The lightness of brands.
Reality has two sides –
the heaviness of worries, anxieties, uncertainties, responsibilities, roles…
and lightness of love, laughter, kindness, fun, hope, shared memories…
Brands have historically belonged to the lighter side of life. Hope, excitement, and optimism sit at the very core of brands.
Hope & optimism are not mere idle thoughts. They are born from the embers of our innermost urgencies. They are the very forces that ignite our inner engines, which get us moving.
Good brands are forged with these very embers of hope.
Good brands are antidotes to the heaviness of reality. They help us stand up when the heaviness of the world pulls us down. They incept in our hearts the necessary fiction (often enough) or non-fiction (the searing beauty of reality that gives flight to our souls occasionally) that helps us move ahead.
The best brands can give that flight to the soul with a truth well told. It makes apparent a facet of reality that makes our souls sing.
But lately, brands have begun to grow heavy.
- With risks associated with big data:
A brand choice is now tinged with doubt, fear, and uncertainty.
- With the world moving from age of reason to the age of ideology:
A new brand gets seared with ‘outrage’ every 15 minutes now.
- With brands still not coming to terms with their role in the climate change epoch:
There is implicit guilt that brands have yet to come to terms with.
We will explore these three forces in detail now.
The weight of data
Data processing has rewired the world in its image. Everything now is a data point (except when it isn’t).
Today it is inconceivable to think of brand experience without having a robust data infrastructure to acquire, process consumer data and engineer improved/novel brand experiences. And this is great. Quality of life for many has certainly improved with increased convenience and more agreeable commerce.
The heaviness does not come from the data itself. The heaviness comes from the risks it exposes brands and people to.
Bigger the dataset, the bigger the advantage. But brands are not in the business of data mining, cleaning, securing, or analysing data themselves. (Unless it is a security/ data analysis brand :P) They merely want to use data that can help them grow or gain a competitive edge. So, you see, there is an asymmetry in priorities/capabilities here, which creates an asymmetry of risks.
Brands need bigger and better data sets. To get those they need third-party vendors. This introduces complexities and vulnerabilities that brand owners are incapable of fully comprehending and responding to.
The reward is access & efficiencies it would not have otherwise. The risks are enabling hate mongers, fake news, enabling malicious actors, exposing people to fraud/scams/ identity theft and so on.
The rewards are clear. The risks are not. Risks are embedded deep, surfacing only much later with much ferocity.
The rewards are only for the brand. The risks are for the consumer, society, and the brand.
The risks grow asymmetrically. It does not take a lot of people/ effort to mount attacks. The efforts required to harm/ steal/surveil/ influence at scale are now within reach of most people on the planet. This means, the potential source of disruption/ attack/ leech… has grown far more than the legitimate uses of data.
Couple this with a simple truth – state and non-state actors in search of power need the data of people more badly than brands. They have the means, muscle, and the will to do what is needed to access data that brands have about their consumers.
So now, brands find themselves in a tricky situation. They inadvertently bankrolled the global surveillance apparatus. Now, this apparatus might disrupt brands as we know them.
Trust is replaced by concern. Hope is replaced by helplessness against the invisible & innumerable spies around us. Levity is replaced by the heaviness of the invisible chains that shackle us to the surveillance state. (Consider the global economy now that is so reliant on platforms fuelled by surveilling us. Can we imagine a future without them? If not, can we truly be free from the tentacles of big tech surveillance?)
Brands used to be choices that people happily and willingly opted for.
Now branding/ advertising has become a tax for the poor. The rich (and tech-savvy folks) can avoid ads and curtail some amount of surveillance (say by owning Apple products, using Ghostery, VPN, etc.) poor (or tech laggards) do not have that recourse. They cannot afford to avoid surveillance in a world where access to platforms has become a human rights issue.
The antidote: Reclaim the two-way relationship with radical mindfulness.
- Healthy minds and healthy brands live in the present.
Data about the past needs to be digested into wisdom and the particulars need to be excreted. Data about the future is suspect and likely misleading, especially for a world changing as fast as ours. At best, it is a never-ending treadmill of adapting to constant change. At worst, it is a source of disastrous errors in judgement. (Consider the famous LTCM collapse, precipitated by misplaced trust in predictive models.)
- Strategic forgetting:
Forget that is not essential. Why carry the risks of data you do not need? Do away with the ephemera.
- Take responsibility.
Third-party is an infinitely large door through which VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) multiplies. Close that door. Or if you cannot afford to, ensure you have systems in place to mitigate visible risks. Partner with companies like ‘check my ad’ who can help you be more responsible with your data.
- Non-interoperability of your databases:
That which cannot be ephemeral must be unintelligible outside of your organisation. Make it useless for others.
- Privilege data about context over the consumer.
At an aggregate level, humans are remarkably predictable in their behaviour. This stochastic understanding of human behaviour should define the limits of what to know about your consumer (the exception of sharing more intimate details being when data is shared in confidence in a strictly two-way relationship). To know any more than that would require invading their privacy. Your efforts would be better spent on understanding contexts instead.
Context defines behaviours just as much as people do. Understanding contexts often do not require the Faustian bargain. Data about places, practices, rituals, cultures, occasions, festivals, calendars… go ahead, build that database up!
We live in circles, endlessly repeating routines, preferences, seasons etc. It would suit us well, if we understand these repeating patterns, instead of constantly trying to ascertain the minor zigs and zags of individuals from that circle.
Imagine a car window as a digital canvas for kids’ education. To build it, we need contextual data and aggregate consumer understanding. We do not need her particulars. You can make amazing brand experiences without being a sleazy snoop.
The weight of ideology
Ignorance is no longer blissful. The instantaneity of information means that any illusions we may live under, a counter-fact will shatter our peace as it gets slung across our psyche with the speed of light.
The post-modern human condition is that of frenzy. Frenzy caused by reality puncturing denials, ideas, hopes…constantly. To make peace with frenzy, we become ideologues. Ideologues for whom facts do not matter. This way, one can become numb to the onslaught of doubts and counter-ideas. Fake news becomes a necessity to survive the onslaught on the psyche.
We now live, not in the age of reason, but the age of ideology.
It might feel that brands now do not have an option, but to pick a side. To privilege left or right, traditional or modern; scientific or natural; religiosity or secularism … But that is not true.
Ideology sits heavy on top of brands. It is unwieldy. We must see the trend of brand ‘purpose’ in this context of ideology.
The problem with ‘purpose’ is that the brands tend to overreach with it. They make themselves believe in things they cannot do with full honesty. So, we end up with greenwashing/ whitewashing and many shades of bad faith branding. I am not saying brands should not have a purpose. I am saying, it serves a brand better if the purpose is true and is ‘rightsized’ for the brand’s actual role in the lives of consumers.
The antidote: Shed that weight of ideology.
Find meaning in the ‘lesser’ realms of actual product usage/ relevance/ culture. There is beauty in serving actual needs. There is beauty still in truth well told. That truth need not be monumental, revolutionary, or transformative. It just needs to be true.
Steadfast truth is the only antidote to ideology in the long run.
Stay humble and true to your product/ service. Do not try to coax out a grander narrative out of it. A brand’s ‘purpose’ must be ‘rightsized’ to reflect its best possible self and its true role in the lives of people. Recognise that your brand perhaps plays an important but small role in the bigger scheme of things. Start acting like it.
The weight of climate change
The simple truth is consumerism fuels climate change. As such branding and advertising is directly implicated in the predicament, we find ourselves in.
There is no hope unless we do something to fight climate change.
What can brands do in the epidemic of climate hopelessness? The problem persists, even as companies start recognising climate change but offering only band-aids on growing tumours. Greenwashing is a big problem. It gives false hope. Its papers over genuine issues and gives a false sense of calm. We must fight this urge to be always cheery. True happiness requires us to be able to step out of denial and recognise reality.
Existential anxieties coagulate around brands. Brands go heavy with guilt. Heavier still with greenwashing and doing less than the minimum that is required to ensure human survival.
The antidote: Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration
I have written previously about it here.
The primary purpose of every brand in the 21st century must be to help humanity survive and even thrive in the climate change epoch. In a previous article, I adapted Prof Jem Bendell’s framework to articulate four principles of brand building.
We, the brand-builders, and brand owners must ask ourselves,
- Does our brand’s existence harm anyone in any way? If yes, how can we change?
- How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?
- How much are we willing to give up in the interest of humanity’s survival? How do we plan to relinquish things that might make matters worse?
- What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?
The world is too beautiful and wondrous to give up on. It is time for brands to engage in good faith with the world. It is time for brands to help humanity thrive as climate change accelerates.
In sum, the lightness of brands can be an antidote to a world growing ‘heavy’ with surveillance capitalism, climate change & post-truth phenomenon. To regain that lightness,
- Brands must reclaim the two-way relationship with the consumer. They can do so by being more mindful of the data they use, with strategic forgetting of data, focusing on the present and privileging context data over consumer data.
- Brands must steadfastly stay true to reality in the age of ideology.
- Brands must privilege human civilisation’s survival over short-term brand growth. The ‘Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration’ framework can be a useful guide in this process.
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