Brands and business need to be bold and brave to win in today’s world. They need to stand up for what they believe in the world, to talk about more than their products, to care about their societies and futures.
Of course ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, ‘relevance’ are all keywords during any strategy workshop which I facilitate, but in recent times they have started to really matter. To have substance beyond slogans, and to shape the way organisations think and behave. To be real and human, authentic and trustworthy. The best brands are embracing this in quite dramatic and daring ways.
There was a time when all that companies seemed to care about was themselves – their heritage and quality, to be the best in their industry, to maximise returns to their shareholders. Then they slowly shifted attention to customers, leading to rather meaningless statements about putting customers first, service matters and lifetime relationships. Whilst the shift to become customer-centric can be significant and profound, it still sounded hollow – textbook words that lacked passion and difference.
But then the world started to be shaken up like it hadn’t in many decades. Instead of relative peace, stability and certainty, a tidal wave of economic instability rolled at lightening speed across the digitally-connected world. The frustration and aspiration which followed led to revolutions and radicalisation. The Arab Spring toppled dictators and unleashed new religious extremism, war and terror, and floods of refugees across geographical borders that had been eroding for years. At the same time, Russia grabbed a piece of Ukraine, claiming ethnicity means sovereignty, and tried to recreate polarities between east and west.
A new wave a fearful, nationalistic and divisive politicians jumped on the bandwagon, sweeping people up without logic or humanity, from Brexit to Trump, as symbols of change. They challenged the established order. A new world order started to emerge, but not led by Britain or America. China’s rise has been profound, although its debt mountain is fragile, whilst other emerging markets have emerged to drive the world’s faltering economy. And at the same time, Polemon Go came and went, Snapchat captured a new generation, cyberhacking became the new form of attack, and presidents told blatant lies like fake news was simply a different channel.
VUCA was no longer just a military term – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambitious – it applied to every aspect of work and life.
Polarisation, localisation, extremism and have been the consequences of progress, connectedness and democracy. People who used to yearn for change – to love social and tech progress, to travel the world, to embrace the future – and the sure way in which any new politician could galvanise followers – now seem to reject change. Whilst it felt like people were more engaged, they didn’t seem to care – climate change declared a hoax by the US president, people banned from travel simply because of religion, a hatred of diversity, and walls emerging between the closest neighbours. This isn’t the 21st century we signed up to.
What does all this mean for business and brands?
Companies are a highly visual and practical part of this polarising world.
Leading brands have started to assert their voice, and take sides. They need to, in order to stay relevant but also to make real choices about how they work, treat people, and do business. Brands are the icons of today’s world – they can often have more influence than governments, relevance and maybe trust, working across traditional borders and social divides.
But taking sides also has consequences – it means not everybody will like you. Instead some will love you, others might hate you. Actually it was Nike and Starbuck’s marketer Scott Bedbury said that this is the perfect role of a brand – to polarise people.
Whilst politicians have lost their heads, and electorates are left spinning by what is real and fake – and others more extremely seek to whip up a frenzy of thoughtless action – then it is left to brands to fight for a better world, to stick up for fairness and equality, and to re-embrace a positive future.
Challenger brands have long embraced polarisation, knowing that the potential upside of being loved by one tribe and loathed by another is better than people feeling indifferent. These polarised times however, mean people are expecting brands of all shapes and sizes to choose which side of the fence they sit. The results of which have allowed for some glorious rubbernecking as brands discover the quickfire consequences of taking sides.
With a flurry of new #Boycott <Brand> trending every day. It doesn’t matter what you sell, no brand is safe from a consumer who believes you have backed the wrong side. In the current climate, it’s impossible to please everybody, and as such, no particular position is safe.
Take Starbucks’ response to Trump’s potential so-called travel ban. The brand pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. Howard Shultz launch a direct assault on his president, reminding people that we are all human and equal, and that Starbuck’s would not stand by watching unfairness. Whilst many people met this gesture with cheers, #BoycottStarbucks began trending on Twitter.
Similarly, Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad which was deemed as pro-immigration led to angry threats to ditch the (previously considered ‘all-American’) beer whilst others pledged to buy it in bulk. This highlighted that responding to our split political climate can lead to both good and bad-will in equal measure. Many other Super Bowl ads took a similar stance. Movie and sports stars have been similar in their vocalness.
At a grassroots level, people are combining their efforts across multiple targets with both #TheResistance and #GrabYourWallet movements. As punishment for toeing the new White House’s party line, these aim to hit brands where it hurts most – in the pocket.
Under Armour fell foul to a backlash after their CEO Kevin Plank expressed his excitement at having such a ‘pro-business president’. Sponsored athletes vocally condemned this point of view and #BoycottUnderArmour gained momentum. In response, Plank took out a full page ad in The Baltimore Sun where he used a letter to personally clarify that he did not agree with Trump’s approach to social justice.
Similarly, sparks flew when fashion retailer Nordstrom pulled Ivanka Trump’s brand from their range after sales began to plummet. Unsurprisingly, Nordstrom received a huffy tweet from President Trump himself and once again, the twitterati responses involved adulation and disgust in seemingly equal measure.
Where brands claim they haven’t taken a side, assumptions are quickly made on where they may stand. Take Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Building Global Community’ manifesto questioning whether collectively ‘we are building the world we all want’. Although avoiding specifics, Zuckerberg’s choice of language around ‘divisiveness’ and ‘isolation’ led to swift interpretations of an anti-Trump message.
For years brands were dying to ‘join the conversation’ and now they’re involved, people are demanding more from them. And since this boycott train doesn’t feel like it is slowing down, brands need to be confident and consistent in delivering on what they believe. It needs to pervade their business, in passion and action, not just intent and words. For a brand with a clear, longstanding purpose, taking a side is made much easier.
Take Airbnb, who have been galvanised by the passion of CMO Jonathan Mildenhall and his team. From capturing their brand around the bigger idea of ‘belong everywhere’ to their ‘community commitment’ request where they ask travellers to accept their terms and conditions of use, their ‘we accept’ Super Bowl ad, to their support for minority groups in society, they have a purpose that goes far beyond image, slogan or campaign.
Take a little inspiration from this:
Now is the time for brand’s to show who they are, to have a personality and attitude, a purpose and conscience, and follow though in practical and meaningful ways – to stand up and have an opinion, express a point of view, create debate and inspire a better future – to be positive, bold and inspiring.