For anyone trying to make sense of the new order in American politics, here’s a dramatic concept to process: powerful white business leaders and politicians genuflecting, in essence, before Colin Kaepernick. ‘Taking the knee’ has surpassed ‘knee on neck’ in a manner that is imperious, glacial, Gandhian. The roar of peaceful uprising has been cathartic. Its impact is global.
COVID-19 is teaching us to empathize better with one another; but the speed of hegemonic reversal has caught the chatterati unawares. Nike, having landed on the right side of history as far as Kaepernick is concerned, is looking like a reality show participant who has been declared safe for a week.
Other brands and their partner agencies, implicated to different extents in historically regressive practices, are scanning the horizon anxiously and hoping the situation doesn’t escalate, go full-on French Revolution. They are making all the right noises by talking up ‘anti-racism,’ rushing to declare Juneteenth a holiday and advertising their wokeness through Blackout Tuesday. Their social media accounts are protesting many things—but especially their innocence. Nice try, but they had better watch out: cancel culture is the equivalent of the old royals getting their heads lopped off.
Time for cultural strategy to take charge
It’s one thing for brands and agencies to have left bare minimum interventions until the last possible second and quite another to be subsequently grandstanding. To offer a football analogy: imagine Brazil falling 7-0 behind against Germany and then anticipating applause and crowd support for pulling one back. Now more than ever before, brands must understand cultural flows; or they will meet their end quicker than Tony Soprano.
Any consumer who connects consumption with virtue wants brands to address three kinds of values: 1) universal measures of decency that empower humanity 2) causes that fit the ecosystem in which the brand operates 3) principles that matter to consumers and their families.
Brands must also grasp that there are three windows of engagement: a) before the world catches on, by doing what Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia does, supporting tectonic cultural shifts quietly of their own initiative; b) spotting a trend early, like Nike did, and getting behind it; and c) succumbing, like the NFL, to panic and the need to catch up with a moment that is threatening to get away entirely.
Patagonia is proud to join the Stop Hate for Profit campaign. We will pull all ads on Facebook and Instagram, effective immediately, through at least the end of July, pending meaningful action from the social media giant.— Patagonia (@patagonia) June 21, 2020
These two factors—the values matrix and the phase of application—must work together as a gear system to create moments of opportunity, with some responses eliminated and others elevated.
Cultural strategists must reimagine the disruptive capacity of residual, dominant and emergent codes but beyond that, also consider the issue of ethics and sustainability. Semiotics is often applied as a predictive tool to anticipate the next iteration or the next step for a trend. But its most advantageous use lies in understanding what sets of values are culturally sustainable and not a flash in the pan.
How do we extend the gains we have made? What fresh cultural or subcultural phenomenon might a brand bring to long-term prominence after Black Lives Matter in a way that doesn’t feel like a marketing stunt?
‘Purpose’ is not the fix we need
Cultural strategy is steadily growing indispensable, but as an art it is still finding its range. Meanwhile the advertising, public relations and market research industries function like a Gramscian enforcer of the status quo, in the guise of an old boys' club (with a dinosaur serving as mascot). The back-slapping has long reverberated in echo chambers, which is why at times there is such a bizarre disconnect between output and reception. Times have changed; problem is, not everyone’s got the memo. Perhaps inertia rather than malice is to blame. The effect at any rate remains the same: too few see that obsolete solutions must urgently make way for new ones.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions; one of those being the fashionable ideology of ‘purpose,’ which is designed to maximize efficiency by encouraging adherents to draw inspiration from core truths. Knowing what drives a brand brings clarity to all stakeholders. On the other hand, this serves a crafty agenda: to create a cult of believers willing to evangelize on behalf of a company's dogma. ‘Purpose’ transforms brand comms into a siren call. Some companies are fueled by idealism, but many deploy ‘purpose’ cynically. Rank and file workers are left to bear the brunt of capitalism’s excesses.
Unconscionably, ‘purpose’ keeps minorities in check. Minority talent already feels like it must outperform everyone to prove that it belongs. Now it must take things up a notch and perform a hysterical enthusiasm. Little surprise minorities feel reluctant to bring their whole selves to work: who wants to feel like an outsider? They lean in at the cost of their moorings.
‘Purpose’ is a wonderful starting point, and merits a place in business discourse. But it is a dangerous means to an end, and a poor substitute for self-awareness. Its moment is passing.
Lessons in authenticity from Marvin Gaye
For brands to find their moral authority, their most trenchant principles, their deepest voice, they must learn what it means to act grown-up. A company that embodies maturity takes on a whole form that is irreducible even in the face of gimmicks like ‘purpose.’
It’s worth recalling how the Marvin Gaye album, What’s Going On, strikes the perfect balance between commerce and truth-telling. It was considered so unusual at the time for a Motown singer—or any singer—to be tackling themes like the Vietnam War, urban poverty and environmental pollution that impresario Berry Gordy insisted the eponymous track be scrapped. Gaye was adamant, and a masterpiece that resonates to this day was born.
Nobody dreams of connecting that kind of authenticity to marketing. When brands prioritize an equilibrium between ambition and goodwill, the profit margin practically takes care of itself.
We stand at a fork in the road. The time for epiphanies is now. If brands are to really matter, they must stop trying so hard to sound human, and instead signal an understanding of what it means to be humane.
Vijay Parthasarathy is a New York-based semiotician and columnist who is managing partner at Stardust Insights, a global cultural consultancy.