There was a time when the mass market could be relied upon to behave in a similar way. It was convenient for brand owners because a single message could cut through with most of the population, and create some shared meaning. In many categories, the commonality which the brands stood for, were the very essence of their popularity. The tightly codified rituals of young men drinking beer and their shared sense of humour, for example, or the world of fashion which was reliant on people wanting to wear the same thing as decreed by the fashion press, and to be recognised for knowing what that thing was. Or in the world of political activism and protest, in which mass demonstrations were a weekly occurrence, though the source of discontent was often less clear, as the saying went ‘students are always protesting against something’. By and large one message did fit all.
Two events in the last few weeks have made a striking contrast to amplify just how much our culture has changed.
The first of them had some of the assumptions of the old guard entrenched within the conflict. It was assumed that when 12 leading European Football Club sides announced on a Sunday evening, that they would be setting up a Super-league without access from other competitors, that the football community would just accept it. They even made perfectly clear, that the supporters they were interested in were not those who had been following their clubs loyally, in some cases for generations, and condescendingly termed ‘Legacy’ fans, but a new, younger cohort of consumer. This consumer probably lived overseas and was altogether more available as the target for ‘merch’. But the unanimity of objection was both swift and universally outraged. The Prime Minister, never one to miss a PR stunt, got in an early repost before the day of rest was even over. The feeling that the fan base had been overlooked led to an outbreak of outrage from everyone involved. One by one the clubs caved in. It was a sudden, explicit vindication of the power of consumer opinion.
Another establishment to have received a bloody nose this week is the Labour party. Like the Super-league clubs, the assumption that traditional, working class voters in Hartlepool would vote in the way that they have for years, was dramatically altered when their votes were reduced by half. Here too, the assumption that the traditional working class could be mobilised when needed to vote Labour, was dramatically disproved, and the assumptions of their predicted patterns of loyalty have also moved on. Above all the people of Hartlepool, whilst often agreeing with Labour policy, no longer see themselves in the way that left and right politics crudely classifies people. The world has changed whilst often the parties have not.
So what has Covid got to do with this?
Here are 5 cultural themes that may never be reversed:
- Firstly we have spent a year thinking about the state of the world and what we believe to be important, and of course less important. It’s been happening for decades now, but one of the things people find less relevant, is the ‘yah boo’ politics of yesteryear. They are rightly more concerned about their own lives and those of their families, not the political point scoring regularly played out in aggressive exchanges across the house of commons, or on the radio. A formula for government predicated on opposition. What many people would prefer is cooperation.
- People are becoming more moral: whilst less motivated by traditional faith, they are moved by a renewed sense of spirituality, often most instinctively linked with nature. Yoga for instance, has never been more popular, art galleries are like the cathedrals of our age and romantic poets are enjoying a comeback. William Wordsworth is seen by some as an early environmentalist.
- Take control of our lives: especially of our health. There is, not surprisingly, an increased awareness of health, but also an availability of information as never before.
- Voice your opinion: people in general are more inclined to want to be heard. Putting to one side the immediacy and scale that social media has had on protest, there have been a number of morally inspired, wide scale movements that have galvanised people to take to the streets more actively than for many years. Black Lives matter, Taking the Knee, Me Too, Extinction rebellion, solidarity for women on Clapham Common, Mental Health awareness, opposition to hate messaging and of course banging the drum, or saucepan, for front line services. We have seen more conspicuous assembly than for many years and it straddles all age groups, ethnicities and social classes, united by common purpose. Unlike the summer of 2011 it hasn’t been about looting trainers and flat screen TVs. Few of us cannot have been moved by the contrast of the video from that year of a man robbed in the street whilst lying injured on the pavement, and the black personal trainer from last year, carrying a National Front supporter to safety over his shoulders.
And what does this mean for brands?
- That it’s no longer possible to sit on the side-lines. Brands are part of our culture and a newly motivated consumer base is looking for brands to take a purposeful stance, especially on the environmental issues of the day. But a note of caution: simply adopting the clothing of moral rectitude without doing anything tangible, ‘a la’ Kendall Jenner, can backfire.
- Clusters of motivations are acting as a catalyst to otherwise diverse groups of people from differing backgrounds.
- The choices that people make are influenced by lifestyle preferences. Being a vegan for example, is generally accompanied by a social and moral sense of responsibility, not just a desire to eat a healthier diet.
- Brands represent a rich set of associations. Today they are judged by their actions as much as their messages. Successful brands in the future are likely to need to act as they speak, in a way that is consistent with their beliefs.
It’s always been the case that brands symbolise what people feel about themselves, to themselves. Choosing between one brand and another helps reaffirm what we believe in. Post-COVID (if there ever is such a thing), is starting to impose a higher bar on the moral implications of what the brands stand for. It’s time to stand up and be counted. Never has it been truer that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Unilever have been at the forefront of building purpose into their brands. Haines McGregor are currently engaged with exploring the implications of Post-COVID positioning on brands such as Arla, much of Carlsberg’s portfolio and Mars Petfoods.