“Brands are the most significant gifts that commerce has ever made to popular culture. The impact is virtually immeasurable in social and cultural terms.”
– Wally Olins
Not the Usual Kind of Change
The pandemic has been a cocoon bringing people, organizations and even brands through a real metamorphosis. There is a shedding of the old world view and the emergence of a fresh, new orientation. This new world perspective is shattering traditional consumerism and work behavior as buying things doesn’t matter as much as learning new skills, experiencing more of life, sharing with others, and having greater control and freedom. It is a time of epochal change for humanity where people are disoriented as they face unthinkable events and uncertainty, and where brands have a new role to play.
Brands that Serve Rather than Sell
In our new world, which is far too complex for human beings to understand, people need emotional stability, strength and stamina more than ever. As they face unprecedented volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA world), people are vulnerable to fear, anxiety, distrust and despair. We need new cues within our culture that inspire, empower, enable people; cues that guide positive actions, provide comfort and unleash more human potential so people can grow. Modern brands can become these cues.
Unlike traditional brands which are primarily designed to drive consumption (often to the point of driving up great personal debt), modern brands can deliver value in a different way that still supports positive purchase choice. They can focus on giving people greater agency in the world and helping them to grow with the products/services they represent. In other words, instead of the brand end game simply being consumption, the new end game is empowerment and personal growth. These brands will deliver “preference “ by helping people to feel: 1) their place in the world, 2) comfortable with uncertainty, and 3) what it means to be truly human.
Cultural Cues to Strengthen Humanity
The mind constantly tells itself stories of the future and brands can shape those stories. In a radically transforming world that can be daunting, if not terrifying, brands can positively lead people to the future even if that future is totally unclear. Because they are conceptual, brands can free the mind to safely explore newness so people become more comfortable with novelty. They have the power to clarify the vague and help people come to grips with feelings and forces that don’t exist in concrete form e.g. estrangement, love, courage, sacrifice. If you are familiar with the power of myth, then think of brands as modern myths. If designed for the unique challenges of the new world, modern brands can become positive social forces that strengthen people at a time of great vulnerability.
Although a unique attribute of a product/service remains part of the credible reason-why a brand can do what it stands for, the new functional and symbolic brand purpose should focus on helping people navigate the invisible friction of the new world. Fundamentally, brands can play a big role in our uncommunicated interior mental life. By recognizing their role to serve and strengthen people amidst chaos and uncertainty, these brands will become extremely socially relevant and valuable to people and society.
I believe most brands have lost meaningful relevancy over the last 20 years despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in them. Only a few dozen e.g. Apple, Nike, Patagonia have morphed to align with the new world and stay strong. Moving into the future, brands that inspire, enable and liberate people to expand and grow will dominate the culture.
Brands are Important Cultural Artifacts
In an interconnected and interdependent world increasingly ruled by technology, brands are priceless artifacts of humanity that indicate what matters most to people. We are emotional, intuitive beings despite our best efforts to be rational. We are relational beings thrust into an increasingly transactional environment. If we do not work to maintain and deepen our humanness, we may very well risk losing it. Brands can touch us, pierce our consciousness, remind us and drive us to push our human potential.
The struggle to adapt to the new world is real with no end in sight. As people search for meaning and purpose amidst a world they cannot understand, they need development tools not rhetoric. Just as ancient peoples relied on myths, brands are the myths of today spread throughout the culture and have the ability to become part of a toolkit to re-build humanity and society. But, to be relevant, they must acutely reflect what we are experiencing, especially the unspoken and the invisible. People do not need brands to sell them things anymore by promising identity or unattainable dreams, rather they need brands devoted to strengthening their resilience, enabling growth and reminding them of what it means to be human.
Wishing you comfort, joy and growth in the coming year. Farewell 2020 and welcome to the fresh opportunities of 2021.
FACT FOR THOUGHT
52 million, 1.8 billion
In October 2020, the social-media app Reddit had 52 million daily users, up 44% from the same month last year. Facebook, boasted more than 1.8 billion daily active users.
Wall Street Journal
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