Brands and the Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies everywhere. Image by Pascale: public domain.

This essay is based on a July FutureView LIVE Webinar presentation given by Kantar Futures’ executive chairman J. Walker Smith about the challenges facing brands in a time of economic stagnation. Although the focus is the U.S. marketplace, these issues are relevant across the richer world.

The marketplace is more divided than ever. Everyone is on edge. Cultures are in conflict. So, too, are social classes and income groups and geographies and racial groups. Defiance, not allegiance, is the defining expression of the moment. The need for a “Big Tent” to bring us all together is more important than ever, as I discussed in a January 2016 FutureView LIVE. But what lies beneath all of this division and discord?

Pundits have proposed every theory you can think of, and all of these theories offer good insights. But every one of these explanations is about one group at odds with another. I refer to this as, quote/unquote, “versus” theories — one group versus another. While this is true, this is not the explanation for what’s going on.

Rather than looking for what divides groups, we need to look for the dynamic common to every group that is inflaming passions and furies on both sides. What is the deeper current?

Generally, when consumers are this unsettled, it’s because of upheaval or change. It’s bad things like the Great Recession or good things like the iPhone. Not today, though. People are not worried right now about change. Instead, they’re worried about stagnation, or no change.

People are recoiling against the prospect of being trapped in an unchanging trajectory of decline. Worse, people fear that even if change for the good comes to things at-large, it will still bypass them with no improvement in their individual prospects.

Worries amp up more as different groups fear that the solutions for another group will add to their downward trajectory. The long and short of it is that people have lost confidence in the future. But people are now determined to break the trajectory. Change tops people’s agendas, including, for many, radical change whatever the consequences. People don’t fear change and upheaval these days. What they fear is no change.

This overarching sensibility affects expectations about brands, too. Brands content to continue on course unchanged will feel stagnant to people and thus out of sync with the change they want in their lifestyles. To resonate with the aspirational imperative of the moment brands must embrace change.

The Zombie Apocalypse

Like zombies after the apocalypse, people are carrying on these days despite a pervasive worry that there is no future in doing so. But attitudes weren’t always this woeful. The turning point was the end of the last century. As the 1990s steamed to an end, peoples expressed confidence in where the future was headed. Since then, however, attitudes have changed in parallel with stagnant economic fortunes that show little sign of changing.

An enthusiastic belief in a better future has long been a defining characteristic of the American mindset. But since the turn of the century, this belief has been straining under the weight of disappointments and dislocations. Technology has long been regarded as the great hope. In the 1970s and 1980s, personal computers were its bullish embodiment. Nowadays, technology seems more like a Pandora’s box of threats to privacy, attention spans, community, productivity, income equality, the best use of talent, San Francisco real estate prices, and jobs.

Similarly with politics. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 manifesto, The End of History and the Last Man, proclaimed the triumph of Western liberal democracy. Yet over the past decade, more and more people fret that this victory has been undone by friction and disharmony.

The economy is the biggest reversal. Economic fortunes have gone from three decades of soaring prosperity that began in the 1980s to an economy today of sinking prospects that seem only to be getting worse.

Earlier this summer, we published a Kantar Futures white paper entitled, Defying Gravity: Sources of Growth in a Slower Growth Global Economy, which explored the structural changes underlying these sinking economic prospects. (It is available as a complimentary download on our Web site, and as a three-part article on Medium.) The global economy is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of weakness. Consumers don’t have a macro view of things, but they do feel it personally.

Recently, McKinsey looked at the impact of slowing growth. Their headline finding was that over two-thirds of all households in the 25 highest-income economies experienced stagnant or falling real incomes between 2005 and 2014, compared to only 2 percent between 1993 and 2005. On the current trajectory, McKinsey calculates that 80 percent won’t advance during the decade ahead. This is the zombie apocalypse, an unchanging trajectory of decline that weighs on people’s minds.

Change Now!

Every survey finds growing and extensive worry about the current trajectory. In the depths of the recession in the early 1980s — the worst prior to 2008–49 percent in a Roper survey agreed that our best times were ahead of us; 40 percent said the past. Today, a similar Pew question finds a complete reversal, with 49 percent saying our best days are behind us, and only 44 percent saying ahead of us.

A CNN/USA Today tracking poll shows that worries about the next generation living as well as their parents have doubled since the beginning of the century. A CBS/New York Times tracking poll found the same thing. Gallup’s on-going tracking of the percentage who are satisfied with the way things are going in the country fell in a straight line from the turn of the century to the beginning of the financial crisis, finally leveling out in a trough that is two to three times lower than its peak a decade and a half ago.

The Heartland Monitor, sponsored by Allstate and the National Journal, found a few years ago that three-quarters believe it is harder now than it was for previous generations to get ahead. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found three-quarters worried that the next generation will be worse off than the prior generation.

Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf is concerned about the anger sparked by the on-going economic slowdown. But the swirling discontent has also caused people to push for change. People have had enough of declining prospects. The Heartland Monitor asked people outright about change. A sizable majority of 70 percent agreed that not only is change needed but that “major” change is needed. Another 25 percent agreed that minor changes are in order, so altogether nearly everyone in America — all ideologies, all races, all incomes, and all groups on every side of every debate — wants change.

In fact, a PPRI poll for The Atlantic, the sister publication of The National Journal, found that 45 percent believe America needs a leader willing to “break the rules.” That’s radical change! Nearly half want change now, no matter what it takes.

Indeed, this election is about nothing but change. As one Rust Belt voter put it in a Washington Post piece, “I’m for change. We’re looking for something different.”

Trump has made change the central promise of his campaign. Bernie Sanders allied his ideals with change at the very outset of his campaign. And in his convention speech, former president Bill Clinton put Hillary squarely in the mix on change by calling her the “best darn change-maker I know.”

The imperative of change crosses borders. UK journalist Alex Massie has written of Brexit that Leave voters felt the only way to bend the trajectory of no change was to make a massive change — just throw everything out and start all over. As Massie puts it, “This is Year Zero now.”

Go Off-Script

Consumers want change from brands, too. In the Kantar Futures U.S. MONITOR research, two-thirds say they want brands to deliver something new and different. In fact, very few in the U.S. results of the Kantar Futures Global MONITOR research say that continuity is something on which they place an extremely high value.

Unfortunately, change is not what people believe they are getting from brands, which is no surprise since, almost always, brands look to moderate or mitigate change, not to embrace it. Brands want to channel and redirect the changes around them so that they can stay on script.

The subordination of change to the script that brands want to follow is standard practice. It is what marketing textbooks teach about marketing planning. What comes first is the script. Everything else is about making that script work.

Change in the marketplace comes into marketing through the scanning done by research and intelligence gathering. That informs actions taken to preserve the continuity of the brand. Everything that happens between scanning and acting is guided by the brand script, which has been decided on already and is built into plans, goals, and business concepts. The whole point of scanning is to discover out what might knock a brand off script, in order to take actions that keep change from disrupting the continuity of the brand.

In other words, change is valued as an input, but not as an output. The objective is to temper change, to tamp it down.

Marketing is like a shock absorber for change, keeping the ride smooth no matter how bumpy the changes in the road. Marketers want change in and continuity out.

Unfortunately, consumers value continuity far less than change. In this respect, there is a growing gap between brands and their customers. Brands need to embrace change as an output. For that to happen, brands need to go off-script, not use an overarching script to prioritize continuity over change.

There is a process by which brands can figure out how to go off-script without diminishing the equity of the brand itself. This is a core practice area of Kantar Futures that starts by reverse engineering the script guiding a brand, then identifying which elements, given relevant market dynamics, are best suited for creating and conveying change.

This is not what happens right now in most companies. For example, the biggest part of R&D budgets is devoted to small incremental innovations to keep a brand on track. Far less is spent on big changes that could make a brand resonate more strongly with consumers demanding change. Unsurprisingly, the priority placed on incremental innovation to maintain continuity is not paying off anymore. Change not continuity offers more promise.

Throwing Out the Script

When marketers think about the script for a brand, they have a handful of things in mind. First is an M.O., meaning a modus operandi or a style of operating. Next is a lexicon, or a vocabulary for speaking and engaging with consumers in the marketplace. Third is a bearing, meaning a style or manner of comporting the brand. Fourth is a métier or area of expertise in which it is comfortable for a brand to do things. All of these things add up to the final element of a persona. It is the resulting persona that defines a script. Brands take on a persona. Marketers develop a persona for a brand, and the persona dictates how a brand is scripted.

When a brand is on-script, its M.O. is tight, disciplined, planned and structured. This is what it means to follow a script verbatim.

A scripted vocabulary avoids controversy and surprises. It is discreet and reticent. It is euphemistic, not blunt or provocative.

The bearing or carriage of a brand that is on-script is assured, controlled, and, most importantly, guarded. No cracks in the veneer. No show of vulnerability.

The area of expertise or specialty focus is known and well within what a brand is know to be good at doing. It is almost routine, but certainly familiar, intimate and customary.

All of this adds up to a persona that makes sense. Something that is appropriate, befitting and, critically, convincing.

If a brand is on-script, it is all of these things. But looking at these things, it is easy to see why people often feel that a scripted brand is counterfeit or inauthentic. Nowadays, people are open to something that is off-script, even if they don’t know what that will bring them. So what might a brand do or look like if it were to go off-script?

To begin with, an off-script M.O. would be spontaneous. This is the Twitter age. Life unfolds with extemporaneously. Attention spans are shorter. Things need to happen in the moment. So an off-script brand would, paradoxically, build spontaneity into the plan, thereby freeing itself from a structure that makes it predictable.

Additionally, going off-script means speaking with brutal honesty. Consumers are done with doublespeak. They recognize phony fluff when they hear it. They know who has the bona fides to talk about something. They call it out when it’s misleading: Greenwashing. Mansplaining. Whitespoken. Brutal honesty is more than authenticity or transparency. Consumers often think CSR and purpose and values and causes are insincere. In the Heartland Monitor, 60 percent agreed with the statement, “Sponsorship of a community event, a charity or support for a social cause is a way for a company to advertise and appear to care about more than making money.” To consumers, something like this is just another part of the script.

People also want brands to divest themselves of unnecessary circumspection, and just get naked. Show some vulnerability. Let the guard down. Give people a peak at imperfections. Indeed, being exposed like this is the way things work in the body-cam era of today. Standing naked is the only way people will trust a brand anymore. People want to see its bare essence, stripped of all cover, and all camouflage, before they will truly believe in it.

Consumers also want brands to do things that are interesting even if they’re not a natural fit. So figure out what a brand is most at ease with, then push those limits. In particular, take on controversy. Run towards debate and dispute. Encourage it. Get out of the comfort zone of hiding out. Stop avoiding conflict and dissension.

The last thing to say about going off-script is to play against type. That is, don’t be what is expected. Take on a mirror-image persona.

The cornerstone concern of consumers is the fear of no change. The corresponding imperative for brands is to go off-script. Getting comfortable with change is a challenge for brands, but it is the chief imperative in a global economy headed to slower growth.