If you look in to the mind and mood of 500 Americans, what kind of picture do you get?
A picture that is not pretty.
Actually, Americans would need a séance to make their spirits rise again, according to a study recently conducted by Euro RSCG New Yorkworried Americans are concerned about everything from not having enough money when they grow old to the fact that there has been a great loss of civility and politeness in public life. In short, clearly we have lost our way, and anxiety is at an all-time high.
As a career marketing and branding person, the thought of how the national mood will affect brands is front and center on my mind lately. In parallel with the precarious state of our current divisive mindset over jobs, homes, and values is the current state of brands, because the very notion of “value” is being redefined to fit where we are these days. Value is no longer about pricing, luxury, or getting more bang for our buck. Value is something much deeper- something at the core of our being. Value is the stuff that makes us who we are. As Americans, a return to values no longer means June Cleaver in the kitchen and the white picket fence: value is almost spiritual in its reboot, stripping away smoke and mirrors, keeping up with the Joneses, double speak and greed.
Never before has there been a time in American history when consumers have demanded that brands be aligned with their values and ideals. Americans expect that the makers of the brands they buy will contribute to the world’s being a better place, or at the very least to the lives of those within their treasured value set. The reason for this is that the consumers ’perception of those they believe got us in this mess in the first place such as “Wall Street raiders” and “Washington bureaucrats” has colored their world view. Americans now say “tell us what you can do for us and also show us how good you can be. Above all- be authentic and real and stand for something, would you?” Such demands usher in a whole new way of branding.
Brands need to recalibrate and focus on the real value they can provide to customers and society, and it will not always be as obvious as discounted offerings or celebrity spokespeople we wish to emulate. With the economy broken and many questioning the value of everything (particularly women) from a four year education to “having it all,” brands need to go deeper to truly be in service to their public, to transcend, and to speak to the world in which we live. The value needs to be 100% real and authentic, because our weary masses are not going to tolerate anything less. And when we say “real”, we mean true to the brand. There was not much “real” about Alexander McQueen and his designs, but they were true to who he was, his truth, his sense of fantasy- and his exhibit at the Met eclipsed all of those before it. Maybe that’s why Herman Cain is enjoying a bit of a moment in the run off to the election; you simply can’t deny that he’s being himself and is not engaged in political doublespeak that we have grown so tired of.
Despite being in the throes of an identity crisis and struggling to come to terms with feeling beat up and deflated of late, Americans have always been seen as an optimistic people. Perhaps this time of uncertainty allow us to go beyond the instantly identifiable pop culture, beyond Kim Kardashian, the Situation, the Tea Party, or the Occupiers on Wall Street and now, Main Street and reclaim that certain something that makes us optimistic by nature, to dig deep and remember what makes us great in order to survive.
If brands are going to prosper, or at least survive, they need to do the very same. What does your brand stand for beyond a good name, a cool logo, and a well edited commercial? Think of 2012 as the year for a sort of “our brands, ourselves” year because it’s going to take everything you have to reach a nation that is experiencing fatigue from everything from social media to organic eating to anger.
We need leadership from our brands as well as from Washington. Whether you are totally with the Tea Party or with occupying Wall Street, we all recognize the need for change. And good brands recognize that there are certain universal tensions in cultures that speak to us all- Apple has done it, and surely Google has done it- they both recognized how to make products we all need, regardless of who we are. And this understanding is not limited to technology brands: Whole Foods understands themselves and their customers through their retail experience; Method delivers clean, with a clear conscience; and Kenneth Cole delivers their view on life mixed with fashion. All are authentic to themselves and to their role in their portion of society.
I suspect many brands and the whole world will be watching this election and how the candidates reach out to a nation on edge. What do they do that makes people respond in a positive way? Obama’s 2008 campaign was nothing short of marketing and branding gold- it had an amazing tagline, a cool poster done by an artist who started out as a graffiti writer, and an integrated campaign that included a more than healthy dose of social media, to reach digital natives where they lived. It’s hard not to look at how that affected brands, and how we all came to expect our brands to mean something, to give us hope, to wow us with coolness, to get social with us and play in our sandbox.
We should be challenging brands to do the right thing particularly with so much distrust over Wall Street, politicians, and others, consumers are looking for brands to help make a difference in their lives. Many marketers are realizing the connection between doing good, and doing well. For example, little brands “that could” like Tom’s that makes a difference by selling shoes to help the needy around the globe - that’s transcendent thinking (www.toms.com). Empathy appeals to the public – especially women.
As Americans, we need to remember what makes us tick, but it needs to start from the inside. Our currency has always been in blazing trails, never quitting, and working hard. It seems that these same rules apply to brands if they want to resonate now. Be brave. Be bold. Don’t quit. And work hard to make a difference in people’s lives. Brands, like our leaders and our communities, need to take a stand, and in the words of the recently passed Steve Jobs, “think different.” So go ahead and provide a fantasy, an aspiration, and a dream. Just be real about it.
Matt Ryan is Co-Chairman of Euro RSCG New York and President of Global Brands at Euro RSCG Worldwide. Prior to his current positions with the agency, Matt was Global Chief Marketing Officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide. He joined the group from sister agency Arnold Worldwide where he served as EVP, Executive Director, and led the agency’s winning team in the global Volvo review. In addition to Volvo, Matt worked with clients such as Fidelity and Timberland, providing leadership for the agency's strategic services.