The race to make a better brand
Last year at Wolff Olins, we started exploring how brands will evolve in the decade ahead. Years ago, we helped create the idea of the platform brand – first with (RED) and then with a number of tech companies, including Uber. This is the kind of brand that enables others – partners, users – to do things they couldn't do before. We wanted to know: what’s next?
And then the coronavirus crisis hit us all – and made that thinking suddenly much more urgent. Throughout history, pandemics have accelerated change, and the Indian author Arundhati Roy has written that this pandemic should be a portal to a better way of doing things.
So what does this mean for brands? Deep in the crisis, we all live in a fug of uncertainty, with an undertow of anxiety. Our mood hovers between holiday and calamity. So it’s hard to get a clear head. But here’s what we think is happening.
How and why we live
The crisis has shown us how tech can help us talk, stay in touch, work together, learn, experience art, consult a doctor - all online. It’s speeded up the move from cash to digital payment. It has liberated us from commuting, made business travel seem unnecessary. Online, we’ve seen geography almost obliterated - it’s as easy to work with colleagues on another continent as in the next room. Schools and universities adopted online teaching over a weekend, having been wary of it for a decade.
At a deeper level, individualist values have shifted rapidly into more collective values. In a crisis, we help each other. We’ve rediscovered the idea of family and neighbourhood. In the most individualistic cultures globally, here’s a new sense of solidarity – and a massively bigger role for the state – accelerating a long-term reaction away from the extreme individualism and corporatism of the last thirty years. Many companies have shown this sense of solidarity, and some have postponed paying dividends, accelerating a long shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. We’ve had to find alternative pastimes to going shopping, shifting away not just from physical stores, but from consumption itself.
After the crisis, some habits will bounce back. But underlying mindsets will see a lasting change. So the crisis is changing how we live and, in a way, why we live. All this will give rise to a new kind of brand.
Six ages of brand
By ‘brand’, we mean an organisation that doesn’t just sell something but also means something to people. Branding is a natural human activity, starting with the branding of cattle to mark ownership. In the industrial revolution, brands like Kellogg’s or Campbell’s got applied to products, as a guarantee of quality. Then with the mass media revolution, advertising became a way to give a product an emotional charge and enhance people’s image or self-image – think of Coca-Cola or Marlboro. With the rise of the global corporation, brands became a way for a company like Apple or Virgin to create a sense of belonging and loyalty. And in the last twenty years, brands like Google or Airbnb are platforms, enabling people to do things they couldn’t do before.
And now we’re seeing a new kind of brand - the conscious brand.
Responsible and responsive
By which we mean, firstly, conscientious: organisations with a strong sense of responsibility. This is much deeper than the old fig-leaf of ‘corporate social responsibility’. Not corporations exerting power, but citizens playing their role among all the other citizens of the world. Not amoral legal fictions, but ethical beings. Not simply employing staff (or contractors), but helping their people grow. Not selling to consumers, but convening citizens. Not just supplying individualistic desires, but forging a sense of solidarity. In many cases, they’ll aim not to stimulate consumption, but to reduce it. Rather than enabling me to do something (like a platform brand), they’ll enable us to change something.
But the conscious brand isn’t just responsible, it’s also responsive. Conscious beings are alive, awake, aware and self-aware. They’ll adapt instantly to changing needs and moods among their customers and employees. They’ll be not slick, corporate and mechanistic but emotionally intelligent, organic, rough, unfinished, constantly morphing, and even able to laugh at themselves. They are organisations not with a contrived ‘purpose’ but with an organic spirit. Conscious beings learn over time, and so will conscious brands, supported by machine learning. They will be places where knowledge is shared – in fact, ‘conscious’ literally means ‘knowing together’.
There are plenty of brands aiming to be more responsible. Think of the Swedish energy business Vattenfall, setting out to help us all live fossil-fuel-free within a generation. Under Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has recognised that being a purely agnostic platform brand is no longer sustainable, launching initiatives to tackle air pollution, plastic usage and passenger and rider safety. And in the last few weeks, brands like AT&T, Tesco and eBay have swung into action, supporting testing stations, feeding health workers and distributing personal protection equipment. In another dimension, a brand like Wikipedia shows the potential of collective learning. But few brands have yet adopted a more humble, less corporate, more responsive way of being – maybe we’re seeing it first in the political style of the leaders of Finland and New Zealand. The race is therefore on to be the first fully conscious brand.
Vital to business
We think the responsive brands will be the best at attracting people in. And the responsible ones will be those that will keep society’s permission to operate. Conscious brands will be both, and they will create the most value, commercial and social. Building a conscious brand will be a way for organisations to minimise the risk of rejection or irrelevance, and maximise opportunities from innovation and growth.
And if a pandemic is also a portal, now’s the time to push through that portal: not just to be ready for the future of brands, but to create it.
The idea of conscious brands is new. We’re working with organisations around the world to develop it, test it, push it further, and demonstrate results – and we’re creating a toolkit to help us all get started. Join us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram as we create, explore and highlight the conscious brands of the future.