Ready to hit the ground running in 2019? Let’s connect the dots and set our intentions for the year ahead.
Three trends to look out for, get inspired by or better yet, put into action:
From brand neutralism to outspoken brand identity.
The professional and personal value shifts taking place.
Working together to fix things versus break things.
If I were asked to characterize the past twenty years, I would recall a general mindset of needing to fit in and conformity, made perhaps more rigid by widespread compliance practices. Let’s admit it: Life and business in the 90s was lavish in its own way. Not like the extravagance of the 80s, but in a more exponential manner rather. Business meetings at noon which combined networking and drinking, and the widespread urge to impress would later push the fast-consumption market to its pinnacle.
With the new millennium came media dominance, virtual transparency, rising debt and the fast economy, fueled by technological innovation, standardization and globalization. After the collective shock that was 9/11 in 2001, „bigger is better“ and „more is more“ were disrupted by the global financial crisis in 2008, the result of uninhibited economic greed.
With the development of new regulatory systems and a more volatile job market came an inherent need to do things right: at work, at home, in social contexts, in every aspect of life. With thousands flooding the job market, it was essential to create systems and criteria on which to base decisions. The 2000s saw a sudden spike in the need to conform, be it alone for reasons of transparency and fear after 9/11. For the individual, this was the ideal career trajectory, the hashtag-worthy home, the therapist-approved relationship – a new conformity was born. Minimalism, normcore, gorpcore, label-love were just a few movements that encompassed the ideal (fill in the blank).
Companies and organizations were not exempt from that cultural shift. With legislative regulation came regulatory compliance and companies suddenly had to adhere to very specific game rules, both within the organization and among business partners. In financial aspects, investors had to be kept satisfied and impressed in order to solicit further investments to keep the wheel turning. You could almost say that the quick beat of the globalization drum prevented everyone from the necessary reflection on the cause of the crisis. After just a few years, business was back to usual. Regulation was but a thorn in everyone’s side, a well-rehearsed part that accompanied nearly everything.
To frame it all more positively, we had to globally rebuild the foundation that had given way in 2008. Thanks to media technology though, connecting on a global scale was easier and more accessible than ever. Technological developments like targeting, tracking and segmentation made the world every brand’s playground.
An entire industry emerged around target group selection, prediction and segmentation, economizing on the fit-in mentality (this could also easily be reframed as „one size fits all“). A consumer could now be categorized either as Josh the hipster, Bettina the intellectual, Rob the family dad, Norman the IT-geek (just to name a few personas). And brand communications, specifically advertising, could be broadcast for maximum marketing impact. So if you wear metal-rim eyeframes you automatically follow a minimalism-meets-scandi, medium income, friends-are-my-number-one, travel-to-asia lifestyle. Obviously, right? There was and still is today little room for fitting more than one persona at once. The past few years have shown a slow enhancement of personas through values and beliefs (non-religious). Those are the brands that communicate values instead of ideals.
So technology and information (tons and tons of data), an always-on lifestyle, the yearning for global connectivity, and regulation and standardization throughout the global economy have created a perpetual buzz around every individual.
And today’s technology enables voicing that opinion on a global scale. Today, movements such as #MeToo bring together individuals from across all time zones to connect on shared experiences – within a few seconds. And unleash wildfires that have an unprecedented impact on business in general, organizations and culture.
The past year has seen us connect on a global scale. But less around tangible ideals that can be purchased, upgraded or learned (consumerism per se). Shared values and experiences are playing an increasingly important role. The fit-in and conformist mentality which was necessary after 2008 is evolving into a dynamic of identity. And identity is expressed through voice, actions, values and value systems.
It’s no longer enough to manufacture products that serve a purpose. And to voice that opinion openly. Where five years ago brands were looked upon to remain neutral in a social and cultural context, it is no longer seen as acceptable. Quite the contrary. Brands that keep their messaging strategy on a strictly neutral level are going to be the losers with the coming consumer generations.
Given that addressing the largest audience globally possible has its advantages (appeasing investors and increasing profit among the most obvious), it is short-sighted in strategic terms. In a consumer day and age where brand loyalty is no longer a dependable metric, loyalty to and sharing of a particular set of values has the power to infuse new value into that brand metric. And positively impact advertising ROI. Because when you know exactly who your customers are through the set of values and ideas you support and actively live out, you can finetune your marketing and message in a way that targeting cannot (yet) provide.
You can also connect with them in a more sustainable, long-term manner. And come full circle, that same clear brand identity promotes transparency and trust when communicating and collaborating with your customers on product innovation and service, and attracting employees that fit into the company dynamic.
Let’s shed light on the psychological factor. Individuals are searching for themselves. What the self-help book was fifteen years ago, the guide to entrepreneurship and life purpose is today. A deep and personal search for oneself, one’s origins and one’s mark on the world in the midst of globalization has ensued. Time is today’s most crucial commodity. And how we spend it, or waste it respectively, is on everyone’s mind.
From work productivity to work depression, time is more valuable than even a skyrocketing stock. While there is still some hesitance in completely giving up a secure income, numerous individuals are opting out of the 40-hour work week and into either part-entrepreneurship or part-time employment, making room for personal enterprises. Some organizations have already embraced this trend, enhancing their employer attractiveness and following the scandinavian template of shared job positions between two people, to name one example.
Let’s face it. It is an illusion that an employer can give every employee the for him/her ideal mix of stability and professional development. The fact that we expect it as employees and assert it as employers demonstrates how engrained that expectation is in today’s work culture. But also how flawed. If the innovative projects and the willing clients ready to take a chance on something new (or even a new skillset) aren’t there, any company would have a hard time. Unlike the sabbatical which ends after three to twelve months, helping employees venture into different fields aside from their work is healthy and brings new ideas and skills to the company.
Identity is going to gain even more importance in 2019. Newest technological possibilities and data science are making the waters of transparency murky and unnavigable. Trusting where and what kind of information we are receiving is a gamble at best. And the likes of fake news, insincere organizations, internet fraud and intransparent investment practices are casting a deep shadow on a consumer’s trust of global brands. Most brands no longer have the luxury to remain neutral.
Evolving a brand’s identity to becoming an active player is one good option that opens many doors:
– inspiring and invigorating employees
– engaging in deeper, more valuable connections with customers
– impacting culture and environment
– innovating and collaborating with unexpected partners
– boosting brand loyalty and increasing profits long-term.
And what follows are three trends to reflect upon or even embrace (re-)discovering brand voice this coming year.
After years of brand neutralism in which brands kept well away from controversy and politics (some only on the outside), progressive consumers are recognizing that the promises that moved them five years ago are not convincing them today with the same effect. The demand for companies and organizations to take a stand on global issues is rising. The #MeToo movement and global environmental politics are just two examples of where consumers are expecting and demanding a clear stand.
While the general idea that change begins with oneself still rings true, consumers today are aware that a brands can and should act at the forefront of social, economic and ecological change.
(Shelton Group, May 2018)
Patagonia’s environmental activism is a true inspiration in authentic identity. The brand is already well-known for its pro-environment initiatives. In 2018, the outdoor retail giant joined a lawsuit suing the US government for plans to shrink the Bears Ears national monument in Utah by 85%. Patagonia’s conviction and intent led to a provocative message replacing their US-homepage with “The President Stole Your Land.”
Today’s progressive consumers are wary of brand messages, the result of an increasing sensibility to marketing tactics. It is not enough anymore to market what you stand for. Consumers are expecting actions to follow words (and profits from brand loyalty). Most companies have a standard set of values: sustainability, diversity, openness, social responsibility, transparency.
Evaluate what messages you have been marketing, if they fit to your collective brand values and if not, how you can find your voice. Consider how employees can become brand ambassadors, and how you can inspire and support them in their activism.
With the increasing shift away from mainstream life models (the 9-to-5 job, the house-car-combo, marriage and family, material status symbols), typical life setups are being questioned and redefined. As our consumption economy reaches a tipping point in the coming years (maybe even as soon as next year), enlightened consumers are questioning not only mainstream status symbols linked to a successful life. But also the widely accepted forms of success in life, both personal and professional.
Among my own professional peers, a statistically high number have opted out of a secure income in 2018 and into a life on their own terms. This comes as no surprise though. The past decade’s prevalent Silicon Valley business pulse has impacted us deeply. It has set the standard in professional settings and is now affecting our personal lives.
But it was inevitable that the „work fast and break things“ approach with its agile work models and start-up mentalities would transfer into other spheres. Professionals are applying the process of ideate, develop, iterate to reevaluate, restructure and redefine the values by which they live their lives. And because time is a precious commodity, the work place is at the top of the list of things that need to change.
How we spend out time, who we dedicate our energy and skills to, and whose goals and values we share are more important today than ever. In a time in which basic survival needs are met (almost) everywhere on the planet, and society makes it possible to follow a myriad of lifestyles, we have the luxury to design our own lives. And progressive individuals are slowly recognizing this.
Customers can be supported in their own journey to a better me as well. As the wellness industry grows and grows, and the science around DNA becomes more accessible (and cheaper), customers will have growing options open to them to test and customize products.
Food giant Nestlé launched the Wellness Ambassador program in Japan in the past year, which let customers send pictures of their food via the Line app and receive nutritional tips and specifically formulated supplements for a healthy lifestyle. This is only one global example of combining DNA science, AI and social media. Various companies around the world are already tapping into customization for a healthier life, promoting health and body awareness. The rise in customizable ovulation tracking apps to promote and offer an alternative to hormone-based contraception in recent years is another such example.
With all this self-finding and value-searching going on, the question to ask yourself as a company is how can you support, inspire and motivate your employees and customers? Investing in your own identity and what values make up who you are as a brand and company is a crucial first step in attracting like-minded talent.
And by this I mean more than a gym membership and a half-hearted development program. Individuals given the freedom and support to independently develop new skills and follow diverse interests will broaden their horizons. And make room for innovation at heir primary work place, you as their employer.
Swedish companies are already largely successful with alternative work models, allowing two employees to share one job position for example. Maybe you will think bigger and find a way to impact legislation in a way that makes tax regulations and contracts more conducive to new work models (also a great example to live out above-mentioned authenticity).
As a product owner, I urge you to experiment with ways to customize experiences or products on a highly personal level. Look to AI and the accessibility of technology or merge other fields together. And be open to partnering with other industries or even competitors in search of a game-changing solution. (More on that in the last trend.)
Sustainability has been part of the larger discussion for over a decade now. With consumer enlightenment and the increasing focus that personal responsibility has within an ecological context, are companies doing enough to not only push awareness, but also drive action? Although more and more companies are committing to an organizational plastic ban by the years 2020 or 2025, it is but a tiny ripple in the the pool of consumer awareness. And can we blame our dear consumers?
There is only so much a company can do on its own. A few brave pioneer brands are ditching the excuse of keeping their competitive edge a secret weapon (knowledge and expertise) and opening up to collaboration beyond company lines. They are asking themselves “How can we do more?”
The most wide-spread example I have encountered is undoubtedly the collaboration between the world’s top two coffee giants, Starbucks and McDonald’s. In dedication to going green, both companies are partnering up and have committed themselves to developing a fully recyclable, compostable cup within the next three years.
Take a look at what your company is really good at. How can you contribute that to make an impact? And what is it missing to make that impact scalable to global level?
Either looking outside your industry or considering joining forces with partners or even competitors, making a contribution beyond company lines can be the beginning of a new innovation. Or at least a business opportunity.
As with every forecast into a new year, it’s up to the great collective We to make the most out of current events, movements and shifts happening right now. And up to you, dear brands, to take up the flag and march ahead of us, creating and seizing new opportunities.
In 2019, I look forward to a new courage and conviction. I am not alone when I say that I yearn for positive change and expect it to become standard practice for companies big and small. We have talked enough. It’s time to put real action to our words and make our best intentions reality.