Today, we are featuring editorial published last week by Forbes where Forbes Contributor Henry DeVries interviewed Jane Cavalier, CEO & Founder of BrightMark Consulting and author of Overhead Space, on brands and social accountability. Read about the challenges brands face with the “cancel culture” and growing public demand for brands to serve the greater good.
Call it the collision of brands and politics.
“It is time to rethink the relationship between brands and society,” says brand expert Jane Cavalier. “Traditional brands have sold by selling an aspirational fantasy or identity without accountability, which is now being challenged by the cancel culture.”
Cancel culture is a variant on the term call-out culture and constitutes a form of boycott, typically involving a celebrity who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner. Think J.K. Rowling, Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon in 2020.
Prior to founding her own firm, BrightMark, Cavalier led strategic planning for clients of McCann-Erickson worldwide, the world’s largest advertising agency. At McCann-Erickson, she led the rebranding of global companies including Marriott, Motorola and US Airways. She also has taught as an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Management and NYU Stern School of Business.
Cancel culture, also called call-out culture, is a modern form of public shaming and ostracism in social media or the real world. Generally, it is a withdrawing of support.
During the Black Lives Matter protests many brands in the fashion industry were called out for a lack of diversity. In 2020 brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians finally relented to call-out culture.
The days of aspirational fantasy or identity without accountability are over.
“In boom times where the acquisition of things shaped the narrative of success, that brand strategy worked,” says Cavalier. “However, today we live in a time of contraction, contradiction and complexity where brands are losing relevancy and value. We need brands to sell differently, to sell by serving the real, hidden needs of people struggling to adapt to a new world.”
Cavalier says the legacy of commercial brands is vast and includes body shaming (eating disorders didn’t just materialize), sexualizing alcohol and cigarettes to promote (over) indulgence and attaching social elitism to luxury goods (preppy clothes are just the tip of the iceberg). Tied to driving rabid consumerism, brands are partially responsible for driving up personal debt.
“Some brands, however, delivered positive cultural impact and changed lives for the better. Apple inspired personal creativity and growth,” says Cavalier. “Nike inspired personal drive and growth. We need more of these kinds of brands and now.”
Cavalier points out we live in a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—which is daunting, often terrifying. Because brands are conceptual creative products with the ability to penetrate consciousness, they can strengthen and advance people during this time of vulnerability.
“Brands must serve rather than sell,” says Cavalier. “To win in a world of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, brands must serve rather than sell and become empowerment tools.”
Brands can drive responsible consumption by meeting the new human needs rather than preying on people’s insecurities.
“These are the brands that will achieve the elusive cultural relevance not by spending more, but by serving people more and becoming part of rebuilding society with humanity at the center,” says Cavalier. “In this new paradigm brands are part of the solution by simply putting the weight of hundreds of billions of dollars of annual cultural messaging into empowering people rather than exploiting them.”
To see the article on Forbes, go here.