1. Rise of the walls

21st century weather report

The world is reeling under the hate wave of right wing xenophobia, binaries of ‘Us vs. Them‘. The hate wave is projected to continue and expand as people turn their back on ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which had yielded unequal fruits for the globalised citizens of the 20th Century. While the globalisation opened up the barriers for free-flow of money across the world, the flow of people has been artificially impeded creating great pressures at the arbitrary borders. The potential energy arising from the stalled flow is bound to turn into kinetic energy, overpowering the borders – eventually. That possibility of bursting of dam obviously scares people on either side.
Uncertain times, uncertain times.

In times of uncertainty, people seek certainty –the privileged seek Certainty of ‘walls’ to save their way of life. The underprivileged ‘others’ seek certainty of the better life on the other side of the wall. Hence, we have Trump’s wall, refugee crisis across the globe and right-wingers gaining political power.

Netherlands, India, Australia, Nigeria, Philippines… xenophobic demagogues are gaining political power everywhere. Are we collectively getting more selfish? Or is there something else beneath our collective psyches that needs recognition?

The new Modernism: From globalist to Nativist

For the purpose of this essay, understand ‘Modernism’ as essentially blinkered optimism and ‘Post modernism’ as the recognition of futility of Modernism’s idealism. So most –isms (Capitalism, Socialisms, Casteism, Communism or even Taliban’s vision of Islam or even art movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism) that imagine a simplistic utopia, that propagate a simplistic worldview are essentially modernist imaginations. Modernism is about believing that utopia is within reach and that ‘only if these things change, the world will be perfect and harmonious’. Those who want walls are also modernists in that sense – they believe that closing their worlds to others would solve their problems.

Post-modernism is about recognizing the tragedy of modernism – that the world is simply way too complicated for any utopias to come to fruition. Dissolution of Soviet Union, Quantum Physics, LGBTQ pride parades, Crypto-currencies, Tech Billionaires eschewing suits, memes… Events like these puncture worldviews of modernists. ‘Sacrilege’/ ‘Blasphemy’/ ‘Traitor’ they yell. The edifice of certainty comes crumbling down. Nothing hurts as much as disavowal of a dearly held worldview – the source of one’s identity, the coordinate of one’s perceived reality.

When the pace of change becomes unbearable and humanity needs a carpet to dust away its confusions and dissonance under, modernist rail against the symbols of authority, symbols of status-quo in an attempt to ‘reset’. They hope to start over to ‘do it right this time’. Hence, Americans want to make America great ‘again’ and Chinese & Indians want to ‘regain’ old glory.

What does this have to do with brands?

The cultural role of brands is now fundamentally changed. It is an important shift that marketers must understand. In the last century, global brands were at the forefront of propagating western values of individualism, freedom to enjoy & dreams of building personal wealth, accessing evermore-exclusive lifestyles. The globalist philosophy of brands marginalised national, cultural, tribal identities & associations. There was one ideal lifestyle, one ‘-ism’ shaping the global culture most stridently– that of individualistic consumption over everything else. Slavoj Zizek qualifies this cultural force engineered by brands as the ‘obligation to enjoy’.

However, people are reacting to that imposition now. Some by questioning their consumptive choices, some by questioning the globalist legacy of brands and some by outsourcing their consumptive choices to search engines/ suggestion engines/ Alexa.

Let me illustrate this with two recent historical events.

From the Berlin wall to Trump’s wall

November 1989 – The Berlin wall was brought down by the will of people.

November 2016 – Americans elected a real estate developer as their president for his promise to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

What had changed between November 1989 and November 2016?

In the 80s, East Berliners craved for the choices that the West Berliners had – to own stuff, to travel, to listen to music, to use deodorants, to smoke cigarettes. A thirst for freedom to choose one’s own destiny brought down the Berlin wall in November 1989. Eventually, the freedom to choose destinies was conflated with the freedom to choose brands. Bbrands used that confusion to their advantage.

27 years since, the realisation is setting in – choosing brands of your choice is not the same as choosing your destiny. A recession and a few maxed out credit cards later, a typical consumer is beginning to realise that the very act of consumption is ensnaring him/her in a vicious cycle of debt, instead of setting him/ her free.

It was implied with overwhelming branding, that the consumer would succeed, would be happier due to his brand choices. Instead, it only helped him project his success and happiness at the cost of actually gaining success & happiness. Without actual success, the credit card loans caught up with him. Without actual happiness accruing from individualist brands, he was left in want of social relationships, a cultural identity. He was left feeling powerless – he had to suffer in the recession and then the bad economy, even as he was doing what was expected of him. That resentment was amplified by accelerating inequality.

Since we cannot accept our own powerlessness, we direct our blame at ‘others’ – South Americans, Africans, Muslims… It is psychologically easier to find a scapegoat, rather than confront our own powerlessness against the real tyrants. Hence, people elected a real estate developer promising to build a ‘beautiful wall’ at the southern border of USA.

Implications for brands

  1. The role of brands in our culture is changed. Brands are not beacons of progressive ideals of individualistic freedom and fraternity anymore.

In a walled-in world wanting out, brands were symbols of freedom, of free globalist identities.
In a wall-less world wanting in, brands are addictive identity crutches that must be pared down, in favour of collectivist identities.  

This is the reason for meteoric rise of brands like Patanjali in India (which is positioned on Indian heritage and traditional know-how) or rise of agitations against global brands (such as these ones in China).

  1. There is no single ideal that can be universally understood as ‘progressive’. Is wearing a burkha patriarchal or is it a will-full choice? Are revolutions always desirable or not? Is science always progressive or should we be worried about its advances? (For instance with GM foods). Does individual’s rights matter more than nation state’s priorities? The right answer is – it depends! There are no absolutes. Contexts matter. Hence, brands need to be cautious about their stances.
  2. Local relevance: In the pre-liberalised world, accessing an ‘imported’ Dove moisturiser in South Asian countries was in itself an adventure, an occasion to celebrate and talk about. Never mind the product was not made for the skin type or the weather. One was happy to be able to access an international quality brand. That is not true anymore.
    The profusion of brand choices means that people are used to accessing brands that are more sharply relevant to them. There is no incentive now to go for a global brand that does not answer the local, contextual need.
  3. Cultural currency: The internet was supposed to open the world. Instead, it has created ‘filter bubbles’ – echo chambers for people who exchange local cultural memes at warp speeds. In such a world, language, ideas, cultural heroes, stories mutate and gain layers of meaning on an hourly basis. To be relevant to different cultures, different ‘bubbles’, one must be immersed in it. You cannot skim it; you must devote a part of you to it. That necessitates a fundamentally decentralised and spontaneous way of working.
  4. Rise of the need for ‘Authenticity’:
    A wall-less world is a free-fall world where there is no concrete identity, no concrete reality. For example, ‘If you are defined by your profession alone, how are you different from the hundreds doing the same job across the globe?’If you are a global citizen, where do you exactly vote?’
    Hence, in an uncertain world, we need the buoys of brands to shore up our identities. For example – ‘I might be a replaceable software engineer, but I am an irreplaceable Indian who likes classical music’. It is easier to build a seemingly authentic identity by wearing a FabIndia kurta (a traditional shirt from South Asia) and to ‘like’ a local artist on Facebook.

A walled world is concrete world, not just of concrete walls but also of supposedly ‘real’ culture – with predefined customs, biases, beliefs, rituals and heroes. It is a more comforting world with lesser cognitive tax of building identities by simply subscribing to an existing one, instead of building identities independently.

2. Rise of platforms

Brands in a world of mediated choices

1989: From freedom to choose

To

2017: Unlimited scroll of choices accessed through few platforms

Prof. Byron’s influential book ‘How Brands Grow’ suggests that advertising should build and reinforce associated memory structures. But the nature of these very memory structures is changing now. A Columbia University study found that Google and other search engines are literally changing the way our brains process and retain information.
We forget things that we are confident we can find on internet.
Brands are on internet.
Ergo… Google, Amazon, TripAdvisor become the primary portals of brand discovery. Now you do not need to remember brands, the search engine and the suggestion engines would do that for you.

This dependence on internet to remember things is an illustration of a concept called transactive memories, where one depends on others to recall a memory. This is in contrast to independent memories, which rely on one person providing complete recall. The interdependence to remember, to consider, to prioritise has accelerated with platforms. We are dependent on others’ reviews, others’ opinions and platforms’ ability to serve these to us. For instance, you will not straight away go to Dove’s website to buy its moisturiser. Most probably, you would search for the best moisturiser for your skin type for your local weather on Google or Amazon.com. Based on consumer reviews and suggesting engine, you would choose a brand to buy.

This has profound implications for brands as more and more people shift their memories & decision making online.

The strategic perspective towards building brands must change accordingly. The goal of branding then is not necessarily to build ‘memory structures’ of individuals, but rather to make it easy for the brand to be recalled by the transactive memory of the hive-mind of platform-users combine.

There is an important nuance to understand here. Brands can still build ‘memory structures’, but that is not ‘essential’ anymore to grow. What is essential is to be ‘available’ for the hive mind to find you and like you. The profound shift is that of addressing the ‘memory structure’ of a collective instead of the ‘memory structure’ of an individual. This perspective, if understood well, can give tremendous competitive edge to marketers.  For instance, imagine the savings on ‘not doing commercials for Superbowl and instead putting that money in improving product access, product experience, encouraging consumer to review it or instigating a cultural conversation in the platform-users hive.

Platform brands & brands sold on Platforms

There are essentially two kinds of brands – platform brands and brands that are sold through these platforms. In the new economic ordering, there can exist a limited number of platforms, but almost an unlimited number of ‘long tail’ brands (precarious, unless governments regulate online platforms). Understand what you want to be and adapt accordingly.

Becoming the next platform is very different from winning in the long tail.

To succeed as a platform,

  1. One must understand that it is a race for monopoly. It might be a specialised platform, but for that particular purpose/ consumer set/ needs targeted, there can exist only one platform in the long term.
  2. The growth strategy is about building a network of users and leveraging the network effect’. Network effect is the phenomenon of some services to become more valuable as the number of its users increases. For platform, this is universally true. With each new user, the platform gets better data, improves its service and enhances its relevance. Therefore, to succeed, it is imperative to recruit the biggest segment of users and to incentivise them to stay in that platform.
  3. Platform brands succeed when they create egalitarian access to valuable exchanges that were not possible earlier. Hence, the focus of the brand has to be on making such exchanges possible and communicating the value of it.

To win in the long tail,

  1. People key in their queries, as against asking an attendant to help or seeking a brand directly. This is true even in some retail shops these days as the attendant key in keywords on consumer’s behalf). This behaviour shapes the nature of brands that would come on top. It is in the nature of keywords to be linear and additive – People get more and more specific until their needs are met. To acquire a consumer before he has to get specific, brands need to build ‘memory structures for the hive of platform-users’ for the specific need it uniquely fulfils.
  2. This incentivises brands to be specialists – the sour tasting chips, the scented toilet papers etc. Be a specialist.
  3. There is a limit to growth for ‘a’ brand. The flip side of this level of segmenting and specialisation is the limit to the size of addressable segments. The brands would necessarily be not large or global.
  4. The key branding considerations for a brand are how to become easier for the consumer to find it, use it, and recommend it?

The essential mutation

There is no escaping change. In a world of resurgent nativist identities, global brands need native mutations. Brands must audit their local relevance and the authenticity of their engagement with culture. Secondly, technology is changing the nature of exchanges between consumers and brands. To succeed in this new reality, they have to appreciate and leverage the fundamentally different market dynamics of platforms.

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