conversation with consumers… classic FMCG marketing. “Now, we are in two-way conversations and it’s like being human, you like to hang out with people who are like you, who share your values. Brands are no different to people and they have to appeal to people on their values. If a brand doesn’t stand for female rights, there is a mismatch on brand connection.

“It is difficult to execute. We live in a world with multiple channels, Multiple feedback opportunities – everything from a call centre to a tweet to a piece of communication. Brands today have to tap into the values of society, or they will become irrelevant,” Dimitriou concluded.


[RESEARCH] The Cultural Magnetism Index (CMI), a brand metric developed by brand experience agency VMLY&R and BAV, which together run the largest and longest-running brand study in the world, brands that imbue cultural magnetism connect with consumers in three ways: emotionally, culturally, and experientially. This is how the report, The Attraction of Cultural Magnetism, defines it: “Brands hold values that connect people emotionally, and they create virtual spaces and real-world places for those people to gather. This presents a unique opportunity for modern brands to live in people’s daily lives in unique and meaningful ways. To achieve this, marketers must shift the way they assess brand health.” This is how the three measurable dimensions of magnetism — emotional connection, cultural connection, and experiential connection — have the power to drive brand and revenue changes, as unpacked by Michael Sussman and Amy Winger:

  • Emotional Connection: To understand their brand’s emotional connection, marketers must capture the depth of advocacy that their brand generates with people and communities and evaluate whether their brand has a role beyond category expectations. Emotionally connected brands inspire consumer commitment and willingness to evangelise.

  • Cultural Connection: While emotional connection may spark the relationship between a brand and consumer, integration into culture is what will keep the brand alive and flourishing. Brands should consider culture itself as a new medium — a canvas or stage on which to play out shared cultural interests. The brands that are successful in this area treat social media and content as core elements of the marketing mix.

  • Experiential Connection: Creating unique and impactful customer experiences is an increasingly critical component of building a culturally magnetic brand. Brand building requires not only excellence in communicating brand value, but also requires extending the brand value to experiences that are thoughtful, relevant, connected, and impactful. These experiences certainly go beyond functional utility (e.g., providing customer support), and should create an emotional resonance consistent with the brand’s core. Through the experience a brand creates for its audience, marketers can deepen the magnetism they create and use that to build a competitive advantage, the duo conclude.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.

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