Brands in a polarised society: From celebrities to philosophies

Brands in a polarised society: From celebrities to philosophies


This contribution by Daniel Ospina (organisation designer, founder of Conductal and Creative Friction associate member) delves into the tricky dilemmas that brands face in polarised societies, highlighting coherence as a key protector against backlash. This is a vital lesson that also applies to coworking brands that, in some cases, find themselves making confident claims about the presumed positive features of their spaces - linked to creativity, collaboration and community - without much reference to actual user experiences.

*Originally published on Medium


Most aspects of our lives and society are evolving fast, and brands are no exception.

Brands were originally based on a function or location. For a restaurant that would mean having a name like L’Aubere du Pont Collognes, while for a musician that meant their performance was “The Court Ball at the palace of Emperor Josef II”. No mention whatsoever of the performer’s name or the master at work in the kitchen.

Over time, functions and locations started to fade away. Mozart (who played for Emperor Josef II) became one of the first musicians to command his own audience and royalties as an independent in the late 18th century. The restaurant L’Aubere du Pont Collognes was renamed Paul Bocuse after its patron and chef Paul Bocuse grew popular in the late 1960s by heading the Nouvelle Cuisine movement. Beyond the arts, we can see a similar case with brands such as McKinsey being founded in 1926, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) in 1947, or Boeing in 1916, all named after their well-known and respected founders. Celebrity branding further helped to humanise companies, making them relatable and trustable.

However, past a certain point, celebrity owners or figureheads often tend to struggle to keep up with the creative and innovation demands required for brand longevity today. For example, Heston Blumenthal, the British celebrity chef, collected accolades and fame thanks to the innovations developed at his first restaurant (The Fat Duck) but, as the company expanded, he increasingly relied on an innovation team to supply him with new ideas.

Most celebrities or founders linked to “their own brand” require a certain degree of familiarity with and a sense of ownership of the innovations to feel comfortable implementing them as their own. Otherwise, where’s the authenticity that we all crave today? For example, McDonald’s, the hamburger chain, was founded by the McDonald brothers who led the first wave of innovations but were indisposed by further growth, much to the chagrin of their franchise partner, Ray Kroc. The tension was eventually solved when Mr. Kroc bought them out and proceeded to implement a new wave of innovation that allowed the business to grow to what it is today. Founders and celebrity public faces can become a bottleneck for innovation as they are pulled between creative work and public appearances, like in the case of Heston, or between their personal wishes and the brand’s needs, like in the case of the McDonald brothers.

As markets have grown further connected and the pace of change continues to accelerate, the limitations of celebrity branding for innovation have paved the way for a new type of brand to emerge — the philosophy brand.

Philosophy brands aim to reach past the association with a certain location or founder and tap into evocative brand names and propositions informed by well-defined values. Think for example of the FMCG drinks company Oatly. They have experienced extraordinary success using their philosophy to inform strategy, operations, marketing, and even HR.

OATLY purpose and mission statement - philosophy.png

Image from Oatly

Internally, a well-articulated philosophy helps to align and mobilise the efforts of a whole organisation. Externally, research shows that bold philosophies are rewarded in social media as strong opinion and emotionally arousing content commands the most likes and shares — and ultimately, increases sales and profit.

Perhaps for this same reason, most western democracies have become increasingly polarised, and brands that would have previously preferred to avoid controversies are finding it increasingly difficult to keep a middle ground. You might remember that the #DeleteUber campaign took-off when Uber continued operations while New York taxi drivers were protesting against the Muslim ban. Or that, First National Bank in the US was forced to cut ties with the National Rifle Association as it became a popular target for social media boycott campaigns after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

A polarised society is a difficult landscape for brands to navigate. Delta CEO Ed Bastian announced that the airline would stop offering discounts to NRA members, receiving praise from pro-gun-control activists. However, Georgia lawmakers retaliated by killing a tax break that would have saved Delta millions of dollars. Polarisation forces brands to make difficult commercial tradeoffs.

Polarisation, however, also incentivises coherence. Patagonia, the California-headquartered outerwear company, has remained true and vocal about its environment protection philosophy. The company audits all its suppliers on sustainability metrics, campaigned for their customers to reuse old clothing instead of buying new products, created a VC arm to back environmentally-friendly startups, committed 1% of sales to environmental causes, and even went as far as fighting the Trump administration on protected areas policy. As a result, their profits tripled between 2008 and 2014 and continue to grow today.

Brands who put posturing above coherence take a major risk. For example, Audi faced a flurry of critical press in 2017 after airing a commercial on gender equality while having an all-male executive team. And H&M faced a backlash after it emerged that their feminist marketing was coexisting with practices in some of their factories that didn’t allow pregnant women time off work.

Companies can do well by moving past functional or celebrity brands and adopting an ethos that is relevant to the communities they serve, from customers to employees and beyond. In polarised societies, they might not even have a choice if they want to survive and thrive, but importantly, brands must not forget that coherence will dictate their failure or success.

Coworking and Feedback: Turning Collections of Creatives into Creative Collectives

Coworking and Feedback: Turning Collections of Creatives into Creative Collectives


Collaborative organisations can grow into genuine creative communities not by getting everyone to collaborate – as this is plainly unrealistic – but through fostering practices of feedback-sharing.

*This entry draws on The Creative Process in Coworking and Collaborative Work (a recent Creative Friction expert report)


The act of giving and receiving feedback can seem so mundane that we forget it is an essential part of the creative process. This is especially so when early-stage ideas – business models, design blueprints, book proposals, digital prototypes – are being elaborated, tested and fortified. Interestingly, seminal research in organisation science has argued that mere ‘collections of creatives’ become genuine ‘creative collectives’ only when they establish cultures of feedback-sharing (Hargadon & Bechky 2006).


These points notwithstanding, few coworking organisations seem to intentionally cultivate a feedback-rich culture. This is a lost opportunity because feedback has the potential to open up space for co-creation between two or more people who do not necessarily work together on a regular basis (or who might never end up ‘collaborating’ extensively). Through catalysing feedback interactions, it is possible to add ‘creative value’ to diverse member journeys in a peer-driven way. Four insights from existing research on creativity and feedback in organisations are relevant here.


1. Moments of collective creativity flourish when organisations foster feedback-focused behavioural patterns. These include help-seeking, help-giving, reflective reframing (i.e., mindfully building on the comments of others and testing out alternative perspectives or metaphors) and reinforcing (Hargadon & Bechky 2006). There is no need to fetishise ‘serendipity’ as this can result in a passive approach to facilitating creative interactions; instead, desired behaviours should be more consciously encouraged.


2. Feedback interactions benefit from particular techniques both on the part of the giver and the receiver. In a recent study on creative projects in product design and modern dance, scholars found that feedback-givers engaged in a changing mix of strategies such as ‘personalising’, ‘puzzling’, ‘measuring’ and ‘prescribing’, while feedback-receivers engaged in ‘backgrounding’, ‘forecasting’ and ‘opening’ moves (Harrison & Rouse 2015). For instance, feedback-givers expressed their subjective, affective reactions to a prototype through personalising (‘I love it!’) while also introducing external standards through measuring (‘If you’re going to do a bourrée, you know exactly what a bourrée is supposed to look like – it has to really be perfect.’). The role of feedback in creative projects thus cannot be reduced to simple binaries – critical versus constructive, negative versus positive, general versus specific – and it pays for organisations to develop a more dynamic understanding.


3. Certain feedback situations and styles can trigger strong emotional reactions, potentially harming the creative process as a result (Amabile 1996). Typically, feedback that is interpreted as critical or harsh simply gets ignored. Recent collaborative research by undersigned (Toivonen et al. 2018) suggests that, in certain cases, strongly critical feedback coming from a person of authority can even be experienced as shocking, especially when it highlights a critical flaw in a new idea. While not all negative emotional reactions end up harming creative processes, organisations need to appreciate the affective dimension of feedback to ensure it catalyses, rather than works against, the progress of creative projects.


4. Feedback research has also found that the active seeking of feedback tends to enhance creative performance (the broader and more numerous the feedback sources the better). Perhaps unsurprisingly, efforts to seek feedback can ‘mediate’ the effects of a person’s particular creative thinking style and compensate for lack of support towards creativity (De Stobbeleir et al. 2011). The implication is that collaborative organisations should – rather than assuming one size fits all – explore how diverse individuals can tap into feedback processes effectively through routes and social situations that work for them.


It turns out, then, that feedback is a complex phenomenon. Precisely because of their multi-dimensionality, feedback interactions have a lot to offer to those coworking organisations that wish to become genuine creative collectives – provided that such organisations invest effort into cultivating a feedback-rich culture that best serves the needs of their members.


Get in touch with Creative Friction via our founder ( tuukka.t at ) to learn more about our consulting services and/or discuss potential collaborative research projects.



Amabile, Teresa M., Sigal G. Barsade, Jennifer S. Mueller, and Barry M. Staw. “Affect and Creativity at Work.” Administrative Science Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2005): 367–403.

De Stobbeleir, Katleen EM, Susan J. Ashford, and Dirk Buyens. “Self-Regulation of Creativity at Work: The Role of Feedback-Seeking Behavior in Creative Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 54, no. 4 (2011): 811–831.

Hargadon, Andrew B., and Beth A. Bechky. “When Collections of Creatives Become Creative Collectives: A Field Study of Problem Solving at Work.” Organization Science 17, no. 4 (2006): 484–500.

Harrison, S. H., and E. D. Rouse. “An Inductive Study of Feedback Interactions over the Course of Creative Projects.” Academy of Management Journal 58, no. 2 (April 1, 2015): 375–404.

Toivonen, Tuukka, Onya Idoko, Harsh Jha, and Sarah Harvey. “When Unexpected Feedback Threatens Your Very Existence: ‘Creative Jolts’ along the Idea Journeys of New Entrepreneurs.” Full Research Paper Accepted for Presentation at the 34th EGOS Colloquium in Tallinn, Estonia, July 5-7, 2018, 2018.


The Hygge-ification of Work

The Hygge-ification of Work

Hygge, the idiosyncratically Danish term for cosiness and candlelit moments in the soothing company of good friends and family, became one of the most hyped-up life-style trends of 2016 and 2017. Is this peculiar ideal gradually also entering what is normally thought of as the very antithesis of cosiness – the realm of paid work?

While a growing portion of coworking spaces (from Work.Life and the Impact Hubs to Second Home and the Soho Houses) certainly pay attention to the well-being of their members, if there ever was a “frontier of hygge-ification” in the sphere of work it would be found in the experimental world of cohoming.

Built on the realisation that residential spaces, often unused during the day, can be utilised as mobile offices for freelancers, entrepreneurs and others, cohoming is emerging as a credible alternative – and complement – to coworking facilities. Cohoming platforms such as Vrumi appeal, in particular, to those who seek to work in friendly, like-minded company without having to pay (often hefty) monthly coworking membership fees.

Certain underlying features of cohoming make it a stimulating lens for thinking about work in the entrepreneurial era.

First, cohoming shows brilliantly how affective, aesthetic criteria are increasingly informing our choices about paid work. The key question is not “how much money can I earn here?” or “will this job accelerate my career?”, but “is this a place I want to work at?” and “do I feel comfortable in this environment today and with these other people?”

Convenience plays its part here as well: many are interested in leveraging cohoming to better combine work and various family duties and to simply work, well, closer to home.

What we are witnessing here is hygge – or ideals of cosiness, like-mindedness, social and aesthetic well-being and convenience – emerging as a new principle shaping the world of work. Sure, resource constraints and the availability of digital platforms also play a role in the development of cohoming (who doesn’t like free or affordable workspace accessible at the touch of a button online?) but these are only part of the story.

Cohoming does also offer a neat example of how various conventional boundaries between “work” and “life” or “leisure” are changing. That such lines are being re-drawn isn’t news, of course. What seems novel, though, is the articulation of comfort as a key principle that informs work choices and that, if anything, is making work more home-like. This is a refreshing twist in the story of work vs. home after so much emphasis (by researchers and others) on how digital devices have allowed work to invade the sphere of home life.

There is certainly a potentially nastier edge to ideals of hygge and working with a small in-group of friends or like-minded others. At worst, this is a recipe for a homogenous, exclusivist working world. Horie Takafumi, the Japanese maverick entrepreneur and immensely prolific self-help writer, echoes this tendency in advising (in his latest book on ‘how to be multi-active’) that we should aggressively shut out people who annoy or bore us, for they waste our time and teach us nothing new.

Perhaps the fluidity and flexibility of cohoming in large cities will help ameliorate these darker sides of comfort-driven work, though our tendency to gravitate towards others like us remains strong. And perhaps new varieties of cohoming will be invented that intentionally mix up people who would otherwise be unlikely to meet. What seems clear, at any rate, is that the hygge-ification of work is already in full swing.

Why the co-working industry must take creativity seriously

As Published in LSE Business Review

By: Tuukka Toivonen & Carsten Sørensen

The rapid, ongoing growth of the co-working industry reflects a broader transformation: over the past decade or so, work has not merely become increasingly flexible and entrepreneurial – it has also been reinvented as a commodity. Sold to people desiring autonomy, comfort and a cure to entrepreneurial loneliness (among other things), co-working providers are refashioning work as a consumer experience requiring open-plan offices, trendy rooftop terraces, on-site gyms, retro furniture and other eye-catching perks.

Co-working spaces are half-right to adopt this way of thinking: flexibility and choice are the reality, at least in global cities, for entrepreneurial individuals and teams who can now freely select from among hundreds of trendy workspaces. Mobile technologies, virtual (team) work and flexible co-working contracts mean that a sizeable segment of the workforce is now ‘free to go, free to stay’ when it comes to physical work environments and locations.

Unfortunately, only very few co-working spaces go beyond the gloss to attract and keep members by realising the full potential of their services. For instance, only a handful of the providers we have met have evolved a systematic, mindful approach to sparking creative interactions between their members.

Co-working providers’ inability to provide substance is a serious problem because, with users becoming more discerning than before, operators who fail to think more deeply about value creation will rapidly lose their competitive edge. They will learn the hard way that most co-working users, instead of longing for creative facades or vague notions of ‘community’, actually seek environments that support creative progress.

Through a brand-new report, we seek to launch a fresh conversation on precisely this topic. Distilling key lessons from world-leading peer-reviewed organisational research, we position the creative process as a focal point of intervention for collaborative spaces that want to generate more value for their users.

To inform and challenge co-working leaders, our report offers two sets of insights. First, we rethink the very notion of creativity by shifting from an individual-level focus to the concept of creative idea journeys. These are relatively structured trajectories through which emerging ideas evolve into increasingly well articulated, viable business models and projects. We show how abundant value can be created by co-working spaces when emerging ideas are going through the so-called elaboration stage. In this phase, novel ideas need to be ‘nourished’ by high-quality interactions with diverse others; it is through such shared moments of creativity that member journeys can be accelerated and enhanced.

In a mobile context where members can seek input through a wide range of networks beyond their main workspace, a crucial question to ask is: what value is your space generating along your members’ creative journeys? Are you keeping track of this value? Are you tracing – and promoting – the kinds of interactions that matter the most to your members?

The second set of insights we offer in our report concern particular aspects of the creative process and how to best catalyse creative idea journeys. Here is a summary of three of these aspects:

  • Feedback-sharing. Collaborative organisations can grow into genuine ‘creative communities’ not by getting everyone to collaborate (as this is plainly unrealistic), but through cultivating practices of feedback-sharing (Hargadon and Bechky 2006). The generous giving and the active seeking of feedback are not a ‘nice to have’: rather, feedback plays an absolutely essential role in creative journeys and especially at the elaboration stage. Do you have members who are unsure whether their value propositions should emphasise cost savings, sustainability or experiential value, or whether they should pursue traditional marketing approaches instead of, or alongside, guerrilla marketing tactics? If you do, such members should never be far from a conversation that can generate relevant answers, or that expand your members’ perspectives.
  • Collaborative spaces are affective spaces. Organisational creativity research has broadly established that positive affect lubricates problem-solving and idea generation activity (Isen et al. 1987). Maintaining a positive social atmosphere is therefore a good thing from the perspective of creativity; however, a broad-brush approach is not enough. This is because minority members (in the start-up world, this can include rather large groups such as women!) often feel that they are not given the same regard as others. This is detrimental when, as a result, value-adding conversations fail to take place. Indeed, a sense of respect and equality is a prerequisite for most types of creative exchanges. (This is precisely why female-oriented co-working spaces and networks are on the rise).
  • Building on more critical research we argue that the role of physical space in catalysing creativity is often grossly overstated (De Paoli et al. 2017). Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘creative space’ – what does exist is assemblages of physical, digital and social elements that combine to shape creative environments. The concept of ‘social affordances’ – that brings attention to these intertwined forms of shaping – can help co-working leaders to overcome binary thinking in this realm (Fayard and Weeks 2007). In general, leaders should perform a reality check by lowering their expectations vis-à-vis physical space and heightening their interest in experimenting with how new combinations of spatial, social and digital features can transform their member experience.

In order to successfully contribute to the creative journeys of their members, co-working leaders, managers as well as designers must therefore focus on promoting their members’ creative journeys while continuing to learn more about their complex dynamics. Those who engage in serious thinking and discussion around these topics will develop a significant advantage as co-working markets edge ever closer to a saturation point.

*   Stay tuned for a forthcoming post on ‘co-working failures and ways to fix them’. The authors welcome inquiries relating to consulting and research opportunities.