Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong.

Brand Love in a Period of Hate

I think we can all agree 2016 hasn’t been a perfect year. Thanks to a few perturbing global events that are shifting the dynamics and appearance of some of the largest developed nations, it may go down as a significant year for all the wrong reasons. Major humanitarian and human rights implications aside, these shifts we’re seeing this year should have the ear of every marketer around the globe as we learn what they mean for the way people interact with brands.

Over the past decade I’ve bounced around the globe and called the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and the United States my home; living in cities representing three of the top four global financial centres. In each of those places, I’ve seen a unifying trend that is simultaneously upsetting and exciting.

In all three places young, progressive thinking is being suppressed at the hands of the old guard, both government and civilian. As a result, the major powers of the world seem to be moving towards regressive, non-inclusive, closed-minded societies.

Three major events over the past couple of years have flagged a rift in thinking between the old and the new. In Hong Kong students and young professionals staged the Umbrella Movement in aid of universal suffrage, which was quashed by Beijing. It subsequently evolved into a larger politically progressive movement landing three of the youngest ever lawmakers in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, who were banned from Hong Kong parliamentary duties by Beijing officials just this week. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, driven largely by xenophobia amongst the older, lesser-educated population. Then just last week in an astonishing display of regressive thinking, and in hopes of bringing back “the glory days”, huge swaths of people in the central states voted to put Trump in office. In each case, broadly speaking, youth lost out with societal progress being blocked.

A quick look at the voter demographics behind Brexit shows a clear divide between 18–34-year-olds and everyone else. Unfortunately, all the sound bites were telling the same story; the vote to leave wasn’t driven by sound economic understanding, rather by an outdated, aggressively nationalistic mindset. Though not exactly the same (and vastly complex), the demographic data behind the Clinton-Trump face-off told a similar story.

Data: Lord Ashcroft Polls & Pew respectively

When three of the world’s largest financial centres experience the same phenomenon, we have to sit up, listen, and consider it a pervasive global trend.

There’s an enormous tension building in society; a spring is being wound and it’s only matter of time before it recoils. As marketers, we should all be paying close attention because when societal tension builds, fast and furious social change usually follows.

The Coke Bottle Effect

It’s not news to anyone that Millennials and Gen Z are prone to being more liberal and global-minded in their thinking, so it was inevitable that they were going to drive social change at some point. But recent events have denied them the change and progress they seek — dragging them, against their will, to the far right. In the process, provoking an entire generation. Think of it as shaking a bottle of coke immediately before opening it — we all know what happens next.

In each case, we’re already seeing hateful behavior that is likely to galvanize the type of thinking that was denied at the polls. In both the U.S. and the U.K. there have already been racial attacks, while in Hong Kong, Yau Wai-ching’s public support of LGBT rights has been met with more criticism and controversy than her position on independence from Beijing. The coke bottle is being shaken, and shaken hard.

It’s just a matter of time before ageing of the population makes way for the polarized psychographic balance to rebound to the left, unleashing the freedom and power for a greater proportion of progressive thinking.

When that happens, it won’t be the first time.

Not that I was there, but the liberal counterculture movements in the ’60s brought about some of the most widespread and swift social change in recent American history. Civil Rights movements spurred mostly by university students with little trust in government helped to liberate multiple oppressed groups. They elevated America from a place where the LGBT community was professionally outcast, women were denied abortions and contraception, and positions or power were held almost exclusively by white men, to a place closer to the vision of the future. It was young African-Americans in the ’50s who set in motion the Civil Rights movement, which sparked all of this change. Yes, a different situation, but there is a common thread between then and now; both groups found frustration in having their desire for progress denied.

With over 50% of the population under the age of 25 coming out of the ’60s, brands were found suddenly scrambling to appeal to the younger, and suddenly more powerful, consumer. The new focus on a younger audience changed the way creativity in advertising looked and brought about industry-changing tongue-in-cheek campaigns like Volkswagen and DDB’s famous “Lemon”, “Ugly” and “Think Small” campaign. The social changes that came with the younger audience also changed the way brands approached inclusivity with Coca-Cola launching its “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” spot, and had brands like Gillette pledging to cast more African-Americans in their ads.

Time for Change

While we’re not heading into a period where more than half of the population will be under 25, we are definitely heading into a period of polarized psychographics. And the effects of that will be similar to the effects of the Civil Rights movements of the ’60s. Brands will have to rethink they way they act and approach consumers during a period of rapid progress in social values, tech, and working styles brought about by an over-correction in response to a period of frustration under right wing politics.

Anti-Brexit, Anti-Trump, Pro-Democracy

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of weaving elements of social progress into brand positioning, with charitable donations, pricing transparency, and ethically sourced materials (see, Everlane). Entrepreneurs who naturally reflect the consumer they’re targeting often are often found at the helm of these young startups; they’re built by the future for the future and find no fear in taking a point of view on society.

But what does it mean for heritage brands, particularly those whose customer base spans several generations? They have a tough choice to make, and one that needs to be made very soon. Do they reflect the values of a younger generation (knowing that they make up a big portion of current consumers and an even larger portion of future consumers) and risk alienating “the other half”? Or do they do nothing, and slowly become irrelevant to the younger consumer? Do they even have to make this decision?

Yes, they do.

I don’t mean that brands need to come out and fly banners for Trump or Clinton, or choose between the Remain and Leave campaigns in the U.K. But it does mean that they need to have the foresight to recognize that although we’re living in a period where society is leaning right it will absolutely swing back to the left, and it will likely over-correct when it does, bringing about a period of rapid social change driven by Millennials and Gen Z. For brands, this means laying the groundwork for things ranging from appropriately reflective casting choices, all the way to changing their operating structure to accommodate an anti-corporate mindset.

Part of being relevant to the right consumer will mean, as always, knowing exactly who those consumers are. If we’ve learned anything from the predictions and results in the U.S. election, it’s that the broad generalizations that come from big data are even less useful than they were previously; it was generalizations that led most major journalistic institutions to slate Hillary as a safe bet. We have a clear need for a far deeper understanding of consumers’ values, need-states, and desires. We need to continue the move from reported behavioral data (which we now know with certainty can prove wildly inaccurate) to a much deeper understanding of cognitive biases that lead consumers’ decisions.

It’s especially important to pay close attention Gen Z; they’re a very different group to Millennials in the sense that they grew up in an economy of financial turmoil with more access to information than any generation before. They prefer small brands with good values like Warby Parker and are less trusting of major corporate institutions. They grew up with a black man as the leader of the free world and a lesbian hosting one of the nation’s favorite talk shows; as the most accepting generation to date equality is the norm, yet they just watched the U.S. elect a bigot (many of them unable to act to the contrary, being too young). Four years in a Tump/Brexit political landscape is unlikely to do anything to ease their frustrations towards the establishment.

As the coming period of uncertainty and change unfolds, young consumers won’t be likely to suffer brands that represent or have represented anything connected to the old, outdated thinking of today. With that said, Gen Z is optimistic about the future and will go about shaping it to suit their vision. Major brands should be rethinking the way they communicate and build trust through transparency, and be a part of that future.

Ultimately, younger consumers are living in an age where an older generation has denied them the immediate future they seek, which means their brand choices will fill the void and act as a form of political and social expression during the next four years and beyond. We can expect people to choose brands based on values and use them as badges of honor, so brands need to think about what it is they want their image to express on behalf of the consumer.

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