NEWS18 March 2021

Brands in a polarised world: ‘we’re not operating in a shared truth’

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UK – Brands today operate in a world split between reality and an irreality where the notion of absolute truth is undermined by a conflation of opinion with fact, a topic under the microscope during a panel at Impact 2021.

Graeme Trayner, a partner at Finsbury Glover Hering, led the session examining what a divided America means for businesses and brands and what the future looks like.

In an in-depth discussion held remotely from the US, Trayner was joined by Marissa Shorenstein of Marissa Shorenstein Consulting and Robert Schwartz, vice-president and global leader of brand transformation at IBM Services.

As an Englishman living and working in Washington DC, Trayner has had a front seat view of “what has been a turbulent year in the US”.

“From the racial justice protests over the summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, to a highly divisive and contentious election where the incumbent still hasn’t conceded, through to the Capitol Hill insurrection in early January,” he said.

Trayner noted that a number of big brands have recently “engaged in politics, having to speak out, whether that’s on racial injustice, social justice, as well as issues such as the environment”.

“What are the pressures on businesses, why are they suddenly having to talk more about these issues and not just about their products or what they do for investors? What’s going on here?”

According to Schwartz: “It’s customers. Particularly customers under a certain age. There is a real emphasis from those customers under 35 to reflect your brand values and be authentic to them.

“Marketing, for a long time, was standing on top of a mountain and shouting to everyone who would listen: ‘This is what I am.’ But now it’s a peer-to-peer relationship, and increasingly consumers have a lot of influence over how brands stand accountable for what they have said, and those systems they have built around those brands.

“We live in an age where everything can be seen, there’s an enormous amount of transparency for brands. And if actions and what you’ve said don’t connect, you’ve got a real problem.

Schwartz added: “For a really long time in the US, there was this: ‘We’re not going to talk about politics, religion or sex, those subjects you’re not going to discuss in polite dinner conversation.’ That’s gone because it’s not realistic. You can’t operate as an institution, as a brand, in a world where these things are talked about all the time, and not be in them.”

Shorenstein said that that as well as from customers, a lot of pressure is coming from the employee base and from investors. 

She continued: “You’re seeing more and more activist investors, you’re seeing employees speak out and speak up in ways that they never have before, they didn’t feel comfortable doing so. But because they’ve felt like-minded communities on social media, and it’s really a generational issue, younger employees feel that their employers need to be held accountable and they’re willing to speak out in ways they didn’t do 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and certainly beyond that.”

For brands on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a worrying new reality, rooted in the right-wing’s, or so-called alt-right’s, conflation of opinion and fact. It’s a point Schwartz is clearly passionate about.

“[It’s] amorphous, but is in my mind more important,” he said. “The issue of truth. We are in a global institutional decline of trust and faith in all institutions, whether it’s government, or the church.

“A lot of that is tied up in the fact we’re not operating in a shared truth. That for brands is really going to test how they move forward. How do you message to a comprehensive horizontal audience that is made up of X of Y and X of Z, if there aren’t connection points on truth?

“I think that’s where brands will have to take some stands that will feel pretty uncomfortable moving forward.”

Trayner agreed, noting that what has “stood out in my research in the last two years has been that there’s no single conversation going on”.

“When I started doing this work 20 years ago, you could do focus groups and surveys and people would rely on a general set of common facts. They had different opinions, but the facts were fairly consistent.

“Now you can walk into a focus group of liberals or conservatives and it’s totally opposite conversations. Not just different points of view, but different world views and different sets of facts.”

Shorenstein admitted that it was a big issue for brands, but added that she didn’t feel it was always right for brands to intervene.

“It think it gets back to what type of brand is trying to deliver what type of message,” she said. “A brand that appeals to everybody should probably not wade into that because they have such a diverse customer base on both sides of the spectrum.”

Looking ahead, with a more conventional presidency in place, is there less pressure for US businesses to step forward and engage?

“That Pandora’s box has been opened and it’s not being closed irrespective of who’s in office,” Shorenstein said. “I think CEOs feel more pressure than ever to speak out about major societal issues that affect their customers and employees. Even one misstep now usually ends up in a future change at a company. You’re seeing the real ramifications of the choices that leadership is making in big business.

“D&I [diversity and inclusion] wasn’t daily before... it wasn’t daily that you were talking about the number of female employees or LBGTQ+ employees. You were thinking about that in the grand scheme of your annual plan, or strategic plan over several years, but it wasn’t top of mind.

“I think there has been a fundamental shift in the amount of time, effort and thought that leaders are putting in these issues and I don’t see that turning back.”

Marketers clearly have a starring role in this new world, one that they have also helped shape, Schwartz asserted.

“Selfishly, as someone involved broadly in marketing communications as a discipline, what that does for the work that we do has further elevated how important it is to the enterprise.

“Marketing communications is a horizontal function that has brought accountability across every single subset of discipline within the organisation, whether it’s product development, servicing, or the way in which you run corporate governance. And that’s different from 15 or 20 years’ ago when there was ‘marketing communications island’.”

If you missed the conference, it’s all available via the MRS on-demand service. Go to www.mrs.org.uk/Impact2021 to find out more.

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