Can brands save the world

Can brands change the world through participation?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There’s crises and dangers everywhere we look. From ISIS to mass shootings, pandemics to weather events, Greek debt to commodity slumps, the actions and repercussions stream onto media in a seemingly endless scroll. In that sense the world we live in has changed little from when I was a child.

We may consume the news differently and the dangers themselves may be different and much more widely covered, but the media thrives on uncertainty and as news consumers we lap it up, just as we always have. Chances are many believe the world feels increasingly uncertain. Depending on their politics, some may even see situations as unresolvable.

So what’s any of this got to do with brands and branding?

Context. It’s about the backdrop against which brands operate and the question of how much brands should acknowledge or react to the dangers and threats that are pasted across our daily news.

Some news affects brands directly of course, both reputationally and at a transactions basis. But beyond that brands have tended to steer clear of the bump and grind of daily news headlines. That’s generally a wise move. Headlines are just that, and the ability of brands to intervene without looking like they are interfering and/or out of their depth is questionable.

Global brands, global responsibility

Trends on the other hand may move more slowly and more deeply – and here I think there may be opportunities for brands to look to make meaningful responses. A recent McCann Worldgroup study showed that involvement of global brands in large-scale change is an increasing expectation particularly amongst younger consumers: “people want brands to do more than just sell them soap or soda … younger generations place even more faith in the power of global brands to make the world better … 84% of the 30,000 people surveyed across 29 international markets, including India and China, believe brands have the ability to effect more positive change than governments.”

Here’s the case for participation. 84% of the 30,000 people surveyed believe brands have the ability to effect more positive change than governments

If that faith is real, then it is significant because it suggests that brands are now seen as much more than producers or suppliers. They are expected to act as transformers. In some ways, that’s not surprising. As brands have continued to scale and to assume global profile, their place in consumers’ awareness (if not necessarily their lives) has also increased. Faced with challenges that seem too big to solve, this study implies that consumers are looking instead to entities with the perceived presence and influence to address these macro issues.

The call for deeper participation

The question for brand owners of course is to what extent do they wish to take up this challenge? And to what extent must they? Clearly, consumers are looking for greater security, safety and resolution. How does your brand reassure them that it is doing all it can, and should, without taking on a mandate that will prove commercially crushing?

I don’t think every brand needs to answer the call. But I certainly think there are opportunities for those brands that do to assume a new level of relevance in this changing world. Clearly, some will prefer to abstain and to focus on their business interests only. Your call.

If you do decide that your brand can grow its presence and importance by taking on the issues that people vex over, where do you start? First up – realise that not every change must be huge, and not every change must be a crisis. The critical thing is that any change you do address must be relevant and the change itself must be meaningful. It must address something that the world (which in this context means the people in your markets) cares about, and that, through caring, can fundamentally redefine what your brand is capable of. If you are a beverage company, for example, and you set yourselves the universal challenge of making drinking water more accessible – where will you do that? How? And what do you hope to learn from pursuing this challenge that can invigorate what you do?

Participation decisions

In that sense, any such challenge should be treated in much the same way as you would a commercial sponsorship, except that instead of sponsoring an event, you are lending your commercial support to a change for the better in the world. All the criteria that you would normally apply to evaluating such an arrangement should equally apply here.

  • How will you gain visibility?
  • What tangible returns are you looking to achieve?
  • What does your involvement make possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise and why will consumers value that?
  • What criticism are you likely to generate, and how will you counter that?

A critical difference is that you should position your support of this challenge as paying forward rather than giving back.

Eight steps to changing the world

1. Decide where your brand can make a change in the world – understanding where you have both expertise and interest is critical to finding the sweet spot between global change and commercial agenda. Poll your customers. Find out the places where they would like to see deep change.

2. Identify not just what the change is but also the extent of the change that you can make – the challenge here is to take on a shift that you can manage and that is still seen as meaningful and ‘urgent’.

3. Expand your business strategy to incorporate these wider goals. What part will these ‘global shifts’ play in what you now aim for as an organisation? How do they change your mandate? How will they affect what you invent, what you improve, where you are, what you are looking to achieve? How will you talk to your investors about this?

4. Sharpen the commercial agenda around this wider aim. How does it change what you strive for, and where you look? What are the commercial opportunities in doing this that you have not seen before? How will these ‘pay for’ the wider aim that you have committed to?

5. Change your story. Adjust the story you tell yourselves and the story you tell others to reflect this new goal. How long will the journey take? Where will it lead (that you can see)? What challenges do you expect to face? Why do you expect to win? What difference will that make?

6. Allocate resources to this operationally. What will you need to train your people to do? How will this affect the pace and scope of your product development? Where will you trial this? What will people stop doing in order to give this time?

7. Report your progress. So often organisations announce their intention to deliver change and then fail to report, in meaningful and interesting ways, on the extent and speed of the change they have achieved and what difference it has made.

8. Don’t treat this like just another project. Changing the world is a long term and substantial commitment. It’s not something you can just start and stop. There may or may not be an end date – and you need to be very clear about that with yourselves, with your people and with your customers. If you are going to place the project within a timeframe, be very clear about what that timeframe is, why you have chosen it, the difference you expect to make in that time and why you believe there is an end date.


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