This article is part of a 3-part series. Read Part I here and Part III here.
The marketing and communications industry is ripe for renewal, and in the global, shared set of circumstances we now find ourselves in, we’re all being called on to act differently. It’ll take courage and audacity, but we can all make drops in the ocean that will one day create a tsunami of cultural change. The best news? Change is already underway.
The shadow side of communications and marketing is so well known it’s become cliché. We know the dark patterns and predatory opportunism of the companies we buy from like the back of our hands. We’ve all been on the receiving end of it; perhaps we’ve even helped create it. In a digital world consumed by click bait, D-grade and low calorie content, it’s hard to argue with marketing’s almost universally loathed status.
And right now, in a global pandemic, with flawed government and institutional structures all around us, in a wave of post-nationalism, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. As I wrote last week, culture and society are at an inflection point.
I like the way Dan Talbot, founder of the Salon puts it: “The bad news is that it’s end of the world as we know it. The good news is that it’s the end of the world as we know it.” We’re experiencing a death, but also a rapturous birth.
As industry guardians and practitioners today, we’re in a unique position to change our behaviours and narrative to one that’s not only required to meet the challenges of the world today, but which allows us to share and live out some of our deepest shared values. The equivalent of changing cushions on a couch isn’t going to cut it. We’re talking about top-down, bottom-up radical change here, folks.
Every choice we make as communicators creates a ripple in the world, and we all have the possibility to become activists for positive change in our spheres of influence
Every choice we make as communicators creates a ripple in the world. We may not all be in a position to create systemic change, but we do all have the possibility to become activists for positive change in our own spheres of influence, however large or small.
It’s a mindset, a shift that comes not through guilt or a sense of duty, but out of a shared concern for our unfolding future. It’s an investment in our collective resilience, if you will – and it’s fast becoming the mantra of business today.
As we begin to understand the context in which our work operates, there comes a growing, and sometimes uncomfortable realisation that if we’re not working on solutions for solving society’s problems in some way, then we’re probably participating in creating them.
THERE’S LIFE, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
The new paradigm for brand communications is even more ethical and principled than ever before. We’re craving authentic – the exploitation and subterfuge of old doesn’t work. In broad brushstrokes, communications from now on is about evolving into a world of deeper connection to audiences as human beings, rather than redundantly, as “targets” that can be “monetized.”
It’s also about meaningful social purpose, not ad-agency-cooked mission statements, lip service and platitudes. One of the overarching tenets of this new era is that if your product or brand doesn’t serve people,you’re already out.
Without knowing what the destination looks like, this moment in history has pushed us in this direction and we’re already on our way. Building a bridge to the future as we walk on it can be unsettling, but there’s no other way.
What will evolve? What webs are already there? What imagination, vision and action can we bring to the process?
Until quite recently, a system of disconnect, scarcity and control is all we’ve ever really known. For a number of decades there’s been a growing chorus of inquiring minds disrupting that narrative. People who have been leading a transformative shift from the focus on materialism to something that is altogether more evolutionary, vibrant, and creative.
As our hierarchy of values has been reassessed in the last two months, many of us have come to the liberating realisation that we really don’t need much outside of ourselves. In one fell swoop, we’ve shed many of our attachments to the patterns and purchase habits that kept us stuck in cycles of stagnancy.
What am I bringing into my life? we increasingly demand. What am I putting on my skin, into my body? How am I voting for the exploitation and pollution of my body and the Earth? Who am I supporting with my money and what is the chain of events that my decision sets in motion?
THE PROBLEM WITH MARKETING
Alongside this awakening, we’ve also tired of interruption, push, mass media and manipulation. We have great inbuilt BS detectors. We’re already toggling ad blockers and detoxing from screen time and silencing notifications. So forget pimping quarantine or exploiting uncertainty. Or putting a logo on the side of a pride float and calling it community service. Demonstrate how you’re truly serving and supporting the community and humanity at this time of need.
Any tactics that appeal to our base emotions, what I call people’s ‘tabloid emotions,’ are out. That means anything that preys upon people’s sense of jealousy, self-doubt, greed, scarcity, status anxiety, and so on. We’re soulful people and as communicators our role is now to truly connect on this level; to uplift, help, and befriend our audiences. This means shifting from the transactional – money and ROI-based outcomes – to outcomes that create wellbeing, healing, and which foster community.
We must make the heart language a target of our storytelling. Individualism, nationalism and free market economics couldn’t surmount this pandemic. Instead, in an emergency, it was common purpose, collectivism and social partnership that stepped up.
Old branding controlled the journey; new branding supports it. No click bait; just intentional, high frequency/high engagement content and messaging. Anything else builds discouragement and resentment, and I’ll gladly dump a brand in an instant if it’s continuous garbage out. So how do the brands you work with show up to people they know and don’t know yet? How do you ‘meet’ people with your work and build trust in the age of COVID? How do you maintain relationships with people who aren’t yet ready to buy?
Old branding controlled the journey; new branding supports it. No click bait; just intentional, high frequency/high engagement content
I always think of the communications function of a business as one which projects a brand from its heart; supporting the business but carefully considering the needs of customers too. And finding pathways through communications to help both meet in meaningful ways.
As people come Home to themselves, to their sense of freedom, their Power, and begin to let go of things that aren’t allowing them to feel Whole; brands can have a place in that transition through the notion of transformative collaboration. Working together is the key to collective agency and empowerment. It’s also a root of social transformation, which will help us move through our current global challenges and beyond.
The brands that survive in this new era will be the ones we want to buy into, not simply buy from. Average is over. Mediocrity is out the window along with our summer travel plans. The bland, the dull, the middle of the roaders – forget about it.
As communications practitioners we can support the transformation, helping society shift its focus from unfettered consumerism to cooperative networks.
But it’ll take courage. In a sense we’ll need to become dissidents, contending with those stuck in the past, or who like to feed fear. As we step up to create a future where we’re in right relationships with all of our stakeholders, we restore greater balance and harmony, and we create a foundation for meaningful progress. Google dropped it so let’s us pick it up: Don’t be evil. Do the right thing.
How else will the pandemic affect communications? Read Part III here, or skip back to Part I here, which focuses on the conditions which have led to the transformation of communications.
In the meantime, feel free to share your comments, questions and challenges.
Are you someone whose business needs help negotiating this brave new world? For communications challenges big and small, feel free to get in touch – I’d love to hear from you.