There are some pretty amazing influences converging that are radically shifting how we think about organizations, communities, and brands. These forces present new opportunities and challenges for organizational leaders and marketers seeking to distinguish their brands. The old rules of branding are being challenged and it is more important than ever that organizations have clearly defined values and an appropriate platform for expressing them.
We are seeing some of these convergences begin to play out in our work across a diverse range of clients. The origins are quite different but they are creating increasingly interwoven spheres of influence. I will highlight three here.
The first is the heightened awareness of corporate social and environmental responsibility. We have a long way to go to walk the walk, but it is very clear that it is no longer enough to proceed with business as usual while merrily reeking havoc on the planet we all inhabit. With consumers increasingly demanding that companies consider the environmental impact of their operations, this is no longer a nice add-on, but a core business and brand consideration. And in recovering from the economic crisis makes clear, the unbridled generation of assets that accrues to the few with enormous environmental and social costs to the rest of us is no longer a sustainable business model. Increasingly, brands will be judged by how well their internal values reflect and respect ones that are shared by an expanding set of stakeholders.
Secondly, amazing work is occurring to rethink fundamental assumptions of Western culture. The values, traditions, and perspectives of indigenous cultures create important alternative narratives that challenge the meanings of “markets”, “progress”, “success” and a host of other critical areas that have been narrowly and stereotypically defined. Broadening these definitions to include a non-Western understanding can strengthen the reach and impact of indigenous cultures and create broader perspectives that educate and inspire people everywhere. If a brand is the means for communicating the spirit and values of indigenous people, it is not necessarily about bringing something to market, but rather an opportunity to share knowledge and ideas that express a deeper set of human desires and aspirations.
The third area is the emerging impact of social media. Organizations and their brands are no longer built from the top down but from the bottom up. Communities (of supporters or detractors) build quickly and organically. They actively participate with and shape the character of the organization and its brand as opposed to passively consuming it. This new model of shared ownership of the brand presents remarkable opportunities for organizations to listen to, learn from, and empower their stakeholders to have a powerful (and often immediate) influence on brand perceptions.
All of these examples are based on a set of values and ideas that form the central premise and promise of organization. That premise is developed in a comprehensive, emotive and visually dynamic “vocabulary” that allows for engagement and participation. The organization must be credible, open, and responsive to living that premise in order to thrive.
Branding can sometimes be viewed as manipulator or mask. We can probably all think of instances when it has earned that reputation, but as these pivotal factors become more dominant, brand must take on its critical role as catalyst, helping promote the values and ideas that shape the organization, communities and people they touch.
This will make for a more complex equation in terms of branding, but as we learn in so many areas of life, the things that are really worth doing are never easy.