We’re at the tipping point of trust, where once again, the winners will be the least expected. Post Trump, Post Brexit, Post Trust, the only certainty we face is uncertainty. As we begin to search for meaning, leadership and purpose, it could be that brands end up trumping politicians.
In the blue corner, the political establishment has left a majority feeling let down, and in seeking to prop itself up, has instead undermined its credibility by forcing deep, complex, social unrest into bizarre binary choices where the best choice for most seemed to be Fuck Off.
In the red corner, the baddies of the last two decades, multi-national business and brands much pilloried (often rightly) for profiting by exploiting the world’s resources, are evolving into leaders on global issues, providing a counterpoint to the mainstreaming of mistrust taking place around modern politics.
We launched Livity in 2001 based on insight that young people felt so let down by education, politics, religion and the traditional institutions of socialisation, that they were channelling the values of brands as a proxy for the missing meaning and momentum in their lives. So we invited those young people to share in the ownership of those brands communications, and as a result, Livity’s success has been based on helping brands engage with audiences as their responsibility, not just their opportunity.
That observation was made at the height of New Labour optimism in the UK, and of Clinton Era disappointment in the US. It was the year No Logo was published and Naomi Klein challenged us all for the first time to ask more of brands and to better comprehend their holistic impact on a changing world.
Since then, mainstream politics has continued to appear increasingly uninterested, unrelatable and unreliable to young people. Whereas brands have continued to invest, understand and appeal to young people in their own connected world, in line with their values in apparently increasingly transparent, sustainable and valuable ways.
For every time politics clumsily lets young people down on the issues they care about, there’s a range of brands stepping up to prove they do.
This is not advertising. This is not CSR. This is not a passing trend. This is a seismic shift in the relationship between brands and their future audiences. I can make this case on many levels, but word counts are short, so let’s go straight to the top.
The current number one issue of concern for young people aged 16-24 globally is, of course, Climate Change.
The number one threat to life on earth, according to the current UN security briefing is, of course, Climate Change.
Compare that with a new US President who refers to climate change as a ‘Chinese Hoax’, and a new UK PM who barely refers to it at all, with only a singular cursory reference in her inaugural conference speech.
Then compare that with the Green Giants, as Freya Williams of Futera calls them in her new book, evidencing how ‘smart companies turn sustainability into billion dollar businesses’.
“What do Brazil’s largest beauty brand, America’s second-fastest growing restaurant chain and one of 2015’s hottest stocks have in common?” Williams asks as she details nine seperate billion dollar businesses with sustainability or social good at their core, "selling products and services designed to help us live happier, healthier, more environmentally conscious lives."
Together, these companies represent over 100 billion dollars in annual revenue and outperform their competitors in the stock market by 11%. Most importantly, they are brands that connect with young people in their worlds – relatably, relevantly and reciprocally, every day.
It’s an evidence-based, well-balanced, business case, demonstrating a long-term, growing and sustained strategy that’s completely at odds with the mainstreaming of mistrust growing around traditional politics.
Based on my 15 years at the intersection of brands building meaning in their marketing and sharing an office every day with young people whom we enable to change their own worlds, I, like any sane rationalist, am one hundred percent behind Williams’ research when she states that ‘this moment of purpose-led business is an inexorable economic movement that is ignored at the peril of the short-sighted businesses’, and I would add: ‘and the added doom of an election-cycle locked political focus willing to go lower than ever as brands aim higher than ever’.
Climate change is an easy target as the contrast is so stark, but pick any political issue that matters to young people, hold it up against prevailing public policy and compare that with brand narratives aimed at young people and you’ll agree that a ‘Switzerland’ strategy, where brands stay neutral on issues that matter to their future audiences, is not going to look, or feel, relevant where in a ‘post-truth society’ where the brand who cares, wins.
Sam Conniff is chief executive, co-founder and chief purpose officer at Livity. Sam’s book, a survival guide for businesses in the 21st Century, is due to be published in 2017 by Penguin Random House.