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Can an Activist Brand Be the People’s Champion in a “Trust in Crisis” World?

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Traditional top-down, broadcast-first, image-led marketing is just not effective anymore. Even if one were to doubt the data that supports this, a simple test would be to imagine a brand seated next to you at the dinner table. How tedious a conversation would you foresee with someone who is centered and speaks only about himself all evening?

On one end, consumers have more choices than ever before. At the same time, their ability to be better informed at the click of a button has increased. Unfortunately, the dilemma with the increased number of choices is that they have less and less time to make educated choices. This is further accentuated by the high levels of advertising avoidance across the region.

Agency swim lanes mean there is far more content than before, but not necessarily meaningful or engaging content. The result is that the same brands that are trying very hard to rise above the noise and clutter with their messages are, in effect, ending up becoming part of the very same noise and clutter.

In a year of heavy turmoil, trust has been on a downward spiral like never before. Trust in all four institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – to do what is right declined in 2017.

Fears Further Erode Belief in the System

The widespread belief that the system is broken increases a person’s vulnerability, ultimately causing deeper distrust in institutions. The combination of distrust in institutions, a lack of faith in the system and a climate produced by societal and economic fears ultimately give rise to an increase in populist action.

Media Echo Chamber

The implications for business and brands are huge, and the stakes higher than ever before. Seventy-five percent of the general population agree that a company should be able to both increase its profits and at the same time improve the economic and social conditions in the community it operates in.

As we face this new normal, can an activist brand be the people’s champion in a ‘trust in crisis’ world?

The best brands have always been genuine north stars that serve as a centralized organizing principle driving all activities, internal and external, including product, service, innovation, purpose, and stakeholders—and are not limited just to one-way communication.

Activist brands start from a strong and authentic purpose, one that is in a meaningful area that people care about. It needs to be a fight about what matters to all of us, not just one that matters to the brand.

Activist brands do more and talk less. In effect, they create and become a platform for engagement and action. While marketers can choose to see this either as a challenge or an opportunity, the reality is the ones that are winning are the ones sharing meaningful platforms with consumers, allowing them to join, set and achieve the agenda. And it does not matter if setting the agenda means taking a stand, appealing to a smaller audience or dividing a nation. You will have evangelists who will strongly advocate for and with you.

When REI* took a position with #Optoutside, Dove* with #Realbeauty, Ariel with #Sharetheload or when Timberland planted 1 million trees six years before their launch in China, they began a journey of transforming themselves. While this could mean a complete shift in how brands are created, how they operate and what they offer, the ones that have a clear motivating purpose, meaningful narratives and work in collaborative partnerships with their consumer community will succeed.

Companies and brands now have an opportunity to take a position rather than rely on positioning, to be activists in a world when trust is in crisis and change the world for better. Imagine the dinner conversation when your brand does take this opportunity. We might even run out of wine that night!

Rupen Desai is vice chairman, Edelman Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

*Edelman Client

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