Culture. You can’t see it, but it’s the most powerful force in our lives. The greatest influence on human beliefs and behaviours. It’s what makes us, us.

No wonder brands want to be a part of it. And the most significant opportunities to do so come at particular moments in time, moments that unite people to co-create a cultural hotspot.

Christmas is the classic mass moment. It’s the biggest spending period of the year, and it drives behaviours that would seem bizarre at any other time (from what we eat, to what we wear, to what we watch, to who we’re with). No wonder brands – from high-street retailers to charities – spend such a disproportionate amount of time, effort and budget to be part of it.

Christmas. Where does it come from?

There’s a kind of comfortable myth that Christmas is an organic moment, one that’s thousands of years old, driven by religion and deeply British in the way that we perform it. That it’s ‘ours’ in some way. This is largely nonsense of course. Many of our Christmas traditions are Victorian, imported by Prince Albert from Germany. For the rest, we can rely on that great storyteller Dickens, who invented much of our modern notion of the season.

The point is, that our Christmas traditions – like all traditions – are just made up. Which means new ones can be made up too, as brands have known for a century or more. Coca Cola has been investing millions to make Christmas red & white since the 1920s. Baubles, gifts, Christmas cards are all largely inventions of entrepreneurs and companies keen to turn a religious holiday into a retail boom. Today, John Lewis, Aldi, M&S and others are doing their bit to change the meaning of Christmas in their own image.

But now, Christmas is a problem.

We’re increasingly aware that it drives waste, debt, unhappiness, division. Along with Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Boxing Day sales it’s become a festival of consumerism, not celebration. From faithful charity donors with fundraising appeals piling up on the doormat to cash-strapped families struggling to keep up with expectation, many people have become the targets of brands keen to exploit the moment. And the staggering impact of all that plastic packaging, unrecyclable wrapping paper and unwanted that has suddenly become all too visible.

Arguably, all mass moments tend this way. Brands seeking to be part of a cultural conversation extract value from it until it becomes not just meaningless, but problematic. From Pride to the World Cup to International Women’s Day, moment after moment has become compromised by a relentless pile on of brands seeking to make their mark.

Brands have a choice.

It’s easy to blame brands, but individual brand managers, charity fundraisers and marketing directors are under pressure too. When everyone else is launching an integrated Christmas campaign or appeal, when everyone else is putting on a sale, making an ad or designing a Bluetooth bauble, who wants to be the brand that doesn’t?

But brands have a choice about whether or how to engage with mass moments, and more and more brands are standing out by exercising that choice. From the increasing number of brands that refuse to take part in Black Friday sales, to others making ads about how they’re not making a Superbowl ad, savvy brands are standing out by not taking part, and saying why.

Add, don’t extract.

Brands also have a choice to think about how they’ll take part in mass moments. MissGuided launched one of the most successful retail partnerships ever with Love Island, joining up design, manufacturing, sales and delivery to create the perfect fast fashion moment. They sold a lot of clothes. And generated a lot of value – but only for themselves. Women, the workforce and the environment paid the price. And if that continues, it’ll only shorten the lifespan of a TV series that’s already under attack from commentators and charities.

Brands don’t have to extract value from mass moments. They can add value too. When moments have become mere ritual, devoid of significance, brands can add meaning, and help to renew and sustain those moments. When they’ve become problematic, brands can help mass moments find their purpose again. And brands can find and elevate new mass moments – like the Women’s World Cup – that need a boost of money and attention to become part of the mainstream.

With society so fragmented, you could argue that we’ve never needed mass moments more. There are so many opportunities for brands to be part of these huge and meaningful national and international conversations.

To add momentum to the ones on the way up.

To add meaning and value to the ones that have become mainstream.

To rescue the ones that have become problematic.

Have a think. What mass moments are coming up that your business or charity could play a role in? But if you’re wondering what’s in it for you, perhaps you’re already asking the wrong question.