We Can Do Better
Our post-pandemic society demands a different kind of agency
Plenty has been written about the significant impact of COVID-19 on our world. From technology and economics to media and entertainment, the significant shifts in our best practices and future prospects are both dramatic and well documented. But all of these changes pale in comparison to an overarching metamorphosis that’s received far less attention. Society, as a whole, has changed.
The demands of social distancing and a protracted quarantine left most of us alone with our thoughts for extended periods of time, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection. At first, many of us reacted as we often do to crisis – with varying degrees of fear, anxiety, resentment or denial. Few of us, particularly Americans, respond well to what we perceive as a lack of freedom, loss of independence or imposition of limitations.
But once we came to grips with these circumstances on a personal level, most of us began to turn our focus outward. Separated from the rest of the world, we actually became more social and began to recognize other segments of our global society who live with the specter of fear or limitations every day. And this new level of social consciousness led many to a critical conclusion: We can do better.
Impact on Brands
This pandemic-driven revolution in cultural expectations has left most traditional brands reeling. In addition to digital transformation and media diversification, they’re also being forced to take a long, hard look at how they show up in conversations regarding gender identity, cultural inequality, systemic racism and other persistent social issues. They’re having to reconcile corporate practices regarding Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) with their stated brand values and provide evidence that they’re walking the talk.
At the same time, an unparalleled, polarizing political environment has compelled some brands to take highly visible positions that impact their overall identity. Take the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, for instance, which led a legacy brand like Disney to come out and stand with the LGBTQ community – only to have the governor retaliate by attempting to revoke the company’s state tax status. This instance alone indicates the dawn of a new age in which brands are being influenced by a broader complement of constituents who base their allegiance on much more than just the quality of products or services.
Consumers as Brand Critics
Is it fair for consumers to ask the brands they support to help forward some degree of social change? Sure. Whether we recognize it or not, brands have always been the arbiters of social change in a free market; certainly, as much as any governmental agency or political party. If you’re a frequent reader of my blogs, you’ve already heard me say that commerce is a true democracy. But like any democracy, the laws are constantly evolving.
Advertising used to be a one-way transaction. There was no dialogue. It was simply a case of show and tell. And the only way for consumers to cast their vote was with their wallet. Today, we have active, real-time conversations through social channels and other digital venues that make consumers critical in the curation of a brand’s identity.
The definition of a “brand” has evolved from a simple mark that helps differentiate your products from those of your competitors, to a measure of the entire consumer experience. So, in that respect, brands only exist in the consciousness of the consumer. It’s the consumer who owns the brand. Their input has never mattered more, so intelligent brands are evolving the way they represent themselves and relate to their customers or prospects.
But while it’s entirely acceptable for consumers to ask brands to help drive social change, it’s also up to the leadership of each brand to decide if they’ll accept that invitation. Social change invariably requires tension, commitment and conflict. But there is no United Nations of Brands to help define a collective set of practices, so every organization must decide for itself if they’re more like America or Switzerland. And that begins with a critical understanding of their brand vision, mission and values.
From Exclusion to Inclusion
Brands have always been evaluated on the basis of how they make us feel. But the way we feel about brands is based on far more personal criteria than it used to be, and successful brands will have to be more conscious of this new relationship. Back in the day, we just wanted Tide to get our socks clean. Today, we also want to know if they’re helping hurricane victims or reducing their environmental impact.
Of course, all of this is driven by the principle of Aspiration. Since the early days of advertising, successful brands have held out the promise that purchasing their products would allow consumers to achieve a social position to which they aspire. Serving a certain peanut butter will make you a better mother. Driving a particular car will let everyone know you’ve arrived.
That might sound archaic, but until a couple of years ago, most advertisers were still promoting the traditional attributes of quality, superiority or exclusivity. Then came 2019. Post-pandemic, the primary goal of consumer aspiration is no longer exclusivity, but inclusivity.
The message of today’s most effective advertising is just the opposite of yesterday’s: Whoever you are, you’re already enough, you already matter, you already belong with us. If that’s not an example of brands mirroring and helping drive social change, then I don’t know what is.
Start with Truth
The optimist in me can’t help feeling this sea change in social thinking is a real opportunity for progressive marketers. The very definition of “inclusion” is predicated on the notion of welcoming new prospects into the tribe. But the pragmatist in me feels compelled to point out we’re in the early days of this new journey and most brands are still finding their way.
Which brings us back to the matter of choice. As I’ve suggested above, the degree to which a brand participates in social change is a decision that rests with its leadership alone and must be guided by its vision and values. If you’re Beats by Dre, and your entire enterprise was founded on cultural advancement and community building, then lending your voice to the conversation rings true. But if you’re Smith & Wesson, Cracker Barrel or Ralph Lauren, those same actions may seem disingenuous.
Contrived diversity and inclusion won’t work. Today’s socially conscious consumers are far too smart to fall for that. Brand messages that look contrived usually are because those brands are coming from a place of fear rather than authenticity. So, the solution is to start with truth; to tell a story that’s not just aspirational but demonstrable, and backed up by public actions, not just stated values.
But if we’re starting with truth, that requires engagement with whole different kind of agency.
A New Role for Agencies
Digital transformation makes market segmentation, detailed attribution and behavioral analysis possible, but these possibilities also shine a blinding light on the old-school agency relationship.
There are plenty of new media platforms, programmatic tools and alternative creative resources that allow brands to manage more marketing tactics themselves. But these all presume the brands leveraging them have a comprehensive statement of their business objectives, a clear understanding of their brand strategy and a concise marketing brief that effectively connects the two. Until then, do-it-yourself won’t do it.
As digital consumers have evolved, the best agencies have also evolved to deliver more informed, consultative, sophisticated strategies based on business goals and market insights, instead of just serving as administrative coordinators of marketing services. This demands more than just the ability to produce cool creative or traffic media budgets. Those are table stakes. This demands greater specialization and deeper industry knowledge.
Forward-thinking agencies like Modern Impact are designed to serve those brands who have a true story to tell. We won’t just take a piece of clever creative from the client and negotiate ways to get it to market, but help the client delineate their overall business strategy, craft a truly authentic story, and define more intelligent ways to integrate it into the holistic consumer experience through multiple touchpoints.
But insinuating a brand into the consumer’s consciousness only happens if that brand’s agency is fully integrated into their organization. We need to understand where the brand really is and wants to go. And I’m not afraid to say that many brands – even large, global brands – really struggle with producing a smart, solid, strategic brief. Perhaps it’s a natural byproduct of the client perspective. But the right agency helps clients refocus their vision, unlock those critical brand truths, and connect with consumers in a way that not only creates instant credibility, but acceptance of a message that aligns with their personal values.
In summary, I believe if today’s brands aspire to a position of true leadership, they’ll have to recognize their expanding role in our global culture, step up in embodying the values of a changing society and choose their role in the conversation.
At the same time, I also believe the best agencies will assume greater responsibility for integrating their teams into their client’s organization, assisting those clients in better defining their business goals, and developing more sophisticated strategies for elevating their brands.
And just like the consumers we seek to serve, I believe we can all do better.