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Decoding Cultural Zeitgeist in 3 Simple Steps

Published by Greenbook

Discover the cycles of society and how buying behavior is impacted depending on where in the cycle we are. Learn how brand practitioners can use these insights.

Picture a group of young children. As they start in life and through their early years, they assimilate. They strive to talk, act, and socialize like their parents. They want to contribute to the household, and show that they can function as worthy, contributing members of the tribe. They rely on their parents’ protection, and essentially would have trouble surviving without the constructs and established practices of the household.

They seek to belong

Eventually, this group of kids transitions into the teenage years. Oh, the horror. All that safety, assimilation, and honoring of tribal norms are out the window. They seek to do anything BUT talk, act, or socialize like their parents. They reject virtually any requests to help around the house. They venture far afield into dangerous territories like the basements of those friends’ homes with lax supervision. They consume what they want, when they want, and appear to plan roughly 6 seconds into the future.

They seek to rebel

This gives way to the young adult or university years. The rebellion is quelled, replaced by exploration and discovery. They seek to understand their options in life, and where they might fit in the world. They try new foods, hang out with different types of people, question their mentors, and challenge themselves to uncover new truth (granted, often annoyingly presuming they’re the first group of humans in history to do so).

They seek to discover

As this group of now-adults transitions beyond the exploratory days on campus or in first jobs, they’re back out in the real world. They look to the conventions of peers in their same situation to guide the way. They look to the types of jobs, living situations, social activities, and relationships adopted and endorsed by others “like them.” They share the discoveries made with others and collectively adopt the most worthwhile (from bubble tea to social media platforms).

Once again, they seek to belong

From there, this cycle repeats through life. You can examine these three forces in your own life, and the familiar meme of the “midlife crisis” exemplifies a notable era of rebellion many experience.

These three forces, modeled and studied by neuroscientist T. Sigi Hale, PhD, relate to the deep human biological compulsion to be both socially integrated / connected, and the opposing compulsion to be individually unique and independent. This subconscious tension between these opposing forces (to belong vs. to self-discover) creates the third force (to rebel).

And these forces go well beyond life stage experiences to help explain the zeitgeist of culture at a given time. This lets us understand what’s driving, and stressing, a society – and why consumers behave in certain ways, and buy certain product categories and brands as a result. Just as these forces manifest throughout a person’s life, they similarly manifest in cultures in a cyclical manner.

Culturally, we’re in a decidedly teenage era.

Hale and team have been tracking the impact of these psychological forces for years. Below is a table for U.S. gen pop, beginning with a historical benchmark which essentially creates an index norm for the pre-COVID period. Tracking these three forces from 2020 to present, and indexing against the historical norm, the data speaks for itself…

Psych Pulse Zeitgeist (1)


The ‘Rebel’ force is strongly shaping the zeitgeist consumers experience. This force is particularly pronounced among younger consumers; the Gen Z most every marketer covets. And, just as with the teen years of our group of kids described above, it’s having a cathartic impact on emotional tension, behavior, and purchase choices.

It’s no surprise to any citizen of earth that the last several years have been… intense. The past few years have been particularly stressful. And I don’t mean project-deadline-at-work stress; I mean societal stressors that create the kind of ambient pressure that shapes cultural cycles. In short, things have really sucked, and people are reacting at the cultural level.

Anyone in the behavioral science space knows that we humans crave one thing above all else: control. However, what we actually crave is the perception of control, as control itself is not achievable within the constructs of real life. From flat tires to global pandemics, we’re struggling mightily to control our fortunes, only to be dashed back to reality again and again.

And yet, people manage to live productive, reasonably happy lives. How? By doing things that reward them with just a bit of perceived control over their situations and outcomes.

Categories like soft drinks, snacks, and quick-serve restaurants are thriving, as they empower consumers to rebel in the form of something that helps them feel better, right now. I can’t control the economy, but a trip through the drive-thru can sure provide some feel-good benefits for the next 20 minutes!

This is why these feel-good-right-now categories appear immune to pricing pressure (carbonated soft drink pricing is up ~17% in the past year, and yet volume growth has exceeded even that figure). The cultural ‘teen years’ are raging, and categories and brands that provide for that instinctual compulsion to blow off steam will continue to thrive.

Eventually, this cultural phase will give way to an exploratory cycle. Just as with our group of kids above, society will transition from ‘Rebel’ to ‘Discover.’ We’ll seek to find new conventions, and explore “the best way” to do things based on the pursuit of new experiences. The red line above will creep back towards the baseline, and the purple line will slope upwards.

As our cultures establish new norms and conventions based on this exploration, we’ll once again tribalize, honor the new conventions, and otherwise ‘Belong.’ But for the time-being, it’s record-high ‘Rebel’ compulsion.

So what? What can brand practitioners DO to activate on this insight to their advantage? Let’s consider two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You’re winning.

Your brand is thriving, growing, and riding this wave. In that case, beware that a key challenge with this mindset is that it is fickle. Loyalty will be challenged, as the consumer is as loyal as their best option. To combat this, ensure that your activation and promotions provide ongoing opportunities to win – contests, access to exclusive online content, etc.

Further, beware the shift to exploration. Eventually, this ‘Rebel’ mindset will give way to ‘Discover’ – craft your innovation pipeline with unique new extensions and discoveries to keep consumers engaged with your brand as this evolution occurs. Plan promotions that empower discovery, such as consumer-fueled social media innovation contests, and the like.

Scenario 2: You’re struggling.

It could be that your category is mis-aligned with this zeitgeist; easy to see for categories like laundry detergent or baby food. This could also be due to too much focus on rational, practical considerations – the most obvious of which lately is focusing too heavily on mere price.

Remember that consumers are generally looking for emotional relief and a bit of escapism. Focus on experience; resist the rational, price-forward obsession and elevate ‘the feels’ – even something as functional as doing your taxes can leverage this insight, as TurboTax has with its “Don’t do your taxes” campaign.

Look for opportunities within your omni-channel activation to inject a bit of fun and rebellion – what if a digital promotion could create a shopping treasure hunt, or other gamified ways to make the mundane less so?

And plan for the shift to a discovery phase in the cultural zeitgeist as we evolve past this teenage-like era. After all, anyone who’s lived with a teenager knows it’s not easy – but it helps when it is at least predictable.