To call the current political and social climate a massive shakeup is an understatement. Is this calling to accounts an opportunity to redefine the place of business in society?
Hosted by Sid Lee’s Kirstin Hammerberg and San Rahi, our new Mind Sparks roundtable examines the evolving interactions between brands and people. From brand, marketing, academic and cultural activists perspectives, our conversation explores the potential of becoming partners in effective and authentic social action.— It’s important to people to feel that a brand has purpose and shares their values before they advocate for it. This isn’t new. But the demand has deepened: it’s no longer enough for brands to state a belief or make token displays. People want their brands to act in line with those values.
— It’s important to people to feel that a brand has purpose and shares their values before they advocate for it. This isn’t new. But the demand has deepened: it’s no longer enough for brands to state a belief or make token displays. People want their brands to act in line with those values.
— Change within business must be systematic and silos need to be broken down. Values are not a marketing issue; they need to be woven into a company’s DNA.
— Meaningful change takes time. Businesses, like individuals, need the opportunity for self-reflection and the space to try, fail, and try again. Looking within is the first step on the road to making change out in the world.
Anne L. Bahr Thompson, Author of Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, Founder of Onesixtyfourth, former Executive Director, Strategy and Planning at Interbrand
Attica Alexis Jaques, Head of Global Brand Marketing for Consumer Apps at Google
James Andrews, Founder of Authenticated
San Rahi, EVP, Brand Growth and Innovation at Sid Lee
Kirstin Hammerberg, Global VP, Business and Experience Design at Sid Lee
We’ve hit a critical point in the evolution of society. People are in the streets in the thousands these days, angry and frustrated, demanding more and better from government, corporations, and each other. The headlines are extreme – sometimes tragic – but read between the lines and you can feel something more: an incredible brightness, hope, maybe a genuinely unique opportunity. We believe that this unprecedented turmoil signals a sea change with the power to affect every facet of life – that it can be for the better, and that one way to make it so is to try to understand what it means for the perpetually changing relationship between consumerism and culture.
At Sid Lee, we’re working to understand what’s happening. How do we engage, how do we fit in? How can we, as Sid Lee and as the individuals that make up the agency, contribute in meaningful ways?
On June 30, 2020, at the height of these vibrant social shifts, we sat down with some friends to look at what’s going on. Our intention was to stimulate conversation with a thought and then examine it through the various lenses they brought to the table – strategic, corporate, marketing, administrative, entrepreneurial, and public, among others. We wanted to capture and distil some essence of this obviously critical juncture in the continuity and ignite a wider conversation that might reverberate forward from this point by asking the questions: Can brands be genuine social and cultural activists? In fact should they try to be?
Our conversation led us past statements of purpose and token hires, deeper than likes on an Instagram post, and into real action and what that means. And then we went deeper still, into what motivates those actions, and how those motivations embody what a brand is really about. We landed on the issue of how to set values over purpose and how to seed a brand’s DNA with those values, retroactively or from first sowing, so that they grow into impact in the real world.
In this time of unprecedented turmoil, a new model of brand citizenship seems to be taking shape. People are demanding more, and taking a stand for or against an issue is no longer enough; it’s imperative for those values to be brought to life through action. Brands represent the social contract of business today, shaping our economy and how we live and work. As such, they bear a responsibility for how culture evolves and to some degree must act as its custodians. This is a period of redress of the imbalance in society, and consumers will be holding brands accountable for how they act, not what they say they believe.
Culture is a matrix of living relationships, and integral to any relationship is a conversation about needs on every end. These relationships are external and internal, between businesses and people, between leadership and employees. There’s a chemistry that happens when brands put culture and action before marketing and products – a trust created that strengthens the bond of partnership.
This in itself is not news, but the leverage has shifted. An inversion of influence has magnified people’s power in their roles as consumer and audience. As if it were a shock wave radiating from the impact of action in the streets, we’re seeing the scope of what people are able to do to force brands to think differently and move faster. Policy is being shaped to make sure values stay at the forefront. The spirit of the movement is not new, but suddenly the voice of moral necessity is amplified, and the call is much more apparent and urgent. This new dynamic is helping every partner hold each other accountable in living up to what is important.
Implicit here are new expectations and rising to them. Consumers increasingly make decisions based not only on a brand’s stated beliefs, but on how they act in the world and the initiatives they commit to. They’re looking to brands to help build a context of shared values together and figure out how to live by them. It changes the relationship between employee and employer when the employee knows that their employer is a sincere activist, and the same goes for consumers. More and more, before people will advocate for a brand, they want the brand to advocate for the things they care about. This is the shape of the future: seeing this as a true partnership and getting aligned with each other’s values.
The evolving consumer mindset identifies with and builds connections based on how brands relate to their lives as they live them, not just in terms of esthetics or purpose, but in moral terms. There’s a demand for commitment in action and this is the new price of loyalty and advocacy. These new expectations underpin the momentum of this moment in history. Businesses, organizations, governments, spokespersons and stakeholders are being held to account on the same standards as everyday individuals. And the metric for these standards is not a statement or image, nor a black square posted on Instagram, but tangible action that comes from a sincere place. A brand has to be about really doing something because it matters and because they care.
As this story is about a new contract between partners, its impact resonates beyond the positioning of individual brands into the fabric that ties business and society together. The problems facing various brands are not so different. They can be distilled to how the players in the culture interact, and how those relationships will have to evolve from there. There’s more to be gained from coming together to confront issues than jockeying for competitive advantage and increased social currency.
To ensure that they aren’t simply playing to a trend, brands must lay the foundation for a new way of doing and being. They need to deal with the past and reconcile it with the present in order to move into the future. The change has to be genuine and this necessitates the chance to make mistakes, learn from them, and develop a truly human side to a brand in relation to these really human problems. Changes this deep take a systemic approach. New leadership models need to be created and embraced because social responsibility and action cannot be delegated to CMOs or farmed out to agencies to craft. These are not marketing problems. Silos have to be broken down so that values can be treated on the level of corporate culture, as an emanation of something woven into the DNA of a business or retrofitted into systems as they exist. Token gestures and appointments won’t cut it anymore. People will be looking not only at what brands say and do, but who they are, who makes up their leadership, and what those individuals believe in.
This is a chapter in our evolution. It will take time and requires rethinking the relationships between all players in the culture – businesses, clients, management, employees, marketers and people. New models must be created that favor cooperation over competition when it comes to acting in the name of issues we believe in. More than anything, a critical factor here is sincerity.
Action motivated by optics or a narrow commitment to the bottom line will not cut it anymore, if it ever really did. Sincere belief in the values underlying those actions and a genuine desire to do what’s right will come through. And not only that, it will also reinforce the bonds that hold us together in the paradigm of the culture of consumerism. Moreover, it lives up to a fiduciary responsibility that might easily be overlooked; let’s remember that these are shared values and a true commitment to them is being linked more and more to the bottom line. Increasingly, that bottom line is driven by moral expectation.
No matter where any of us is situated as an actor in the culture or the economy, we have the power to influence action and shape the future. This a marathon, not a sprint. There might not ever be a finish line, and maybe that’s for the best. We want to know what you think it will take to move us all forward in unison. Drop us a line. Let’s take the next step together.