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Managing brands in an uncertain world

I recently heard Yuval Noah, the author of the excellent Sapiens and Homo Deus, exclaim that 10 years ago marked the end of history as we knew it. He argued that after thousands of generations striving for it, humanity had finally reached a position of stability. No longer would we experience the constant fluxing and unpredictability that has been the hallmark of human history throughout time. For the first time ever, it was generally accepted that we knew with 100 percent certainty where the future was taking us.

Thanks to universal connectivity delivered through infinitely-smart artificial intelligence powered technology, we would see one culturally-homogenous human race in which geographic borders and national identities would no longer matter. We’d enjoy a shared understanding of our responsibility to look after this planet that we all call home. We would live in a world in which the democratisation of the media would make it impossible for tyrannical narcissists to succeed in pursuing their own agendas of self-aggrandisement and power-mongering. And presumably, the All Blacks would continue to be all-conquering. This was the utopia that lay ahead.

Clearly that hasn’t come to pass. And that’s the thing about predictions; history invariably proves them wrong. It doesn’t take the most informed commentator to notice that 2018 didn’t live up to this utopian vision of global unity. In fact, I can’t remember a year in my lifetime that’s been less harmonious or delivered such wide-ranging change, uncertainty and disruption. Even the All Blacks lost. Twice.

The world we are all navigating now is much different from what we forecast it to be just 12 months ago, let alone 10 years ago. Our businesses and our brands exist in this world, the real one as it is, not the one we theoretically thought it was going to be. Which means that they have to evolve to be contextually relevant and culturally appropriate, otherwise they’ll run the risk of being left behind. 

So what does a brand need to do to stay ahead in an age of such uncertainty? And what is their role? Beyond simply providing freedom from the tyranny of overwhelming choice (how would you choose from 17 different strawberry jams on supermarket shelves if you didn’t have some emotive way of shortcutting your decision-making?) I believe brands now have an unprecedented role to play in setting the ethical, moral and social bar. This may be a frightening thought for some. But done right, it can be a powerful force for your business, and a genuinely influential force in the lives of the consumers that drive it.

Just look at Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. A far cry from the virtue signalling so common of brands who talk the talk, but rarely walk the walk, Nike was brave enough to take a stance that they knew would divide their customer base. It was bold enough to say “if you don’t agree with us, we don’t want your custom”. Don’t get me wrong, Nike is one of the few global brands in a position to be able to do that, but even so it was a bold statement of social activism from a brand that wasn’t afraid to put its money where its mouth is. The 31 percent uplift in sales in the days after the ad first aired suggests it worked too. 

Mark Pritchard, the chief brand officer at Proctor & Gamble, puts it this way: “Gaining conviction to step up and take the bold stand to speak out, weather criticism, double down, and continue to move forward is a culmination of many small but meaningful steps…”.

So ask yourself this… what would your brand be willing to stand for even if it hit your bottom line to do so? Every brand I’ve ever worked with has at some point gone through the process of defining a set of values to live by. But really, a value is only a value if you’re willing to let it cost you something. So would your brand live by these values even if it cost you to do so? If you’re hesitating on that, you’re prioritising the short term over building genuine long term brand equity. And that’s a dangerous place to play.

I think the most successful brands in our age of uncertainty will be those that have an understanding of their own parameters that they know what issues they do and don’t support. What hills they would and wouldn’t die on. And then they bake those parameters into everything they do, not purely communications. The days of running a siloed Corporate Social Responsibility function to offset the rest of the business are over. CSR needs to now be baked into the fabric of the brand itself. It’s not about mitigation, it’s about authentically caring about the world being better with that brand in it.

I’m not saying for a second that all brands need to become political agitators. As important as taking a stand on the things that are important to your brand, is not taking a stand on the things that aren’t. At times this year it’s felt like we’ve descended into the realm of parody, with brands falling over themselves to jump on the latest activism cause without really having an authentic place within that discourse.

With a fast changing world comes fast changing consumer expectations. To cater to these, brands need to be able to adapt faster than they ever have. But that doesn’t mean they should become wholly reactive. It simply means taking a view of brand strategy which is less about rigid rules and usage guidelines and more about a series of heuristics that allow for contextual interpretation and flex. It means taking advantage of authentic short term opportunities while staying true to your long term vision and filtering out the noise. 

The world is a complex beast and attempting to predict it is an exercise in folly. As we head into that time of year when every man, woman and dog prophecies the future of marketing (think of the such content as one-use-plastic clogging up the sea of insight that should be the internet), we’ll hear the same old “Peak of Inflated Expectations” myths repeated. But history will judge them, and this time next year we’ll realise that linear television still isn’t dead, AI hasn’t replaced humanity, voice (while on the rise) isn’t yet the ubiquitous input mode of choice, programmatic technology hasn’t swallowed everything else, big brands are still putting out big ad campaigns and despite the conjecture, they’ll still be driving results. Chatbots haven’t yet taken over the asylum. Oh, and despite the doom and gloom, the All Blacks will probably break Irish hearts in Japan. There’s a prediction for you. I guess rules are there to be broken.

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