The death of brand and the rise of corporate character
The first two decades of this century have seen some of the most dramatic changes in Western democracies that we have seen for half a century. A global pandemic, financial crises, escalating conflicts and wars, climate disasters, the rise of China, Brexit, the Arab Spring, the rise and fall (and possible rise again) of Trump and increasing social activism to name a few. All have reshaped how we live, do business, interact and communicate.
Unpredictable and volatile events have become the norm. Governments, businesses, civic society and citizens alike have often seemed unable to process the pace and scale of change. The interrelatedness of politics, economics, commerce and social activism means those who need a social license to operate need to connect to an increasingly sceptical and less compliant public. And this presents a significant challenge for communicators.
Those of us in the business of reputation and persuasion need to understand the forces of change, allowing us to forge a pathway that is both progressive and optimistic. One that appeals to reason and emotion. Is honest about when things go wrong. Committed to bringing people together.
Easier said than done, but important, nonetheless. People are savvy, informed and opinionated. Less willing to accept a carefully crafted message or a believe a shiny brand. Command and control approaches no longer work.
This is good by any measure. But it represents a challenge for many organisations who value control, who only show their best face at all times, who want to ‘own’ the narrative.
The collapse of deference to politicians, mistrust of financiers and scepticism about experts is evident. And in this void, brands have thrived. In the absence of a battle of ideas, the battle of brands has flourished.
But we should be wary. Brands wield huge power over our lives. And if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that those who hold power bear the brunt of activism, driven by dissatisfaction and frustration.
We see this increasingly with consumer brands who fail to live up to their own ideals, or indeed the values of consumers. B2B brands are also finding it harder to escape.
That is why we are likely to see the death of brand and the rise of character in the coming years. Successful companies – those that connect, inspire and contribute to a better world – will be those who understand organisational character.
And what do I mean by that? And what can we do to build character?
Organisations need to focus on character rather than brand
The brand instinct to ‘protect, preserve and promote’ will make way for an instinct to engage, acknowledge and open up. If brand is the extrovert, talented in fostering positive perception and charm, character will be the defining characteristic of the emerging introvert.
Presentation will become less important. Opinion will become more important. Too much consistency will be considered fake and untrustworthy. Inconsistency – at times – will be considered real, authentic and human. You don’t always have to get it right. In fact, getting it wrong and admitting it will build currency and trust.
We are sceptical of those who present as perfect. This will become the same for companies and organisations. Those we trust, the causes we support and the initiatives that inspire us will embrace their flaws and imperfections and own them.
The message is important, but it’s not everything
The crafted message, the message grid, the honed soundbite will remain important. But it will be slimmer, more pared down, enabling companies and their spokespeople greater freedom to express the message in the context of their personal style, their opinions and their viewpoints.
As Marshall McLuhan said in the ‘60s, the medium is the message. And that medium will become more important than ever. How a message is articulated and how it is communicated will influence how it’s received, as much as its content.
Provoke but don’t be arrogant
Don’t be afraid of having a view that people disagree with. It is better to be known for saying something, than saying nothing.
Organisations will need to become more human, less robotic. After all, any organisation is made up of people.
Organisations will have to ‘think’ and ‘engage’ and ‘state’ a point of view, not just communicate and broadcast.
Social channels will increasingly be used to do this, not just as a marketing communications channel.
And physical events will be more – not less – important as communications becomes more digital. People will crave face-to-face interactions that foster deeper, more real connections and conversations.
This is a theme we will return to. But what are your thoughts? Will we see the death of brand and the rise of character? Or will character become the defining characteristic of winning brands?