Faster the world spins, the more brands must know where they stand

'Know what you believe in and you'll know how to behave.'

More than 70 years after W.H. Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety, the poetic tale of a man’s search for identity and substance in a time of drastic change, the central idea of the poem is more appropriate than ever.

In 1947, when Auden wrote that work, we had just survived a grisly world war and had entered the atomic age, in which the destructive power of nuclear weapons was evident. In 2018, we face a more generalized anxiety wrought by always-on technology, the disruption of AI and a society in which truth is relative.

Evidence of this anxiety is everywhere. Barnes & Noble reported this summer that sales of anxiety-related books are up 25 percent over the previous year. This is also a boom time for the "general anxiety disorder market," which is expected to generate revenues of nearly $3.8 billion by 2020, according to Zion Market Research.

Politics play a big role, but there’s more to it than that. Every industry is facing upheaval from technology. Workers are anxious that they’ll be replaced by machines. There’s pressure to produce more and be available more at work, yet at the same time, be a super parent or spouse. Even our hobbies — if we have them — make us anxious by forcing us into a pursuit of excellence. Our ancient brains weren’t designed to deal with such rapid change.

As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his 2018 book 21 Lessons forc the 21st Century, poor Chinese parents in 1018 taught their children to plant rice or weave silk. Such parents had a good idea which skills would be needed in 1050. But parents today have no idea what 2050 will look like, which skills will be needed and how armies or bureaucracies will function. This confusion affects brands, too; it’s hard to know how to proceed when everything from gender relations to our work is being redefined.

This is the context in which marketing messages appear. Consider how the consumer of 2018 stumbles upon your brand. She is looking through her Facebook feed, which, on any given day, may be full of vitriol and despair. When it is, your happy little message may feel tone deaf, discordant and even a bit insulting.

For brands, crafting ideas that resonate with our current cultural mindset is a challenge. The answer is the opposite of a quick fix.

The Great Disintegration

There have been tumultuous times in the past, but even in the 1960s, there was a cultural consensus. Most of the country trusted Walter Cronkite and there were few alternatives to the Big Three networks. Now there’s no Cronkite and the Big Three networks compete with hundreds of others, plus online content sources.

We call this shakeout The Great Disintegration. There’s no mainstream anymore and, as a result, no consensus on truth. Our culture is balkanized into self-contained opinion bubbles. People are taking sides more and more. That means you don’t know where others stand, including brands.

Like it or not, in this atmosphere, when something big happens in the news, consumers are increasingly looking to brands as anchors; what brands say or don’t say matters. This is an opportunity for brands to stand for something, to live out the values they share with consumers. If you’re not in the conversation, you’re invisible. People are expecting opinions. Companies that don’t offer them don’t register. The paradox, however, is that there is a real danger to voicing your opinions.

The solution: Know what you believe in and you’ll know how to behave

Since brands can no longer operate under the radar by being as inoffensive as possible, they need to know what they believe in. A brand in this context is as complex as a person. A close analogy is a celebrity: We know where Tom Hanks, Oprah, and Kanye West stand on issues. What about Macy’s or Pepsi?

Brands with well-conceived beliefs have already worked this out. Apple and Virgin believe in thinking differently and being a maverick. Patagonia believes that our environment is precious. These brands aren’t looking to jump on the next political controversy, but if and when the ball lands in their court, they will lob it back in a way that makes sense.

The challenge for marketers is that knowing and living your beliefs is a cultural commitment, not a short-term project. Marketers, meanwhile, are continually told to be "agile" and to react quickly. Short-termism is rampant. Thankfully, the two imperatives aren’t mutually exclusive. If a brand knows what it’s about, it can react quickly when necessary.  The brand can also accept that in today’s environment, it’s going to alienate a portion of consumers when it does. The catch is that it has to really know what it stands for and be willing to take flak — or reap the rewards — for that stance.

In this environment, knowing your point of differentiation isn’t as useful as knowing your point of view. Doing so will make your CEO’s hard calls easier. In this world, she has to react in real time, so give her the knowledge and confidence to act with conviction, make better cultural calls and feel intuitive and meaningful to her customers and her company.

We’ve already seen this. Nike turned off a segment of its fans with its Colin Kaepernick ad (though Nike’s stock hit a new high afterward). Dick’s Sporting Goods announced after the Parkland shooting that it would no longer sell assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Afterward, it faced a backlash from some consumers and elicited praise from others.

This is the new normal. In an anxious, fractious age, brands have to put their beliefs front and center and stick to them. To get there, marketers need to find those beliefs first. Then they need to plan in five or 10-year increments rather than quarter by quarter. Beliefs are long-term, not changeable by quarter.

Many consumers today believe that everything a brand does means something. To connect meaningfully with those consumers, you better know what your brand believes.

Jamie Shuttleworth is chief strategy officer of mcgarrybowen's Chicago office.

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