Ashish Mishra
Guest Article

Brands navigating the shifting sands of a brand new world

Our guest author explores how brands are reshaping narratives and societal values in today's ever-evolving landscape.

Haven’t we been speaking of the VUCA world for a long while now?

Could the churn we are in, be permanent?

If so, what are the implications for brands and businesses?

Brands perhaps have their biggest ever role to play for businesses. But they will need to be very different kinds of roles.

If we look back, we will see that the roles Brands have always played have changed with the times. When production was the priority to meet the pent-up demand for a society bypassed by industrialisation, brands signalled material trust versus the unbranded. With base quality becoming table stakes, the brand became a way to create premium and value.

With prosperity growing and socio-economic classes spawning a new caste system, brands began reflecting elitist identification to drive businesses. Rising lifestyles and expectations due to growing exposure then meant brands becoming a tool for driving culture inside and experience outside.

The new world has hyper-connectivity but lesser connections, extreme information but rare original thought, many fundable start-ups but few sustainable commitments, wide networks but lesser depth of anchorage in culture and value systems, long friend lists but deeper aches to belong, savvy political tokenisms but growing trust deficits with governments.

These and many more simmering socio-cultural tensions precipitated by the pandemic years are signs to recognize by Brands because providing a resolution for these through fresh ideologies, narratives, experiences, ethics-in-action and proximate presence will create the highest order of connections for brands.

These will be the new acts of leadership. And this will be the new role brands can play in the new world.

Radical Ideology is the new currency of identity

When we communicate excessively, have unprecedented access to information and publish ourselves constantly; points of view become a way of asserting our presence. It’s true for both people and brands. And owing to hyper scrutiny due to pervasive connectivity, brand pretence is not an option.

So what can brands do? Brands can create a strong ideology by examining their core, finding their authenticity and using it to resolve a relevant simmering socio-cultural tension.

But given the noise and replication, brands will be heard and seen only if they can get radical about it. World-leading businesses will need to think about what the brand stands for, and what it stands against.

New acts of leadership can help create the world’s most influential narratives

In the recent Best Global Brands report, we highlighted the challenges of our times. Inequality. Economic uncertainty. Resource depletion. Climate change. Health epidemics and pandemics. Overconsumption. Humanitarian crises. Political divisiveness. Conflict. War.

Given all this, it feels insensitive on the part of the corporations to still be driven by hyperconsumption, profiteering and shareholder value. Resolution of societal conflicts is expected by people to be a core function of companies. The business of business is no longer just business.

Perhaps it is a disillusionment with the system. A recent study conducted by Edelman, a consultancy, shows that companies have become the most trusted type of institution, ahead of government, media and NGOs.

Brands have always been the more considered, insightful and better-organised expressions. This certainly is the opportunity for Brands to create the world’s most powerful narratives. But they have to be less neutral and safe in their ideological views about what matters to people.

With businesses becoming central to societies, brands – the constructs around which trust is formed – will be even more central to businesses. Just that this New Trust is not focused on product quality anymore. It is about emotional resonance with the value and meaning systems. Indifference to societal debates is not an option.

What the leading global and local brands are doing will surely provide encouragement. Many of the brands in this league do more than offer exceptional products, services and experiences.

They take sides on the most critical debates of our times, from Apple’s pledge to privacy to Nike’s stances on inclusion, to many companies’ outspoken protection of their employees’ rights.

Closer home, perhaps Reliance’s support of education for all, JSW’s programmatic and sustained nurturance of athletes to win at the highest levels, Tanishq espousing unity in a divisive world or arguably Infosys’s eventual open-mindedness to moonlighting.

This is a radical shift from the times when brands were consistently advised to steer well clear of controversy and focus on commerce. Extraordinary times reward bold stances, not political correctness.

(Our guest author is Ashish Mishra, CEO of Interbrand India & South Asia)

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