The Longing for Belonging

The current narrative about American consumers is that they are fearful and angry. We think this is a fundamental misreading of the marketplace. Instead, there is a deeper narrative at play: that they are longing for belonging. The implications for positioning and marketing are fundamentally different. This article has been adapted from J. Walker Smith’s annual FutureView LIVE webinar, held on January 13, 2016.

by J. Walker Smith

If you believe the media headlines, the mood out there is one of anger. People are angry and fearful. So if you want to connect with consumers, the story goes, market to anger and fear. That’s what Faith Popcorn told Fortune in December: bullet-proof homes, armored communities, filtered water. And that’s what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote in January: “obnoxiousness is the new charisma.” The smart money is on anger.

But the evidence of anger actually points to something else. We are told that anger is evident in more partisanship. More defiant rhetoric from politicians. More echo chambers of information and tastes. More geographic clustering and economic divides. More protests over identity and more celebrations of ethnicity. More discontent over the way the system works. These things are important and may be the wellspring of anger, but they are a different dynamic, and indeed, evidence of a deeper truth.

What shapes people’s engagement with their lives nowadays is a passionately felt longing for belonging. People feel cut off, disconnected, left out, cheated. People have lost connection with an overarching narrative of meaning that is shared with others. People feel as if they live in a centrifuge relentlessly dispersing them into ever smaller pockets of separation and isolation. Many people feel angry about this, but this anger arises from a longing for belonging. Just looking at the surface manifestation of anger is not looking hard enough.

The real business opportunity is not to follow the rise of coarseness, but to dissect what it points to as the real opportunity. That would be to bring people together under a big tent of connection. Satisfy the longing for belonging through a strategy of Big Tent Branding.

‘Even steeped in uniqueness, people want to belong’

The splintering at work is not a preference for estrangement but a desire to reinvent belonging. People don’t want their hard-won individuality to cut them off from connection to a broader narrative. People want to celebrate and indulge their individual identities, but in doing so, they don’t want to lose connection with a broader body of belonging. People don’t want to live in isolation. Even with everything hyper-individualized, people want connectedness just as much as ever before.

Bob Lefsetz is one of the smartest cultural observers around, controversial for pulling no punches. Recently, he remarked that the successes of Adele’s 25 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens prove yet again that, “owning your own plot of land on the fringes is anathema to the human condition.”

He’s not disparaging individual customization. He’s just noting that, “10 million people want Adele tickets and Star Wars grosses $238 million in a weekend.” “What does this tell us?” he asks. In all caps, he answers, “PEOPLE WANT TO BELONG.”

Anger and fear arise from something deeper, which is a struggle about belonging. People feel they have been left out, or worse, pushed out of the circle. They feel that they no longer belong, that they are no longer in with the group. They have a sense that the old narrative no longer includes them.

You see this unambiguously in the erosion of our national narrative. A recent Esquire/NBC News survey found that half feel that the country they knew no longer includes them — that it no longer welcomes their hopes, dreams and aspirations. The World Values Survey offers a very telling tracking of belonging to the overarching narrative of the American Dream. As recent events have undermined what long defined dreams and aspirations, people have pulled back their allegiance, with just 56% agreeing in 2011 that they are proud to be an American, compared to 77% in 1981, and the same percentage as recently as 1995.

The GenX generation after Baby Boomers was in the headlines in the late 1990s for their disillusionment with the American Dream. In our U.S. MONITOR tracking in 1997, 55% agreed that the American Dream has become impossible to achieve. But the headlines about GenX were an early warning signal. Among Millennials today, 74% agree.

Sources: Above left: Above right: US Yankelovich MONITOR

‘The notable developments of the past year were about identity’

The notion of belonging is made more complex by the increasing diversity of identity. There are many threads to the fabric of identity these days — race, gender, country of origin, economic status, physical well-being, mental health, and more. The most noteworthy developments of the past year were all about identity. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. Campus protests over speech and naming. Demonstrations, even riots to insist that #BlackLivesMatter. The National Book Award to Ta-Nehisi Coates for his bestselling letter to his son about race in America, Between the World and Me. The removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital in South Carolina. And Caitlyn Jenner. Not to mention all of the identity backlash.

To all appearances, the world was spinning apart into ever more narrowly defined identity niches, each separate and apart, each a haven, a walled garden of difference. And yet, the paradox is that each of these identity movements was, in its demands for recognition and respect, reaching out for belonging to a broader shared narrative of meaning.

Same-sex marriage was a radical movement with a conservative agenda — that of belonging to the traditional institution of matrimony.

The same for Caitlyn Jenner, who gave voice to a trans community that wants to belong. And the same for campus protests over speech, seeking to end the institutionalized barbs that keep many minority students from feeling like they belong. That’s why the Confederate flag came down.

There is a telling sentence in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book when he writes, “I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.” In other words, Coates is demanding that everyone, white and black, belong to the same standard of accountability.

‘People want a community shared with others’

People aren’t looking for a narrower niche in which they can live in isolation. They want a community shared with others that connects to an overarching narrative of meaning. Not one that suppresses identity, but one that embeds identity within belonging.

The current batch of presidential candidates has yet to figure it out. They understand that, right now, the electorate is more interested in defiance than allegiance. But they have yet to grasp the Big Tent opportunity of belonging.

So, how should businesses respond?

Rule One is to build a franchise that is expansive, not exclusive. Get everybody together under the same Big Tent. This is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, this is the 21st century challenge of fashioning unity from division. Unilever did this brilliantly with Dove — diversity in all its glory, unified by the Big Tent of “Real Beauty.” Similarly, when Google says, “Be together, not the same,” or when Airbnb says, “Belong Anywhere,” or when Mini advertises its Clubman car as “Defy Labels,” it’s all about Big Tent Branding.

Left: Belonging; Source, Airbnb; Right: Dove; Source, Unilever

Rule Two is that the big story matters as much as the focused story. Big Data and digital tools of one-to-one customization work better under the Big Tent. Focus to the exclusion of breadth blinds us to growth opportunities that, going forward, will be more critical.

Rule Three is to prioritize breadth over depth. Byron Sharp is the director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia and a board member of Wharton’s initiative on the Future of Advertising and his work across dozens of categories finds conclusively that brands cannot grow without broadening their base, even including light users and non-target consumers. What Sharp finds is basically simple math. Category dominance, not to mention brand survival, requires more than can be added up in a small niche, not to mention that a true niche brand is a rare bird. Big brands have to have a Big Tent.

‘Belonging first requires a platform that welcomes everyone’

To flesh this out a little more, think about priorities for innovation, new products, service and communications. The focus today is one-to-one. The top priority is hyper-individualized customization.

This means flexibility in all assets, especially manufacturing. Data expertise becomes the sun around which everything revolves in order to deepen relationships with each person. Loyalty is the measure of success. Growth comes from a greater share of category requirements. All of this is essential. But with these as top priorities, other things like driving a sense of belonging fall away.

Contrast this with the Big Tent of belonging.

First, it begins with a shared platform that welcomes everyone.

Next, it offers something for everyone as part of a broader, integrated ecosystem. It provides an overarching narrative that makes it meaningful. The key metric is share of market.

In short, business priorities, and thus strategic planning in order to profit from change, are different under the Big Tent.

The biggest challenge for Big Tent Branding is that traditional businesses are in a footrace with the digital platforms that own the virtual agora in which buyers and sellers come together. Companies that own digital platforms are putting stakes in the ground right now for the Big Tent. They’re going to try own the broader narrative, of meaning that creates the sense of belonging, that will fashion unity from diversity and division. These platforms understand that if they own the Big Tent, they will get to dominate the marketplace.

Looking for meaning in life, not shopping. Source: The Futures Company

Traditional product and service brands are behind the curve on this. Even if they won’t own platforms for managing value exchange, they should own platforms for managing lifestyle satisfactions, and the only way to do that is to be the center pole of the Big Tent.

But it is not too late. The platforms haven’t won yet. Consumers want more than a new way to shop. They want a way to find meaning in their lives. Product and service brands can offer that kind of lifestyle platform as easily as the digital firms that own today’s platforms of value exchange. Big brands are, at their heart, about forms of identity and belonging. This is the next big business battle, one that is all about the longing for belonging and Big Tent Branding.

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