Welcome To The Dream Society

How one futurist saw the social enterprise movement coming a decade before the age of socially conscious brands.

In 1999, Rolf Jensen was a professor at the Copenhagen Institute of Futures Studies when he wrote one of the most prescient essays about the new millennium that no one’s heard about. The essay was called The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business.

In little more than 200 pages, Jensen captured the design-thinking, purpose-driven zeitgeist our 2017 world is beginning to embrace.

“Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories. And storytellers — specialists in the art of conveying human emotions — will need to have a voice in the design process. Designers and engineers may abandon even the most ingenious technical enhancements, if those enhancements can’t be integrated into a product’s story.

“Storytelling will even affect the way companies hire and retain employees. Companies will recruit people based on how they express their spirit. Marx may have been right: In an ideal society, employees will own the means of production — in their heads and in their hearts.”

The Stories We Tell Vs. The Stories We Live

There are some brands out there that just get it. We identify with them so deeply that they don’t just represent a product that we consume or a service we use, they represent our core selves.

What is it, for example, that makes a brand like Disney so intrinsic to the American identity, versus another pioneering animation studio like Dreamworks?

It’s all in the emotional world they build and the story they help their audience tell about themselves.

The addictive quality of the Disney brand is no accident. The creative geniuses in their marketing department understand the importance of infusing every touchpoint from their signature big-eyed animation style to the whimsical designs of their retail stores with a sense of innocence and joy. Disney knows that the safety and optimism of childhood are in-demand commodities in a world shadowed in danger and cynicism.

The problem is, while Disney imbues every customer interaction with its brand values of innocence and optimism, not all of their business practices reflect the same. The Walt Disney Company, which is the second largest broadcast and cable-media company in the world, has come under fire for its anti-union stance and unfair labor practices. It’s pretty hard to maintain a sense of innocence and optimism while scraping by on poverty-level wages working for “the happiest place on earth.”

How can a place as dedicated to reflecting its brand values in its marketing and customer relations as The Walt Disney Company fall so flat when it comes to its internal business practices?

According to Jensen, while massive entertainment companies like Disney deal in making dreams a reality, its corporate heart is a product of the Information Society, where numbers matter more than people.

Farewell, Information Society

Jensen observed that the twentieth century was characterized by the emergence of the Information Society, in which “knowledge becomes more important than capital,” and in which “numbers are better than words because they are concrete; they reflect measurable, physical realities.”

When our future grandchildren look back on our age, they will see it as dull and gray, dominated by technology and neglecting human values. They will understand that we today could not yet free ourselves from our narrow focus on work, which we viewed simply as a means to pay for consumable goods and leisure pursuits. They may, however, wonder what it was like to live at a time when life was divided into little boxes of either work or leisure.

In the Information Society, people who produced and measured and analyzed information were more valued than people who produced and worked with material goods.

In the Information Society, sectors that were historically the realm of scholarship and knowledge such as healthcare, government, education, and research were industrialized, automated, and sold as consumer goods subject to market demands.

But, Jensen contended, the Information Society by its very nature will render itself obsolete by the automation of computational services, thus carving out room for humanity to find value in ideas and stories over raw data.

The technologies allowing global communication — the Internet, direct broadcast satellites, etc. — will be taken for granted, and much more value will be placed on the content of that communication. For example, 500 television channels offering nothing but reruns of old shows will not be tolerated — people who can produce highly imaginative new programs will be in greater demand, as will innovative CD-ROM creators, musicians and composers, actors, artists, journalists, and other storytellers. Just as information manipulation is a valued skill in so many occupations today, storytelling will be a key skill in a wide range of professions, from advertiser to teacher to business entrepreneur to politician to religious leader — even to futurists. Each will be valued for his or her ability to produce “dreams” for public consumption.

Jensen asserted that the emerging new era, The Dream Society, will have more in common with hunter-gatherer societies than with the Industrial or Information ages in terms of thinking of oneself as part of a greater whole, finding meaning in the mundane, and using icons and mythology to create guideposts for navigating the world.

Modern Myths

We see these new guideposts in the internet memes we create, assign shared meaning to, transmit, and repurpose. If you’re a part of this new society, you can immediately recognize the shared meaning behind a picture of Kermit the Frog sipping tea and know the story it’s telling — even without text.

But that’s none of my business. Source: Know Your Meme

The joy and virality of memes come from the collective collaboration of a digital tribe finding new ways to express the meme while still observing its framework.

Memes have become the petroglyphs on the walls of the massive system of caves we call the Internet.

By Jim Bouldin at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1197761

Tomorrowland is Today

Keep in mind, Jensen’s book was written in 1999 — based off of a 1996 essay of the same name. This was before “tribes,” “authenticity,” and “storytelling” became the rallying cries and buzzwords for twenty-first century digital marketing approaches. We didn’t communicate or do business the same way back then.

This was before almost every business had a blog, or even a website, for that matter. If you wanted to tell people about your business, you had to come to them through interruptive means like TV advertising, direct mail, and billboards. The thought of a company that wasn’t in the publishing industry creating content that wasn’t directly promotional was unheard of.

Most businesses had some kind of physical storefront or office. If you wanted to create an “immersive experience” for people interacting with your brand, you literally had to build it, which required capital. Growing capital required cutting costs, which means working with cheap overseas suppliers and paying employees the bare minimum.

While we in the digital age may look sideways at the exploitative practices of the past century, we also have the luxury of running online businesses with little physical overhead — and that gives us the ability to invest more of our capital into making socially responsible choices.

The Dream Society was also written before social media — essentially, the real-time exchange of ideas and stories and the campfire around which we gather as tribes — became the hub of business marketing. A business that relied on word-of-mouth referrals was only as successful as the size of its immediate community. The only way it could reach people outside its physical community was to buy display ads in newspapers or magazines that valued grabbing attention and communicating facts more than building relationships. Information Society marketing was a one-way monologue all about the product or brand.

An example of Information Society advertising by David Ogilvy (source: Swipe.co)

Just three years after Bill Gates proclaimed “Content is king,” and five years before the founding of Facebook, Jensen saw that our post-materialist world would use stories and connection as currency.

Jensen predicted that consumers will become more politically and socially aware through access to the internet. He saw that the most successful Dream Society companies will align their bottom lines with social, philanthropic, or political causes. We see his prediction coming true today in companies like Patagonia, TOMS and Warby-Parker, whose business models are built around helping people and the planet with every sale they make.

According to Jensen, these companies won’t succeed due to their philanthropic efforts (which are commendable) or the quality of their products, but because their biggest commodities are emotions.

With each TOMS shoe purchase, the customer gets a sense of well-being and compassion, despite the fact that she’s paying 30 percent more on a canvas shoe. She knows that her 30 percent extra is helping kids rise out of poverty. Tom’s shoes are “super-sized” with a story.

After the Trump administration announced its plans to dramatically reduce land protected as National Monuments, Patagonia spoke out against it in a loud-and-clear call to action to their customers and website visitors.
Patagonia uses the power of storytelling to inspire people to action with their 360 degree video tours of the Bears Ears National Monument.
A screenshot of the Patagonia video tour of Bears Ears.

With every Patagonia clothing purchase, a customer feels a small sense of justice at fighting back against an oppressive regime and helping to preserve a sacred place. And they achieved that sense of justice thanks to the journey Patagonia took them on through its powerful calls to action and immersive storytelling about the lands they seek to protect.

And nowhere in Patagonia’s inspiring messaging does it mention its products. The products are less important than the relationships they seek to leverage with their community in their mission to save Bears Ears and other lands under threat.

Plenty of companies born during the twentieth century incorporate charitable giving into their missions, but that’s not what drives them, nor is it central to their sales messaging. McDonald’s, for example, has a coin donation box for the Ronald McDonald House installed at every drive-thru window. But helping sick children get the care they need is not central to the brand experience of McDonalds. With brands like Patagonia, the joy of helping people and the planet is built into every purchase.

Rolf Jensen saw all this happening from his desk in 1999 Copenhagen, before 9/11, before Obama, before Trump, before #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.

He saw that our society was on the verge of a major shift in worldview. He saw that despite the protest of traditionalists stuck in the binary mindset of the Information Age, we were moving relentlessly toward a more malleable and subjective Dream Society, where storytelling and human connection is the fuel that pushes us ever forward.

Let the Dream begin.

You can read Rolf Jensen’s 1996 essay on The Dream Society, off of which his 1999 book is based, here.