Would you be friends with a person who has absolutely no opinion on anything? I think we know the answer to that.
In my new book, Cultural Engineering: The role of brands in a changing world, I explore how today’s young adults expect brands to demonstrate a value system through sustained actions, and how any brand that does not have a point of view is destined for the waste bin of history.
The inspiration to write the book came from a realization that the vast majority of product benefits have become “points of parity”, in other words, benefits nearly every brand in a category can claim. As opposed to “points of difference” which only one brand in a category can claim.
Just as an example, I’ve worked on a number of skincare brands over the years, and I’ve seen so many of the same benefits keep coming back: anti-aging, reduction of fine lines, fewer wrinkles, deep hydration, glowing and supple skin, you get the drift.
Even in the event that a brand has a killer differentiator, it may take just a year or two for the R&D of their competitors to catch up, and for that differentiator to become yet another point of parity.
So, what would make consumers choose one brand over another? When a brand has a point of view that overlaps with their point of view. If she feels strongly about protecting the environment for future generations, she will admire Patagonia for sharing her point of view, and this will sway her choice when she’s shopping for a new backpack. If he thinks a lot about racism, he will appreciate Nike for donating $40 million to anti-racism organizations and these positive associations will be at the back of his mind when he’s looking for his next pair of sneakers.
All because a brand has chosen to stick its neck out, take a stand, and become a catalyst for positive change. That’s what I mean by cultural engineering.
Two groups of consumers have started expecting brands to drive cultural change: Millennials and Gen Z. Let’s call them young adults in order to not fall for the jargon trap.
Young adults have started asking, where do your raw materials come from? Is your palm oil sourced sustainability? Is your supply chain deforesting virgin rainforest and making orangutans homeless? What’s your stand on feminism? What’s your stand on immigration? What’s your stand on LGBTQ+ issues? What have you done to respond to the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and racism that hit us in 2020?
Young adults expect brands to demonstrate a value system through sustained actions. Any brand that does not have a point of view is destined for the waste bin of history.
These expectations from young adults are why we see Burger King tackle homophobia by packaging its Whopper into a rainbow, calling it Proud Whopper, and filming the reactions of customers to create a provocative social experiment. It’s why Aeromexico offered discounts to Americans depending on how much Mexican DNA they have. It’s also why SK-II doesn’t just empower women with the best skin products but empowers them at a loftier level by challenging the expectations that women in some societies should be married by a certain age.
Understanding the zeitgeist that expects brands to make the world a better place, many brands have responded positively to #BlackLivesMatter, be it Apple’s $100 million investment into a Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, or Pepsico’s decision to rename and rebrand their Aunt Jemima pancake brand as it was based on an anachronistic trope of a happy kitchen slave.
It was no different when it came to the other major menace threatening the world this year: Covid-19. Procter & Gamble started manufacturing masks and face shields out of its Cincinnati and Boston factories. LVMH turned its perfume factories into hand sanitizer factories. Lifebuoy responded within hours to news of the pandemic by educating the public on handwashing habits and recommending that people use any soap brand nearest to them, even mentioning their rivals like Dettol by name.
There’s no shortcut to it. Because we are talking about uprooting very firmly entrenched aspects of culture, like the patriarchy, homophobia, traditional expectations of marriage, distrust for immigrants, and so on.
The cultural engineering responsibility of brands is not a license to do woke washing, lip service, and virtue signaling. Young adults are exceptionally savvy when it comes to sniffing inauthenticity. When a brand recently called out racism, its consumers immediately questioned why the brand had snapped ties with a model three years ago when she spoke out against racism.
Fearless Girl, the statue of the little girl that faced down the Wall Street Charging Bull, might have won 4 Cannes Grands Prix, but the financial services company that did it was outed for paying its women employees less than its men employees in the same positions, which clearly showed an inability to walk the talk.
The reason woke washing cannot cut it is that people know that brands have the power to do so much more than lip service. Brands possess an exceptional combination of knowledge, expertise, wealth, influence, and the people’s love. Brands are expected to wield this substantial power to dismantle cultural relics that encumber the human race while instilling thought processes that empower us.
If that feels like a lot of work, well, it is. There’s no shortcut to it. Because we are talking about uprooting very firmly entrenched aspects of culture, like the patriarchy, homophobia, traditional expectations of marriage, distrust for immigrants, and so on.
Though it takes time to re-engineer such mindsets, any brand that’s in it for the long haul stands to gain enormous brand love as young adults vote with their pockets.
Brands are expected to wield this substantial power to dismantle cultural relics that encumber the human race while instilling thought processes that empower us.
It takes a lot of rigor to identify and assess cultural engineering opportunities, address those opportunities creatively, and walk the talk with sustained actions that firmly establish the brand as a change agent. The most successful examples of brand-driven cultural change are outcomes of this rigor, be it the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or American Express’ Small Business Saturday. These are just two of many examples of what the biggest and best brands are doing to drive human progress.
As marketers look to the future with both excitement and uncertainty, I put forward cultural engineering as a philosophy that can guide us on the path ahead. A brand-building approach that will inspire marketers to embrace their powers with cheer and optimism.
Featured image by AG Z.
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