The Sixth Stage of Grief is Action

By Afdhel Aziz

The opportunity for brands to take a leadership role in translating the energy of the moment into lasting progress has never been greater, writes the co-author of ‘Good is the New Cool’.

Since January 20, many of us have been going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the past two months, we’ve watched President Trump and his administration take extraordinary measures to infringe upon dearly-won rights and freedoms. As a recently-naturalized American citizen and a Muslim with close family members living outside the United States, it’s been a particularly disheartening time.

But I believe we are about to enter a sixth stage of grief: action.

‘Action’ means more than just ‘resistance’. ‘Resistance’ is reactive. Make no mistake: brands and culture must stand up to oppression and discrimination. This does not diminish the importance of the outrage and frustration palpable in protests on the street and social media against the steady stream of injustices. But the urgency of today demands more — a dynamic approach that harnesses the energy, anger, and resolve of this moment to set the agenda for change.

Some of the most important social movements in American history have grown from seeds planted in the country’s darkest days. In 1968, after the assassinations of MLK, JFK and RFK, the country was torn apart on issues like civil rights and the Vietnam war. But the feminist movement, the environmental justice movement, the farm workers’ movement, and others found ways to draw strength from the turbulence of those years. A generation of activists were born among the baby boomers and they channeled their anger, frustration, and disillusionment into action to make progress.

But progress is neither irrevocable nor inevitable. Progress must be constantly fought for and defended.

At this moment in history, where so much progress is under threat, there is the potential to unleash a revolution of hearts and minds that will dwarf even that of the 1960’s. We are witnessing a time when a generation are realizing that the fundamental rights they thought their parents’ struggle had secured are still the subject of battles that have to be fought every day. When an entire generation of change-makers (to borrow from the Black Lives Matter movement) ‘got woke’. If there is any silver lining to be found in the turmoil and division of these times, it is this mass awakening of conscience.

Brands must rise to the challenge by taking a leadership role in contributing to and focusing the collective energy of this moment. We live in an age when people are demanding more from the brands in their lives; the writer Anne Lappe summed it up with the quote ‘Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in’. People are demanding that brands do more than just take an ideological stand on social issues, they expect follow through. They expect action, and brands need to deliver. In the book I co-wrote with Bobby Jones, ‘Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn’, we call this principle ‘Backing up the Promise with the Proof’.

Now this is not an easy place to be. For every person applauding a stand that a brand takes, there is another who is willing to boycott that brand for the very same stand. Recently, we have seen brands from New Balance to Kellogg’s, to Uber to Under Armour see the backlash that can result from sharing a political or social opinion (or being accused of doing so in the hot furnace of social media).

As advertising legend Bill Bernbach once said ‘It’s not a principle until it costs you money’.

We have also seen amazing actions in the last few months: Starbucks pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Airbnb offered free accommodation to refugees. Ninety-four technology companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Apple filed amicus briefs against the illegal immigration orders. Google and Lyft pledged millions of dollars in donations to the ACLU. All amazing examples of ‘Backing up the Promise with the Proof’.

These risks and opportunities have brought brands to an inflection point: Do we, as the people who manage and advise these brands, risk losing business by taking a moral stand? Or do we avoid the risk of offense at all costs, including stifling our most deeply held principles and values?

I believe that to stay quiet is the greater risk.

Brands today have an enormous amount of power to do good. Marketing professionals on both the agency and client side have the ability to influence companies that control billions of dollars and reach hundreds of millions of people. And powerful alliances can be formed between brands with their resources and reach, nonprofits with strategies for addressing society’s biggest challenges, and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ (musicians, filmmakers, artists) who have the storytelling skills necessary for galvanizing the public into action. And today it is more important than ever to find allies amongst people and organizations with common purpose so we can collaborate to find creative, peaceful and impactful ways to do more good in the world.

And one important point: taking ‘action’ does not necessarily require going into battle with the government or half of the country. There are things that we all believe in, regardless of whether we come from a red state or a blue state, whether we consider ourselves Democrat, or Republican, or Independent. Whether it’s striving for safer neighborhoods, creating well-paid American jobs that provide meaningful work, ensuring that all children have access to a great education, or cleaning up pollution, there is an endless list of non-partisan, non-divisive causes to which brands can make a contribution that is more impactful than any billboard or banner ad will ever be.

With both the resources and opportunity to take action at hand, the challenge really boils down to whether you as an individual feel strongly enough about doing work that is meaningful, work that results in not just business success, but societal success. Today it is increasingly possible for a brand to do both. As Tesla, Patagonia and Warby Parker have shown, there is an opportunity for brands to ‘make money and do good by harnessing the power of cool.’ Each of those companies built their brand equity by delivering on a promise that included offering their customers more than a cool product, but also an opportunity to collaborate on making the world a better place for others.

As leaders in business and culture, we have the opportunity and the resources to exercise not just our creative imaginations, but our moral imaginations; to visualize the world that we would like to live in and to commit our energies to making that world a reality.

The best way to do that is by creating alliances with those who have common purpose. So take a moment today to find your own personal allies. That could be the co-worker who shares your passion for a cause; a neighbor who feels the same way about improving the area where you live; family and friends whom you can gather around a dinner table to talk about pooling your resources. There is more that unites us than divides us. And if we can translate that grief, that anger, into action and positive change, then we can transform ourselves — and this country — back into the place where the impossible becomes possible, where dreams become reality, where progress keeps moving forward, inch by hard-won inch.

Afdhel Aziz is the co-author of ‘Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn’ and the Founder of Conspiracy of Love, a consultancy that helps brands do more good using the power of technology and culture.