What soap can teach us about Culture

Cultures, and the practices, beliefs and systems of knowledge that they consist of are constructed through the confluence of multiple forces. Cultures are constantly evolving across time and space and are inherently hybrid, subject to continuous waves of change and flux.

In the social sciences, the cultural turn showed us that no culture is concrete, continuous or even homogenous and notions of tradition that emphasise continuity across time and space are often misleading. Meanwhile, theorists such as Foucault have demonstrated that even our most elemental beliefs on health, family, law and order, right and wrong are not necessarily ‘natural’ but nurtured over time through the institutions that we establish and the discourses that we generate.

So, what does this interpretation of culture mean for brands operating in the commercial world? Well, recognising the fluidity of culture poses both a challenge and a blessing. If cultures are heterogeneous and continuously re-inventing themselves then clearly, it can be difficult for brands to keep up, stay relevant and achieve growth based on a sound understanding on what consumers need. On the other hand, the blessing is that brands do not stand apart from culture but are within it, actively shaping it and being shaped by it on a daily basis.

Which brings us on to soap: PZ Cussons Imperial Leather and Pears soap are established and much loved British brands. Both were developed at the intersection of rising commodity culture, the Victorian cult of domesticity and colonial expansion that provided manufacturers with access to the cheap coconut and palm oils required to make soft soap available to the masses. So, while we see washing with soap as being a routine, even ‘normal’ bodily practice today, it’s actually something that was encouraged and ingrained into British culture through the use of innovative advertising campaigns to generate demand for a new product.

More importantly, campaigns for Imperial Leather and Pears soap specifically created new discourses on personal cleanliness, hygiene, respectability and even ‘Britishness’ that consumers had not previously been exposed to. Being physically ‘clean’ therefore acquired a new moral and even medical connotation that elevated the humble bar of soap from a functional to an emotional space within the British home.

If nothing else, these examples show that brands can set the agenda by producing and re-imagining cultural norms – and they have been doing so successfully for over a century. Had PZ Cussons simply followed existing cultural norms, they would have found that the majority of the British public either could not afford soap or simply did not consider soap a necessary day-to-day commodity. In other words, in an advanced capitalist economy based on mass consumption rather than production, consumers are highly malleable.

So the question is not just ‘what can brands learn about consumer culture?’, but also ‘how can brands create consumer cultures and what form should these cultures take?’ While the former remains critical, the latter allows greater scope and flexibility for an innovative, fresh approach.