The author puts a psychological lens through brands and explains how we can attempt to remake capitalism and take back our world.
As the world staggers from one disaster headline to another, it feels like a black-and-white newsreel from the 1920s is unspooling. Once again, our sense of security has been shaken to its foundational core; once more, human life is being weighed ruthlessly against compelling economic imperatives. Far from activating a collective, highly targeted sense of urgency, the coming recession seems to be triggering zero-sum thinking.
Poverty is poised to precipitate class-race-gender conflict like never before. Mistrust between cultures, between social groups, is growing. Coupled with the increasing influence of populist authoritarianism, there is the eerie vibe of history temporarily caught up in the sense of an ending.
From the WHO to supranational bodies like the European Union, global institutions are threatening to fail. Alone together, we are locked in the fight of our lives. As we put our shoulders to the wheel, the direction we pick is equally critical. The old ways simply won’t cut it. This is a chance to do things over, to rebuild societies from the rubble. This is a time for dynamism, a time to inspire the formation of more perfect unions.
Amidst fears of systemic collapse, global brands have a tremendous opportunity, even responsibility, to atone for past wrongs and fill the vacuum in compassionate leadership. Brands can inspire us to become better versions of ourselves. Forget the lip service of cynically calibrated political activism – this is a moment for brands to step up and behave like the adults in the room; to show people the way, when politicians the world over won't.
I. How sociopathic thinking undermines brand communication
The big intractable challenges of the 21st century are no secret. They revolve around issues like social inequality, environmental degradation, overpopulation and mental health; and are often interlinked. Brands all over the world (and their partner agencies) employ cultural strategies with varying degrees of success to negotiate this landscape. Increasingly, brands seek to craft a coherent POV on these matters to sound more authentic and anthropomorphized – human in their engagement.
Most brand communication, however, comes off as ineffectually sociopathic because at the end of the day the implicit dominant cultural understanding is that a company will likely say and do anything to get in the consumer's pants. Strategists and creatives are determined to outdo one another in showcasing their brilliance and creativity. It’s easy to be led astray by exuberance. The consumer is a major conspirator in the act of purchase; but it is up to brands to charm, dazzle, seduce relentlessly until the buyer is hooked – all with a view to defeating the competition.
It's rather like dating. Whether you are in the United States, China, Norway or India, culture and ecosystems inform attitudes. Codes of behavior get set in stone.
A heuristic analysis shows that the big boys mask their neediness predominantly in two ways: 1) by appearing distantly cool and desirable (in the manner of Apple or Tesla) or by 2) subtly manipulating the consumer using tactics like virtue signaling (like Gillette or Pepsi in their most notorious ads). The mask slips with every piece of communication that tanks; it rips a little after every insensitive engagement with the cultural sphere.
Individualist cultures pressure people to constantly keep up appearances. The gap that emerges between the authentic self and the projected self makes empathizing with others so much harder.
In The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout, a clinical psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member, identifies sociopathy’s central trait – a complete lack of conscience which usually manifests as charm and manipulation rather than violence, and manages to pass for normal.
She remarks in an interview, ‘A sociopath thinks in terms of successfully manipulating someone into doing something that he or she would not have done otherwise… In Western culture, particularly North America, a lot of rules are descriptors for sociopathy: a general acceptance of lying as long as you win, an attitude of me “first,” an attitude that what it looks like is more important than what it is.
This makes it much easier for a sociopath to be camouflaged in our culture.’ By Dr. Stout's estimate, the term applies to as much as four per cent of the American population.
In the right circumstances, sociopathic thinking is effective and can be leveraged productively for the greater good: for example, the way surgeons and detectives may use it, with complete detachment and calm (which sounds like the only way anyone can survive those jobs).
Most visibly, though, it’s what fuels the Martin Shkrelis of the world. You also see it in how narcissistic tech giants intimidate sheep-minded job aspirants and cults of artsy millennials hell-bent on owning shiny objects they cannot truly afford. It’s what a first-person shooter game is activating when you are busy ending a bunch of pixels. At its most cataclysmic, this kind of imagination goads demagogues, dictators and elected leaders alike into issuing kill orders at a distance.
How has it come to this? When did we become such assholes? Why straitjacket ourselves when the alternatives make us look and feel better? And where do we go from here?
The McKinsey-way-or-the-highway dichotomy is daft: bullies are silly. Brands would do well to look in another direction for inspiration. New Zealand, in backing Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly meeting based on its success at tackling COVID-19, argues that China should avoid muddying the moment – and if it does, New Zealand is prepared to courageously push back against a critical trade partner. As its Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters phrased it, “True friendship is based on equality. It’s based on the ability to, in this friendship, nevertheless disagree.”
A fine balance of boundary-setting tough talk and good sense indeed; and worth emulating.
II. ‘Purpose’ and the misguided spirit of the profit imperative
Profits aren’t the enemy: it is our approach to profit-making that is very often severely compromised.
In structuralist terms, capitalism is a breeding ground for grandiose narcissism. On a sliding scale, emotionally disengaged families, education systems and social groups instill faux-individualism, entitlement and a taste for the luxury of geographical space and other refinements. From there onward, anyone across the spectrum of ethnicities and class who aspires to partake of the benefits of whiteness is susceptible to the temptation of striking a Faustian bargain.
A pro tip for starry-eyed hustlers: 'X Æ A-12' is probably not the password to Elon Musk's bank account. But you parse the impulsive, imbecilic public utterances of billionaire clowns anyway, hopeful for nuggets of fiscal truth. As if! Don't forget, we are speaking of a socio-cultural system that occasionally passes for a pyramid scheme. Caring about the little guy isn't a given.
Corporate capitalism – as opposed to more compassionate variants – is not built to trust or enable its most sincere adherents. It has no interest in liberating serfs. It is revealing when the primary concern in neoliberalist societies regarding Universal Basic Income is the idea that handouts will make most participants lazy and disincentivize the motivation to put in their best, rather than imagining folks might be set free to unleash their creativity. Divide and rule was built for capitalism.
Here’s the problem: the ideology of ‘purpose’ damagingly overvalues the Calvinist sense of being driven by a ‘calling.’
We are lulled too easily in our solipsistic bubbles. Dominant media cultures permeate global and local narratives. The gravitational pull of modern capitalism reaches as far as righteous crowdfunding. Even random acts of kindness have been commodified and reduced to a traveling circus on YouTube. Stand-up comedy and virtually every form of subversion are part of the sideshow. Taken to its logical extreme, capitalism is a black hole. Nothing escapes it.
All it takes is one or two major misalignments to set us on a path to destruction. The last financial crisis showed how the biggest institutions – the military-industrial complex, lenders, technology corporations, the entertainment industry, some of the world’s top universities – have circled the abyss in a holding pattern for decades. Many are ideologically bankrupt but supposedly too big to fail.
Our passive belief in their utility lets them hang on, even as profits funneled into stock buybacks are increasing leadership compensation by obscene margins. We acquiesce to the idea that profit must be pursued for its own sake. It has always been like this, we think wearily; things will never change.
In the middle rungs and lower, overwork leaves people with no time for reflection or taking stock of their output. Weber’s conceptualization of the Protestant work ethic defines the spirit of modern worker drones. We think and act like mercenaries, and yet – in the same manner that companies hunt down profits with the zeal of Anton Chigurh – we fetishize work for its own sake. We connect it too closely to our identity. We make it our mission – our noble purpose.
Here’s the problem: the ideology of ‘purpose’ damagingly overvalues the Calvinist sense of being driven by a ‘calling.’ (God save you if you work for a start-up.) Business strategists, creatives, influencers and consumers are all co-opted into, and made complicit in, this sordid affair. It's exploitative. Some of us sell our soul more enthusiastically than others.
Stress builds, whether business is bad or good. Mental health issues percolate down the rank and file. We are not abstract corporate entities: there are real consequences to sabotaging our mental health. If worker conditions don’t bother you, and you need a different kind of incentive – studies show billions of dollars in profits are diminished through overwork and a decrease in quality.
That is why in redesigning capitalism, it’s critical to surpass ‘purpose.’
III. Beyond purpose: The magic of emotionally resonant myth-making
This is not to say infusing companies with ‘purpose’ is a fundamentally misanthropic act. Purpose certainly has its place: it serves as a great starting point for the new social contract.
At this juncture, relatively few companies across the globe realize that creating mature and emotionally resonant communication is a robust way to build cachet and need hardly be boring, safe or incompatible with profit-making.
Patagonia, with its emphasis on thoughtfully-directed purpose, is the obvious example to insert here. The ad (see image) is not at first glance emotionally impactful and may appear even glib: the application of reverse psychology can make wary consumers simultaneously curious and resentful. But a closer look reveals that Patagonia isn’t playing that game. It is making an earnest point, and reverse psychology is just a way to draw in the eye. As others have observed, this is not a clothes company that hawks the environment; this is an environmental concern that happens to sell clothes.
Not every company buys into purpose, though. One Association of National Advertisers-led study reveals a strong perception among 56% of B2B respondents that it feels like a PR exercise. Purpose-led strategy risks looking attention-seeking, flashy, self-congratulatory, even when it is not.
Your decision-making need not be infused with purpose at every turn if you don’t think purpose applies to your company – but you would certainly benefit from applying a 360-degree perspective steeped in product truth that ties together analytics, granular consumer perspectives and an expert deconstruction of how consumers engage with the brand in the ecosphere.
Emotionally resonant decision-making is an internalized state that intuitively produces optimal calculations. Think of it this way: purpose-led strategy is at best a subset, an idealist’s alternative, to taking the grown-up approach.
Purpose grounds us, energizes us; maturity, though, is transcendental.
IV. Resemiotizing towards a more sustainable capitalism
Many planners are remarkably intuitive, but their work does not necessarily promote emotional resonance. This is one of the root factors contributing to capitalism’s many deficiencies; but the rational process at least allows strategists to work around obstacles. Still, thinking grows ossified. Past a certain age, it is extraordinarily difficult to rewire thinking. It may be more practical to train strategists to cognitively understand bourgeois ethics and arrive at solutions using that framework for reference.
Bear in mind, transcendence isn’t always a workable choice. Problematic categories like vaping or fairness cream throw up ethical dilemmas. Comfort levels differ. Some strategists might regard the tobacco industry as untouchable, while others might leap at the chance. But from an ethics perspective, business strategists aren’t an inherently bad bunch: you can generally count on us to want to do the right thing.
Within the Cartesian system of bourgeois brand identity, the goal is to make it across from the needy, manipulative and narcissistic spaces into the mature zone. Three primary strategies emerge:
a) Using empathy and listening skills to solve user problems
b) Rising above zero-sum game contexts by focusing on one’s own emotionally resonant communication rather than obsessing over competitors’ approach
c) Taking on a subtly pedagogical approach and inspiring consumers to lead better lives (though refraining from paternalism and didacticism)
Immature decision-making abounds at every stage of the business cycle. It is a very human failure and can hit anyone from CEOs to junior strategists. One way to offset such errors is to actively solicit a diverse range of opinions. Another team-balancing trick is to hire specifically for exceptional emotional intelligence. Of course, even the most mature thinkers can occasionally commit errors. The key lies in finding the courage to be vulnerable enough to take corrective actions.
COVID-19 has upended our future. We can no longer afford to be passive spectators. Real changes must transpire – concurrently – in a brand’s thinking, staffing decisions, communications; or brands risk being left behind or worse, crash landing on the wrong side of history.
V. Post-capitalism and the search for a deeper voice
This period is a first for modernity and the Internet age: we are living through unprecedented circumstances. Brands and agencies must fully grasp the implications of the fact that humans are social, but – from a cultural viewpoint – not always social enough. Our urge to form groups is in itself agnostic, but two divergent, polarizing narratives are presently dominant: 1) Marking out and emphasizing severely restrictive political borders to kill the exchange of global collaboration, or 2) Finding ways to cut across boundaries, recognizing the universality of the human condition.
But the past century has shown us that capitalism v. socialism, morality v. immorality, individualism v. collectivism, feminism v. hyper-masculinity, urban v. rural, political correctness v. self-censorship, freedom v. subordination are unhelpful, if not false, binaries.
This debate is not reducible to a simple tug of war between selfishness and altruism either. Postmodernism has found its most misguided expression with multiple ideologies competing for primacy.
Conspiracy theorists such as anti-vaxxers and other anti-intellectuals are choosing this incredibly dangerous moment to amplify their agenda. Others argue that our politics is too corrupt, the populace too demoralized; that the solution is decisive governance that marginalizes some communities for the greater good.
It's getting harder for our media-sozzled minds to distinguish between shades of evil. Attention spans are getting shorter. We confuse practical solutions with simplistic ones.
The biggest brands have traditionally cut across ideological divides and reached a unity that speaks to common needs. They have the resources to tackle all kinds of big problems. You hear of stores designating certain hours for older shoppers in the US, Australia, Turkey and Scandinavia; of cops buying kids birthday cakes during the lockdown in India. Brand communication must celebrate the positives. Together, we shall overcome.
Things are bad now, but the effects are still reversible. The saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. History repeats in cycles until we filter out the muck. Whether or not you believe distance affords us unparalleled perspective and that the arc of history hopefully bends towards self-correction, lasting change takes effect slowly. It buys us precious time.
We have an opportunity here to take back our world. We might not succeed in remaking capitalism, but in breaking the shackles, humanity might yet heal and embrace renewal.
(The author is a US-based cultural strategist and globalization theorist with a PhD from UT Austin. This essay is an expanded version of a talk he is slated to give at Semiofest 2020 and was first published on the author's blog on LinkedIn; reproduced with permission.)