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.