OPINION8 April 2019

The death of the middle ground

Brexit FMCG Leisure & Arts Media North America Opinion Trends UK

In a world where polarisation is increasingly the norm, should brands focus more on promoting cohesion rather than ‘for or against’ thinking? By Caroline Hayter.

Division difference polarisation_crop

Today’s culture of ‘either/or thinking’ is omnipresent. From fat-shaming to gender issues to Brexit – whatever the topic, polarised views are the norm. Brands are increasingly finding themselves negotiating this tricky terrain, with mixed results – consider the controversy surrounding Gillette’s recent campaign, ‘The best men can be’. This is an especially difficult challenge when you’re a mainstream brand with a broad audience.

We’ve always been tribal animals, designed with group-centric ‘us/them’ mindsets. Binary oppositions are intrinsically appealing; they are comfortable and easy to navigate, whereas finding the middle ground and reconciling opposing points is cognitively effortful.

The internet has compounded these tribal norms because it’s divorced from geography; geographical proximity forced us to interact with people with different viewpoints, and it moderated our outlook. The internet changed that; we can now join new, conveniently comfortable communities based on like-mindedness, making our views even more extreme. By definition mainstream or ‘ordinary’ is what most of us are but balanced, mainstream views don’t gain traction online; hyperbole does.

For brands, this tendency towards the extreme poses challenges. As brands increasingly attach themselves to ethical issues, we’re seeing more ‘for or against’ thinking and more reductiveness. So what’s the art of striking the right chord in a world of extreme views?

Here are six tips to help brands navigate today’s divisive times:

1. Consistency is king
Brands need to earn permission to have a strong point of view. The recent Nike ‘Dream Crazier’ campaign is the latest in a long history of purpose-led Nike ads. For 30 years Nike has supported different causes – ageism, AIDS, women in sport, and now, race and religion.  It has had a lifetime of provocation. Without consistency, there’s no credibility.

2. Identify patterns of influence
Look beyond traditional, top-down models of influence and actively recognise and identify micro-influencers. Recognise that influence isn’t direct – it comes from all angles, which means that brands need to respond with multiple initiatives. Experts do still have an important role to play – they act as shortcuts if they align with the right set of values. But patterns of influence are much broader than this.

3. Connect with the middle ground
A good 80%+ of big business is mainstream. And without the mainstream, there wouldn’t be extremes. It’s fine to be mainstream – big is only bad when there’s no connection. It’s the brands that are simultaneously big and personal that really connect with people – and to do this, means doing it with humanity and sometimes humour.

4. Be authentic
Authenticity means delivering products and services, not just comms. In the UK, VirginTrains introduced talking loos to inject brand personality (‘Hello, it’s me, the toilet’ – you get the idea). It’s all well and good to have some tone of voice – but incredibly infuriating when there’s no soap in the dispenser, the train is late, and the WiFi you’ve paid for never works.

5. Make a real change
Linked to the above, making real change means enlisting the whole of the organisation, not just the marketing team. Committing to a point of view and using that to guide delivery of your products and services. 

6. The extremities of social media don’t mirror the real world
Social listening is a key tool for brands to keep in touch with shifts in cultural sentiment, but online commentary errs heavily towards extremity. In the flesh, most people simply aren’t as polemic and definitive in their views as they are online, something we witness in qualitative research all the time. If you want to know how mainstream people really think and feel, make sure you talk to them in real life as well as online.

In short, taking a stand can be a risky strategy. The more divisive the world becomes, surely there’s an opportunity for brands to promote cohesion instead?

Caroline Hayter is co-founder and strategist at Acacia Avenue