The Rise of Moral Brands
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
One need not stretch too far, nor have particularly partisan views, to accept arguments that ours is a culture marked by institutional collapse. Confidence on Wall Street and in capitalism itself slipped with the tarnishing of names like AIG, Lehman and Merrill Lynch (among others) during the Great Recession. Trust in the U.S. government eroded along party lines, calling into question the integrity of the democratic process, on the path to health care reform. Faith in the Catholic Church continued to fold just last week under the weight of yet another round of scandal fueled by priests preying on the most vulnerable. On somewhat lighter fronts: there is no longer a "most trusted man in news" when every adman is a newsman, and so many newsmen an advertisement (or plagiarist). Science is more politicized than ever, the clarity of its objective truths clouded by a climate of competing interests.
If our cultural institutions are not as strong as they once were, where is one to place belief? Crowd-sourced opinion would suggest the crowd that sourced such an opinion. The hotly unpopular and wickedly intelligent (if not always inspired) Andrew Keen has more than cautioned us on that front. Indeed, one could do worse than to be at least a circumspect reader of self-declared experts, their unchecked facts, mashed-up statistics and editor-free manifestos. We can all likely agree that the rise of Ashton Kutcher as an "opinion leader" is cause for pause, alarm and earplugs. In the absence of institutional authority, we are left with the noise of prattling promoters.
At the same time, brands are morphing as cultural material, doing more of the culture work once left to institutions. Simon Clift, Unilever's CMO, has smartly said, "Brands are now becoming conversation factors where academics, celebrities, experts and key opinion formers discuss functional, emotional and, more interestingly, social concerns." Indeed, the classic benefits structures of brands are extending to broader issues, stretching brands to be richer containers of meaning, and challenging their owners and managers to advance something beyond features, functions and feelings. However, in an increasingly transparent, connected and engaged marketplace, social concerns are not breakthrough territory; they are an expected component of smart brand strategy. Add institutional collapse to the mix, and we are poised to see the rise of moral brands: those that guide us not simply to purchasing choices, desired features, positive image, rewarding feelings and the right causes, but those that help us discern between right and wrong, good and evil. This sounds a bit crazy, but the language of moral debate is already in play.
Apple, in the midst of its iPad hysteria, flew a sortie in its burgeoning holy war with Google, its black-cloaked cult leader playing the role of the good guy: "Google's 'don't be evil' mantra is bullshit," proclaimed the man with the tablet in his hands. Reporting on pending financial reforms, The New York Times cast the "Volcker Rule" on proprietary trading as a "resetting of the moral compass" in banking. My colleague, Teri Schindler, has argued that Goldman Sachs is a Bad Brand, with that being a good thing. The same could be said for Black Water, the outsourced mercenaries disastrously rebranded as Xe, which rose to power as the good and honorable institution of the U.S. military approached its limits on multiple war fronts. Closer to home and daily life, Chipotle offers "food with integrity," an ethical description of a burrito and all that goes into one, from farm to fiesta. It can be pushed further still. So can PETA's ethical claims.
Of course, moral relativism is at play here, depending on the consumer's needs and personal compass. GOOD Worldwide provides a media platform for people, businesses and nonprofits to share ideas, content and products that make the world a better place (likely not a proponent of the "better world" views of, say, Monsanto). On the other hand, Perez Hilton is "Hollywood's most hated" blogger, and celebrates the tearing down of the entertainment industry. Fidelity Investments gets it about right for this current evolutionary moment, casting its brand as the "navigator" to keep one on the right path "for you," whatever that might be. And we can see other industry leaders on the cusp of some very bold things that will require moral navigation: IBM's brand focus on "smarter." GE's on "imagination." Cisco's on "human network." While not yet cast in moral terms, the questions are embedded: Does "smarter" mean choosing the right path and solving problems in the right way, or taking any opportunity the market provides? "Imagination" and innovation put to what purposes, especially in businesses like aviation? "Human network" assumes a libertarian equality and connection to all views, even unpopular or controversial contributions...or does it?
There is no way of knowing how, when or if our institutions will regain their footing, their standing, and along with it our confidence, trust, faith and beliefs. Brand strategists and managers would be well served to consider the horizon issue of their brands as moral navigators in a complex, uncertain marketplace. In the absence of the cultural cues and guidance provided by institutions, consumers will need to know what to trust. Whether they want to step into the light, or go down the dark alley is another question entirely. Every broad cultural story requires both a protagonist and an antagonist, and there is an economics to both. I've argued elsewhere that black markets are the edge of innovation, so the distinction may not be as stark as we think: the path from dark, underground fight club to big bad brand UFC is not a long one. Perhaps the future holds portfolio strategies for products not targeted to demographics or lifestyles, but to "good" and "bad" motivations or moods? Mr. Clift's Unilever already owns both the Dove and Axe brands, for example. Rupert Murdoch's Fox News couldn't be further in tone or content from Fox Television's entertainment. (Might we suggest that Stewie take on Bill O'Reilly in a battle of wit?)
And maybe Google's Eric Schmidt will point out to Mr. Jobs that his glowing apple is iconic not just because of his magical devices, but because the company's logo is that Western embodiment of good and evil: one bite missing tells the entire story of seduction by brand.