Four Principles for Building Brands in the Climate Change Epoch.

How dare you.

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.

Greta Thunberg

How dare we?

Even as ecosystems collapse, climate change exacerbates refugee crisis and our survival becomes more and more precarious, we continue to go on with our business as usual. We tell ourselves that it’s someone else’s job. We tell ourselves that market will correct itself. But will it really? Do brands & brand-creators really have no role to play in the fast approaching tragedy of climate change?

Brands alleviated the pain of the Sisyphean tragedy of modern capitalism. Brands taught the world how to want. Brands gave the notion of free will and choices when it comes to consumption. It made the powerless feel powerful – that their choices, their consumption mattered. The consumptive soma that advertising created, filled the world with euphoria, making people forget about the differences that divided them, for a while. The promise of abundance, growth, prosperity united the world in a beautiful hope.

Essentially, brands created the over-consumptive world that is now hurtling down towards climate catastrophe. If brands, collectively, had a role to play in getting us to where we are, we surely can find ourselves a role in the new world. We can be one of the guardians of humanity in the new epoch of reckoning with the abundance-without-consequence era. We must.

Gradually and then suddenly

We humans are reasonably capable of imagining future worlds, of estimating the possible shape of things to come. Climate change won’t come as a surprise to many. However, what we positively suck at, is estimating the speed with which we rush headlong into the future. No matter how well we might estimate the future, we always arrive there surprised.

 Most Brands too would find themselves unprepared to cater to a world that has suddenly shifted on its consumptive axis. Climate change awareness is increasing rapidly. Corporates and brands need to catch with the rest of the global population.

To ensure that brands don’t fall through the cracks when the chasm of climate-change-consciousness opens, we need to start charting a course for our brands for that future, right now. Like a stock exchange, where it is nearly impossible to gauge when a stock’s price will bottom out/ max out, it is just as impossible to predict when the cultural tipping point regarding climate change would pass.

Climate change will become an all-encompassing social reality sooner than later and there’s no time better than now to start working towards it.

Brands in Good faith

The problem with fighting an amorphous, all-encompassing situation is its overwhelming nature. There are no ready answers. There isn’t even a complete appreciation of the problem. At the first instant when humanity confronts reality of climate change, our faces are painted with shades of bafflement and our spirits shrink rapidly with the recognition of what we have collectively done.

Our instinct tells us to deny, to dust the awesome, under the carpet.

But the time has come for each one of us to be bigger than that: To muster the courage to see the situation as it is, to feel helpless along with others and to seek out help and help each other out.

Time has come for brands too, to examine the world it created, in good faith and be prepared to change RADICALLY: By seeking help, by collaborating with other organisations.

Climate change poses an existential risk. And as such, every organisation, every individual must be a soldier in the fight against our own extinction. It is not a fight that one can opt out of.

The primary ‘purpose’ of every organisation in 21st century must be to help humanity survive and thrive as climate change’s impacts become more and more apparent.

A comprehensive awareness of our brand’s impact on the world is critically needed, the assessment of which, must be done in good faith.

4 Principles of Building Brands in the Climate Change Epoch

Prof. Jem Bendell’s paper, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ has been deeply inspirational to me. I have used his Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration framework to inform the four principles of brand building in climate change epoch.

We, the brand-builders and brand owners, must ask ourselves,

  1. Does our brand’s existence harm anyone in anyway? If yes, how can we change?
  2. How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?
  3. 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?
  4. What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?

1. Does our existence harm anyone?

A brand might be fighting against patriarchal standards of beauty, but if its packaging ends up clogging world’s oceans, the net impact is negative, isn’t it?

The time where brands could externalise environmental costs is over. As climate change consciousness takes hold, a brand would be forced to reckon with every decision it takes, every act it perpetrates. ‘Eternal vigilance’ will be the price of humanity’s survival.

2.    How do we help people overcome emerging challenges?   

A consumer’s need is a market opportunity. With climate change, there will be newer opportunities for brands to cater to. However, unlike 20th century, where profit motive and shareholder returns were the Raison D’être of corporate (and hence brands) existence; 21st century brands cannot afford to be sociopathic. Profit must be balanced against ensuring equitable access. As economic inequality increases, brands that profiteer are bound to tip the world towards violence and anarchy.

3.     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?

Going forward, relinquishment would be an integral part of our way of life. We can’t have it all. Science tells us that there are limits to resource exploitation and their rate of renewal.

This impacts the fundamental aspect of capitalist economies: competition. Competition can’t externalise its cost anymore. Competition can’t run unchecked.

Industries and brands would need to compete in a new scenario where the most aggressive player gets kicked out. Sportsmanship, if not exhibited, will be enforced soon enough with regulations.

In this scenario, brands must be willing to relinquish things that might give them an advantage but are detrimental to people. Can brands relinquish profit margins that affect access to critical medicines for climate affected refugees? Can a fast food brand relinquish its star of the menu – beef burgers – to reduce methane emissions? Can an electric motor company relinquish its IP and help accelerate adoption of green tech?
Some brands are already doing the right thing. Consider Tesla and its open sourcing of IP for its electric car designs and Neuralink.

4.    What in our world can we help restore and strengthen against the coming dangers of climate change?

Would you want your children to grow up in a world where lakes don’t exist, where urban birds are extinct, where traditional dances and festivals have been confined to documentaries?

Over the last few centuries, we have been losing much of humanity’s treasure trove of indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices. Embedded in these knowledge systems are secrets to ways of living in harmony with the world, ways of appreciating beauty, methods to survive with natural world.

 Brands can find purpose in helping restore some of these. Restore a lake, restore a cultural practice, restore a community’s way of life.

***

The world is too beautiful and wondrous to give up on. It’s time for brands to engage in good faith with the world. It’s time for brands to help humanity thrive as climate change accelerates.

I would be happy to work with brands in this journey.

Our role in the fight against climate change.

Weren’t we supposed to be the good guys?

Advertising alleviated the pain of the Sisyphean tragedy of modern capitalism. Advertising taught the world how to want. Advertising gave the notion of free will and choices when it comes to consumption. It made the powerless feel powerful, that their choices, their consumption mattered. The consumptive soma that advertising created, filled the world with euphoria, making people forget about the differences that divided them, for a while. The promise of abundance, growth, prosperity united the world in a beautiful hope.

But in the process, it also helped wreck the planet, helped remorse-less industries harming people/ planet put up a human face, and generally aided the self-image and bad-diet crisis.

`And if that wasn’t enough, advertising world has to contend with its role in bringing humanity to the brink – there is growing consensus that unless we change our ways drastically in next 18 months, societies will collapse inevitable due to environmental catastrophe. And as of now, we are on the dark side. We are helping fuel the climate change denial by enabling smokescreens, we are encouraging consumptive behaviour, we are enabling companies ‘manage their image’ in bad faith and we are giving consumers the false hope of sustainable consumptive choices.

It’s time we reckon our role in climate change. Advertising industry has been instrumental in globalised capitalism. It was the soft power, that ensured that hard power was never needed to win new markets to grow like never before. But that project is over now. Same levels of growth for businesses will come at the expense of humanity’s probable extinction.

Capitalism is the creator and destroyer of worlds. And advertising is one of its most prized deputies. It is time for the deputy to check both sides of its master – unchecked creation IS destruction.
It’s time for its deputy to convince its capitalist masters that their survival is at stake, not just others’.

18 months.
We now have 18 months for the great capitalist machinery of this planet to self-reflect critically and change its ways. The way the world is going, it is likely that not much will change in the next two years, apart from the climate of course.

“it is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.”

Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation

The de-stabilizing forces that we have unleashed on the planet are multiplying exponentially. The ensuing feedback loops of the chaotic system we call climate is going to leave most of humanity in tatters, soon enough.

We could plead ignorance in the last century. But what is the excuse now?

So here’s what we need to do.

Accept

1. Accept complicity in creating consumptive culture. Understand that it is not sustainable.

2. Accept that we have been opportunistic with interpretation of business goals – we help companies build opportunist narratives by leveraging humanist insights. we allow companies to remain inhumane by helping create humanist facade for them.

3. Accept that we have the opportunity to influence brand leaders and consumers in being more mindful and more active in our quest to increase probability of survival for most humans.

4. Accept that peddling tokenism, promoting purpose or social marketing – are counterproductive.

Check my denial

  1. Climate change is real. The change is not linear. As the situation worsens, it will worsen faster. And it is unpredictable.
    So STOP taking projects that contribute to climate change denial.
  2. We will be seeing its adverse impact within our lifetimes. Our life is being impacted by it even now. There is more than enough evidence for it. Search at reputed sources of scientific information for it.
  3. Avoid conservative/ right-wing media. They might say what you want to hear. But it doesn’t make it true. They are becoming wealthy at the expense of our ignorance and our lack of courage to entertain truth.
  4. There isn’t a category of products that is untouched by issue of climate change. Any thing that is consumed – product/ service will have a footprint in environment. It is time to be mindful of your role in propagating consumption in any of those categories.
    From clothes, soaps, liquor, social networks to hospitals and psychiatric clinics… growth in every category leads to consumption of resources which leads to environmental footprint – possibly detrimental.
  5. We advertising folks are masters of re-framing, reorienting the perspective for convenience. we can justify most decisions on moral grounds by bringing up other issues, by employing what-aboutery. Perhaps you can turn the question regarding consumption into an issue of free will – choice to consume freely, or into an issue of inequality – time for the underprivileged to consume now, or about gender issue – this face cream is about inner beauty… and so on. But know that these arguments are in ‘bad faith‘. (We really need to understand this concept.)
    Understand bad faith and try not to do anything in bad faith.
  6. We cry insignificance and point to the might daddy corporate which really runs the show. we say, if not me, someone else will… and that’s how the world ends.
    Clients are smart people. They aren’t always reasonable and they know the value in being so. After all, it is we who have cultivated the culture that entertains their unreasonable, no-questions asked poodling. They are used to people doing their bidding through the numerous agencies they hire. agency for manufacturing, for marketing, for R&D, for supply chain, for management…for everything. They are so far removed from the real world that they need research agencies to conduct researches to know their consumers. They are so far removed from the effect they cause in the lives of their consumer that they genuinely come from a place of ignorance. We agencies have a perspective though.
    We shouldn’t selectively project ignorance to protect our culpability.
    There’s no alternative to engaging with clients in ‘good faith’ about their impact on climate.
  7. Lastly, the world is never going to be the same again. The new world will not be about abundance and unlimited choices. Geo-engineering, genetic engineering, flying to another planet are not realistic choices. The new world needs a new perspective.

Resilience, Relinquishment & Restoration

I highly recommend reading this to start with – http://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

...what we face is a complex predicament beyond our control. Rather, I hope the deep adaptation agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration can be a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change.
Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?”
Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”

Deep Adaptation

To survive as species, we need this new mindful approach. Exponential growth is not sustainable. We had it good for a while. But now it time for change. So how can advertising agencies change?

These questions can guide us in our brand building, comms approach by keeping the context of broader society in our minds. We can’t afford to see our work in isolation from the rest of the world.

The question of resilience helps us reflect – Is this project really something that we want to see existing in 20 years?

The question of relinquishment helps us appreciate that in the coming decades many among us will have to give up something important – perhaps someone’s home, livelihood, way of being… Are our actions helping other people or are they aggravating their situation?

The question of restoration helps us look back and see for inspiration in our past. What and How can we help restore?

Appeal

What you read are my raw thoughts. I still need to read, learn and build on these ideas. I would appreciate any leads to help me do so.

I am looking for opportunities to partner with organisations in the space of raising climate change awareness. Again, would appreciate any leads.

Thanks.

‘What will our life be like in 2065?’

This entry is in response to a quora question – What will life to be like 50 years from now?

Future gazing is tricky because, we can affect it to an extent. And ‘we’ don’t act unilaterally, and ‘we’ don’t comprehend the ‘extent’ of our acts and our limitations.
Having said that, here are some trends, in no particular order, which might continue for the next 50 years.

1. Climate change
Humanity has dug its own grave with 2 of earth’s 9 ecological boundaries in the red zone. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.
There is no doubt that our efforts of survival against climate change will shape our life in future. Again, since there is no unified ‘we’, we humans compete against each other. So there will be winner and there would be losers. Rich have an upper hand – escape from shrinking shores, access to machines to compensate for toxic weather (Air purifiers and ACs for example), money to buy scarce resources (water, food etc.). The poor will undoubtedly suffer the most. The next big wars would be fought for survival.

So if you are rich, your life would be lived in well-defined cocoons of some sort. If you are not so rich, a major part of your life will be spent in hospitals/ working overtime to pay the bills/ being an eco-refugee.

  1. Globalisation

Globalisation has far reaching consequences. It is now irreversible and entrenched. The power is increasingly getting concentrated in the hands of fewer people. ‘Interests’ of a few corporates, financiers and nations now dictate global flow of money and events. Many of today’s events (rise of ISIS, middle class’s rising prosperity, disenfranchised aboriginals across the world, weakened labour forces, secret global deals and so on) are directly an effect of Globalisation.

Read Noam Chomsky for better appreciation of what has been happening. Start here.

Effect on life: Your life will be affected by people and events far removed from you. For example, the economic meltdown in US had a direct impact on my paycheque six years ago. This trend will only strengthen.
You might have to go farther and farther in search of jobs, as disparity between wealth of people from metros and non-metros widen.

New technology is being continuously created in service of the richer class. The benefit to the poorer people is largely accidental.

Read ‘A brave new world’ by Aldous Huxley for a taste of the world we are heading to. It is a bit dramatized and extreme vision of the trends, but a good indicator of our life in future.

  1. Rising Inequality

Globalisation enables the middle class to prosper on one hand, while making the workers/ labourers more vulnerable. It is easier for the rich to get richer, quicker. The access to tools (such as internet, public transport) while democratising to an extent, is leveraged more strongly by the more powerful. (Internet was a haven for minorities and persecuted in its infancy. Now it is the eyes of the big brother governments and worse, the giant corporates.)

Effect on life: Disaffection with life. Rise of media, drugs and such other opiates to keep the masses from revolting.
If you are from a marginalised community, your identity will be eventually ‘sanitized’. The future is one massive mass of homogenous people.
Read here to understand who will succeed in the rat race of survival in the future.

  1. Loss of privacy
    Prism surveillance program

Ever present and larger powers (governments, corporates) will control individuals and know about your thoughts, actions, routines, interests and so on. If you are inconsequential, then this might not bother you, but if you are in some way annoying to the global system, then the lack of anonymity will be the noose around freedom’s neck.

Check out the excellent, albeit dark, TV series ‘Black Mirror’ that paints a grim picture of our lives in future.

  1. Rise of the machines
    a. Humans will rely more and more on machines.
    b. Humans will become redundant in most of the workplaces. HBR’s article on AI
    c. AI will be integral to the system of the globalised world
    d. Reduction in human dignity, empathy

    6. The Culture is dead. Long live the culture.

Most likely new interactive technologies will be leveraged by the powerful to homogenize identities and your experiences. What I mean by that is, cultures will be flattened, and there will be less number of languages, customs, and rituals. You will belong to either of the handful of religions. You will be speaking in one of the few hundred languages. You will share the same holidays with the rest of world. (Bye bye gudi padwa, hello Christmas.)

New immersive Medias and interactions will create new global rituals and experiences. People across the world will live in identical cities, eating identical Mcburgers, dying of identical cardiovascular diseases.

False identity markers must be created to give a sense of solid identity to individuals. And this is where brands and marketers will come to play. Supermarkets are the new temples. And brands are the chosen gods of affirmation. My career as an advertising guy has a bright future. (Well, almost.)

Here’s something to read about the future of ideas.

7. Connected and opiated mind

These days we are most fascinated with advancement in Interface technologies… touch screens, virtual reality, 3d printing, and tactile sense transmission and so on. The sum total effect of it will be for you to be ever connected to your job, your government, and your brands. You will be inured to the experience of bondage. You will expect and want your thoughts being governed by these large gratifying forces.

  1. Man will be root-less.
    Globalised world is corrosive to simplistic myths and beliefs that help men make sense of their world. He is reminded every day that what he knows is incomplete and wrong. His heroes, customs, symbols are under threat. To protect his sanity, he will either fight or become root-less – adrift in the all-consuming vortex of globalised despair.
  2. Health

Rich will live healthier and far longer. The poor might live longer too, but pollution, lack of public support will run down most poor people of the world. Rich people will have AI enhanced bodies and minds.

10. Powerful Corporates subverting national structures
Corporates will become more important than nations. Few billionaires would have outsized impact on policy making through either direct interference (what is called ‘lobying’) or through philanthrocapitalism.

  1. Demographic spanner in the wheels

    Read this excellent article from WSJ about demographic trend of the world through 2050.
    My broad stroke implications from that work :
    a. Rich countries will have elderly people living with robot assisted services. Indians and Africans will make up a sizable chunk of labour for these advanced nations.
    b. Poorer countries such as India and African nations will face demographic pressure – large population, inadequate infrastructure, low productivity of labour. If education and skill building becomes a priority, then perhaps these countries might grow in influence, with improvement in lives of people. Otherwise, the under prepared young would be ready fodder for sectarian/ identity/ resource based skirmishes, wars, agitations and what not.

So in sum,

You will be root-less, consequence less, in search of meaning. You will be heavily under the influence of opiates of some kind – either concerns about sport teams, music, movies or buzzfeed listicles. (And drugs too, obviously. A root-less (spiritually bankrupt) man must dissolve himself in spirits.) What this means is, you will most probably find purpose in abstractions, the finer things in life, while your actual life is being completely out of your control.

You might enjoy a few technologically advances, but the more powerful will always have a stronger leverage on that technology than an individual.

But all is not lost. What one needs to appreciate is the fact that we now have the power to define the course of our future, to an extent. Fight the forces NOW for your right of privacy, of dignity, of access to good health and education. What you must do for a better life tomorrow is fight today.

There is hope in democracy 2.0. With digital technology, let’s empower democracy and thereby empowering individuals.