We are living between kings.
A time when the roles and traditions we had taken for granted are fragmenting all around us. Where old paradigms are being replaced by new, more uncertain ones. Where traditional values are constantly being blurred with post-traditional influences.
Our homes, after all, are getting smaller and our lifestyles bigger. A family is not seen in a house; but across continents. Our friends increasingly provide the emotional bonds we used to associate with our clans. Our individualism is taking over our collective-conscience. Our kids are known by the mobile devices they keep (not to mention, their independent rooms). Generation-X adults have regressed and morphed with their younger, e-generation counterparts into a kind of ‘adultescent’ — where we’re adults during the week and back to college over the weekend.
Consumers lifestyles are more volatile now. When people’s lives change, can we honestly expect such a thing as ‘brand loyalty’? With no ‘job for life’ and no ‘relationship for life’ and no ‘fixed station for life,’ it makes absolute sense that ‘brand for life’ has also gone out the window.
Conventional marketing circles will call this heresy. But then, conventional marketing circles hail from an era where branding was used as a brainwashing device; where trademark, positioning and comparative distinctions drove their brands forward; where a target market was an isolated demographic that could be bludgeoned through frequency and habituation; where the (classical) approach to advertising was reflective of social trends and not inflective — so as to cause a sensation and create markets and ideas for people to live by; and finally, where convention would shudder at the thought that building brand value and shareholder value is brought about by a brand’s intangible values.
What is the world coming to?
It’s a complicated yet dynamic picture. The growing economic inequality may be a matter for politicians. But what is important for marketers is that people’s culture — their tastes and ideas, their identities and activities — is no longer predicted on a clear sense of their station in life. What is clearer is that they have a less clear sense of where they are in society (other than the middle, culturally) and that wherever they are they share many of the same influences.
Around the world, the global consumer is becoming more and more alike. Demographics like age, gender, class and religion matter less and less. So much so, people are more alike in their ideas and activities: a kind of mass middle class, so to speak, that’s devoted to quality of life and leisure — with more or less the same aspirations, ideals and goals. And in response to this, the world culture is more focused on individuals; closer to everyday life, more realistic, more informal, more ‘unbranded’ (in the traditional sense) than ever before. Which means, the global teenager who grows up to be the global, internet-worked citizen has more in common with his global peers than his tradition-age grandparents.
So what happened?
What we are increasingly finding is that brands (or rather, the ideas that brands stand for) are the new surrogate traditions. In the global society, brands increasingly play the role that traditions used to play. Traditions used to provide us with life’s governing ideas. But not any more. With the fragmentation of traditions, brands are increasingly filling the void for a way of life that makes more sense, is more ordered and (if only) comes on some pretext of divine guidance. Simply put, brands are the new traditions. Brands today, achieving popular acceptance, shape and give meaning to our everyday lives like they never used to by giving us ideas to live by.
This has tremendous implications. For starters, it implies that ideas alongside packaged goods and services can be brands (Princess Diana; The Body Shop; Friends). It shows us that any meaningful idea that people are willing to adopt can be branded (Don’t Drink & Drive; Trade Not Aid; War on Terrorism; Career Woman). And, secondly, it shows that global society has become more ‘inner-directed’ by virtue of its place in history. From the Material 80s to the Sharing, Caring 90s, running right through the Knowledge Noughties, we have experienced a decade where the ‘post-natal’ effects of the information age (an age where we had unparalleled access to global ideas and media) is taking shape and transforming our lives.
This has resulted in a kind of emotional laissez-faire. A ‘do what you want to do’ attitude that has become the social currency for modern marketers. The reason? We, the people, can now see right through the ‘broadcast culture’ of traditional marketing tactics. But we enjoy the more meaningful, the more inner-directed, the more self-above-all-else ideas that put us alongside Feng Shui and the Little Book of Calm — unlike the aspirational badges and excesses of the past. A case of ‘been there; done that’ — if not empirically, then, at least, vicariously through the media.
It’s time for marketers to become imagineers. To transcend the confines of traditional marketing so that their brands become a way of life. Until and unless our brands don’t play a more meaningful, more universal role in our everyday lives (by giving us ideas to live by), they will continue to be an ornamental excess of the past. Of a time that reflected traditional, slow changing cultural ideas. Of a time when people bought the right brands (the right car, the right newspaper, the right fashion, etc.) to reflect their station in life.
Today, however, brands should think of being instrumental. As exciting, sensational ideas with universal reach and appeal that people want to catch, voluntarily adopt and ‘buy into’ — and not just happen to remember.