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Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Cultural Context and The Rise of Instant Brands

Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2017 by Shelley Cowan

Baby Boomers first experienced the promise of instant delivery in the 60s, when Polaroid introduced its Swinger to the mass market. The notion of instant expanded from there, as one professional sport after another adopted instant replay to settle disputes and camera manufacturers offered digital images in place of film. 

Consumer expectations took an exponential leap in the late 90s, when Millennials discovered AOL Instant Messenger and began doing homework with the help of Google search. It may have felt a bit like instant when Netflix shipped CDs overnight or the nearest redbox kiosk was a short drive from home, but entertainment became truly instant when the same movie could be downloaded in seconds. 

By the time Amazon Prime offered next- and same-day delivery, all brands were on notice. The desire for instant access and instant response had become part of the cultural context: the wider environment in which a brand lives and competes. 

Still, brands that delivered on consumers’ expectations for instant focused primarily on the transfer of electronic data or the shipment of goods that had already been designed and manufactured. Today, as the demand for instant becomes ever more deeply embedded in the cultural context, consumer expectations are showing up in new arenas. 

One example is Fashion, where the timeline from design to manufacture to in-store or online availability, until recently, took at least six months and often more than a year. Spanish retailer Zara gained notice for its rapid innovation processes in a 2005 HBR case study. A pioneer in vertical integration, just-in-time production and real-time data on consumer purchases and perceptions, Zara can now design and deliver new itemswithin two weeks and modify existing items even faster. 

While the notion of fast fashion has, until now, mostly applied to value brands, the movement is impacting more expensive brands as well. Tommy Hilfiger recently debuted an app that “enables consumers to purchase its collections via a mobile app, livestreaming video of its catwalk shows, using social media and similar channels the very instant they appear on the runway.” 

This shift is pushing brand builders to do much of their work in advance. Describing the the #TommyNow initiative, Chief Brand Officer Avery Baker said, “while designs are actually being done, we're selling them to our retail partners in the international markets before they're even fully completed. We have to shoot our marketing campaigns before the collection is even sold into our retail partners.” 

This pace requires a level of agility that can not only help brand builders better deliver on speed, but also better navigate all aspects of the ever-shifting cultural context. 

Questions to consider:

  • How are consumers’ expectations for speed evolving in your market?
  • What steps toward immediacy might your brand leverage? New technologies? Better insights? A broader definition of consumer understanding? 
  • What other compelling cultural themes and drivers might influence consumers’ relationships with your brand?


Shelley Cowan & Leonora Polonsky

Shelley Cowan is an Anthropologist and Communications Strategist who has been working in the Brand Building arena for 20 years. Leonora Polonsky is a Brand Strategist and leads a Brand Strategy practice. Shelley and Leonora are collaborating on Cultural Context and Brand Building implications.