As the Pillars of Society Shift, What’s a Brand to Do?

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Faith Popcorn is a world-renowned futurist. She runs a company called Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve which helps the Fortune 100 figure out how to fit their businesses into a world that doesn’t quite exist yet, but will. How does she do it? She identifies trends roiling through the global culture and then culls the list to focus on those which are at least 10 years ahead of their time. In other words, she identifies trends, not fads. The cultural wave I’m most intrigued with at the moment is Icon Toppling. What is it? According to Popcorn, “The socioquake transforming mainstream America and the world as the pillars of society are questioned and rejected.”

Oh, dear. Nobody wants to hear that, right? Least of all Fortune 100 CEOs. In the world as it used to be organized, big business would have been one of those pillars. Right up there with the government, military, religion, media and, yes, well, fashion brands and retailers. We’ve heard the Icons Toppling around us, as the pillars of retail tumble in the malls and urban landscapes. I’m thinking of you Toys R Us, Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, J.Crew, Claire’s, Gymboree, Aéropostale, 9 West, GAP, J.C. Penny and countless others among the vanishing and gone footprints.

Questioned and Rejected

We are living in an Icon Toppled world. Depending upon which color you paint yourself, or your state is painted, you mistrust one part of government or another. Depending on where your opinion lands on the uses of the military, ditto. Depending upon your take on the behaviors of various leaders of various religions, ditto. Depending upon which medium you rely upon for news, real or imagined, you question and reject the others. Depending upon your age, stage, confidence and gender, you sit on one side of the dividing line or the other. Increasingly, there is no DMZ between such polarized views.

This Icon Topping effect is growing among millennials, according to Deloitte’s just released, seventh annual report on millennial attitudes. “Perceptions of business are heading south. Millennials’ opinions about business’s motivations and ethics, which had trended up the past two years, took a sharp turn downward. There continues to be a stark mismatch between what millennials believe responsible businesses should achieve and what they perceive businesses’ actual priorities to be.” Hmm: a sharp turn downward versus a year ago. Let’s dig deeper.

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks reports there’s a gap within the decline in respect for business among millennials and it is based on (ta-da: big reveal) gender, according to a study from MTV-Public Religion Research Institute. It seems attitudes towards protest marches are the divining rod: young women find them “inspiring” and “powerful,” while their male counterparts describe them as “counterproductive” and “pointless.” Indeed, among the young women surveyed, fully 50 percent had posted online about a social policy in the past year and 48 percent had signed an online petition.

Let’s think, think, think, for a moment, as Winnie-the-Pooh advises. When brands and businesses talk about the critical importance of millennials to their mission, vision and values; their marketing efforts; their recruitment, hiring and retention policies; their product development and design, can they really avoid the lightening rod issues confronting those very mission critical consumers? Indeed, can they refuse being relevant, especially to women who typically make an estimated 80 percent of purchase decisions?

Is Engagement-Based Leadership an Option or Necessity?

For-profit companies are, on one hand almost perfectly designed to respond to the emerging needs and perspectives of consumers. On the other hand, of course, they are almost preternaturally risk-averse, patently afraid to take a stand that might irritate any constituents: consumers, media, shareholders, bankers, employees, channel partners. The list goes on and on. Best, according to prevailing wisdom, to keep a low profile and ignore coin tosses requiring a choice between two tough sides.

But, perhaps as the spotlight of brand attention continues to track millennial consumers preferences, avoidance is no longer an option. Deloitte frames it this way: “Their (millennials) concerns suggest this is an ideal time for business leaders to prove themselves as agents of positive change.” And well, positive change does not come from burying our heads in the sand. It certainly does not come from fast-fashion jackets emblazoned with “I don’t really care, do u?” Welcome to the hyper-polarized, 24/7 media circus we all live in. There’s nowhere to hide, so business might as well be a “force for good.”

Keeping an ear to the ground is hard. Sometimes you hear more than you want to. There seems to be a revolution going on in the politics of brand and business engagement. There’s a typical syntax this movement is following: First, remove the negatives; then add some positives. Ultimately, forge a relationship.

The business-as-part-of-culture moment can be said to have begun in earnest some time ago with senior managers realizing that tone-deafness was not a panacea for some serious issues that directly affect their businesses. Let’s say for example, whether people resent unrepentant executives grudgingly admitting that, well, yes, the drunk captain of our tanker may have been culpable for some pesky oil spills in that pristine wilderness. Or gee whiz, now that you mention it, smoking may not be all that good for you.

After the era of lawsuits and apologies, next came “better-for-us” brands facing cultural issues and forging a point of view. For example, when Dove started speaking to women’s body image acceptance. Or, when Tom’s decided consumers could be conscripted to send shoes to those who don’t have them, simply by buying a pair. Or, when LensCrafters does a “bring in your old glasses” promotion, then repairs them and takes them to developing countries with optometrists on hand to conduct eye exams and distribute the glasses. When Dawn dishwashing liquid illustrates its grease releasing credentials by showing once-polluted baby ducks being released back into the wild. These are “good for the world” initiatives, while clearly designed to grow businesses and brands.

But perhaps what we’re beginning to see is the next stage gaining a certain business-as-unusual momentum. When American Airlines announces it has told the government it won’t participate in relocating children separated from their families at the southern border, we may be entering a new phase. When advertisers pull their commercials from programs that troll survivors of mass shootings at their high schools, we’re seeing brands take a stand. When television networks refuse to cash the racist check written by the most highly rated program star of the moment, something is afoot.

Business as Bully Pulpit, an Icon Refusing to Be Toppled

Why now? I suspect it has a great deal to do with a full employment economy. Employees matter again. The calculus of losing highly-trained professionals whose conscience is sparked to the point of combustion is an economic impact shareholders can understand. The equally crucial ability to attract and hire great candidates is folded into this hypothesis as well.

Perhaps there’s also an acknowledgment that with a deeply polarized consumer base, shoppers want to invest in brands and businesses that are invested in issues that matter to consumers. This requires taking them on a journey behind the scrim of publicly available information and illustrating the power of the brand’s commitment to critical topics of the day. It used to be enough to have a mission, vision and values expressed for employees. Now consumers need to be brought into the loop.

Another factor is the new reality: Business is already being used as a megaphone in the dialogue between government and voter. These are the times we live in. Major tax break? Let’s trot out business leaders to showcase their largess as they hand out one-time bonuses. Want new tariffs? Beat up Harley-Davidson. Businesses are in the crosshairs of the national dialogue. Perhaps it is time they clearly state their beliefs. Loyalty from one like-minded audience may compensate for the loss of another.

It’s also important to state clearly the truth that businesses are the good guys in a full employment economy. Our 401Ks feel the full weight of their growth. Our careers expand as our talents are once again valued. Our favorite brands arrive via two-day Prime and we bask in the deep convenience being wrought by our ever more intelligent technology as it knows and understands us ever better.

Whom Do We Trust?

With great power comes great responsibility. So says Spider Man. So, too, realize business leaders. Entities such as CECP, CEOs Encouraging Corporate Purpose, and other business roundtables make the case for the ultimate doing well by doing good potential of business and brands that wear their care on their sleeves and profit from it. No need to be flat-footed and literal. No need to sell red-can Coke to red-leaning consumers and blue-logoed Pepsi to their doppelgängers. No need to focus Crest to blues and Colgate to reds. Social justice is just a business requirement to remind customers of the better side of their nature.

Bill Clinton was the master of a strategy called triangulation in politics. Republicans may dislike most of the Democratic platform, but there are certain overlap issues they may be willing to work together to solve. Same for brands. Consumers may disagree on multiple issues and those well-entrenched positions they will not budge from, but find a third issue they can agree on and work from there. Do we care that families not be separated? Do we want to fly on an airline that shares that belief? Do we want people without shoes or eyewear to have them? Do we want women to be safe and valued at their work sites? I suspect there are a host of these “third issues” business and brands can help us solve.

We do a great deal of work at my company to figure out the emotional content of brands and businesses. When we started, we heard brand performance stories. More and more today we find the social promise of the brand attests to its meaning and relevance. Icons can be powerful beacons as consumers attempt to navigate a tricky world. Or, they can be toppled.



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