Unlocking the zeitgeist

Ana Andjelic
4 min readJan 6, 2020

This is a follow-up piece to my article “To Hack Growth, Startups Have to Hack Culture First

Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present, said Albert Camus. Success of an idea, product, story, or a trend is hidden in our present: in our social interactions, what we pay attention to, who and what influences us, and where and how we spend our time.

Regardless of the signals available to us in our present, we are much better in explaining our past. Hollywood, fashion, food, and other taste industries spend inordinate amount of money and talent on betting what’s going to resonate with the zeitgeist, with mixed results. Success stories are usually retroactive: we claim that something succeeded because it “captured the atmosphere,” only once it did. The question of why is often secondary.

The real challenge is to detect the mood while it is happening. To answer the question of how to get something to resonate with the atmosphere of the times, we should look for contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences in our culture, society, and economy. They are the indicators that change is ahead.

Contradictions are when two irreconcilable things coexist. Maybe the most currently visible cultural contradiction is simultaneously having niches and monoculture. On one hand, we have content streaming, fragmentation of interests, and rise of niche products, across industries. There’s lament that our world is becoming a fragmented collection of tribes and fervent fandoms of otakus: people with obsessive, laser-like interests. On the other, there’s the existential dread of aesthetic gentrification in the form of Instagram Face, Airspace, Airbnb Style, and cultural homogenization. Consumers want choice, but in order to navigate it, they rely on others and so end up enjoying the same fashion trends, movies, diets, and songs. Mimicry and imitation are the decentralized mechanism of cultural production and social cohesion. Implication for brands is to offer choice, but also use social signals to steer it.

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Ana Andjelic

Brand Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Writer of “Sociology of Business.” Forbes most influential CMO.