How to counter cynicism about the role of brands

23rd December, 2013 by Anna Simpson

Cynicism about the social role of brands soars at Christmas. Back in the 1950s, singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer riffed on various carols:  

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

Could brands add something to Christmas beyond gifts and greed? Cultural rituals are all about community: We share food, read stories or sing songs to reinforce shared understandings of our history and the values we share as a society. How can brands help people to get to the heart of the community spirit?

Skeptics of the positive role business can play in society respond to such a question with cynicism. But why should it be a bad thing for brands to offer people something they can really value, as opposed to a seemingly endless supply of disposables and unvaluables? There’s money to be made, of course; think of the considerable sums people pay to be a member of a club.

The assumption of skeptics is that if you pay to be part of a community, then your experience of it might be less authentic and less satisfactory. This isn’t necessarily the case. The money spent is for the context and time in which the relationships can be enjoyed, as opposed to the social bonds themselves. All relationships and communities require some infrastructure: a space to meet (be it physical or virtual), activities to pursue, and ways to recognize each other —  from a scout’s uniform to a football club scarf.  

In the first chapter of my book, The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire, I explore ways in which brands can respond to customers’ desire for community. Can brands support people to provide a sense of belonging, rather than playing to their sense of status? Can they help to bring people together in authentic ways?

A great example of this comes from Heineken: Recognising that a pint is only a small part of British pub culture, it has set up a new business model that puts community at the heart of enterprise. Its leasing scheme, under the banner Star Pubs & Bars, supports entrepreneurs to lease and run their own pub, drawing on their knowledge of what people in their area actually want from their “local.” One success story (among 1,300) is The Eastfield Inn in Bristol. Alongside food from Ruby & White butchers and Joe’s Bakery, live music Fridays with local bands and the standard pub quiz, this revitalised pub has its own skittles team that competes in the North Bristol charity league.

Heineken won the 2013 Asda Enterprise Growth Award and a Business in the Community Award, recognizing the double win here — both for the future of Heineken’s brand and for the communities in which it invests.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, there’s a community particularly rich in entrepreneurs whose creativity and commercial success depend on opportunities to connect with collaborators and consumers. This is Manhattan’s Lower East Side: south of 14th Street, east of Bowery, north of the Brooklyn Bridge, and west of the East River. Its many fashion designers, magazine producers and arts teachers need spaces to meet, trade and exhibit – but are unlikely to have the funds to lease a property, let alone invest in one. Around them, shops thrive in the day and bars buzz at night — but when they close, they leave a space that could be put to use. This is the opportunity spotted by the local enterprise Made in the Lower East Side (miLES).

miLES aims to do for storefronts what Airbnb has done for spare rooms, or Zipcar for vehicles: unleash the social and economic potential of underused resources. To open them up, it forms partnerships with their leaseholders, offering a full service in which it examines the space and works out potential applications, addresses any safety hazards, restructures it for particular uses and helps to bring in new audiences. Its declared mission is “to create vibrant community spaces, offer a temporary home for emerging projects, and provide inclusive economic opportunities for the neighbourhood.”

My book delves into these case studies in more detail and offers many more examples of how brands are proving the cynics wrong and delivering what people really want. - Anna Simpson

Photo credit: Vivienne Gucva/Flickr 

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I love the satellite shots in the latest issue especially, really beautiful.

Adam Oxford