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Can brands save the world?

October 23, 2014

Living through the medieval times of 2014

Part I: The Transgression

Do you remember the movie, The Fly, (1986) with Jeff Goldblum? This scientist wants to “teleport” from one cubicle to another – similar to Star Trek’s, “Beam me up, Scotty”.

The cubicle disintegrates the human in the one side and then fully reconstructs him on the other using his DNA. The problem is that a fly gets in unnoticed. When Goldblum is reconstructed, the fly’s DNA is incorporated into his… and so begins the breakdown of human behaviour and appearance as the nature of the fly begins to emerge.

That is my assessment of 2014. A fly or cockroach has made its way into man’s DNA and the challenge is how to extract it.

If my level of disillusionment at the current state of the “world” is anything to go by, you’re not far away from the medicine cabinet looking for an upper to medi-transport you to a Disney-like place of suspended reality – or at least a migraine pill to dull the ache.

This is indeed the year that the silent majority (assuming they’re actually there and sane) finally lost their voice; while the trolls, orcs, haters, killers and liars successfully discovered theirs.

A year after the debut of The Fly came the parody song, “Star Trekking Across the Universe” (1987), which also deals with unchartered experiences and encountering a new reality – so possibly that should define us being catapulted back to the 15th century.

“It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it”

Part II: The Madness

We’ve been subjected to another harrowing year of our re-elected Number One (if ever there were a euphemism) pulling our magnificent country and its people into greater despair and disrepute. Well, let’s not be too harsh, at least he kept that dangerous man, the Dalai Lama out of the country while instead we entertained our Nuclear-bearing “friends” with warmth and generosity.

We saw a social media group arise, calling for the protection of our brave and unwavering Public Prosecutor – “keep your hands off Thuli Madonsela”. What does it say of our country that we genuinely believe harm could come to this marvellous woman simply trying to keep us on the path of honesty? A woman who Nelson Mandela would’ve held in the highest regard and who is embedded in saving us from the alleged transgressions of one of his successors.

We see the ongoing madness of an unimagined scale coming out of the Middle East. The decapitation of children, of Christians, of Yazidis, of young, moderate Muslims, and of journalists, even those sympathetic to the cause of those who are beheading them.

Then the blunt vilification of all Muslims versus a distorted, radical Islam, and the hatred of all Jews as a result of the Hamas/Israel conflict. Certainly not since World War 2 have we heard the (supposedly “never again”) call for the gassing and annihilation of all Jewish folk around the world.

How many Syrians have died at the hands of their leaders this year alone? And the world stands silent. The United Nations sabre rattles – and then breaks for lunch or tea. It’s rather sad and pathetic.

The global media fuelled the fire in the interests of valuable viewership and increased audiences. Dear old Facebook became a place of hate where people I know and trust became people I don’t, and mobile phones became mini soap-boxes of intolerance.

We’ve had the reverberating volley of bullets from Marikana, Reeva’s screams for help from behind a locked bathroom door, and Anni Dewani robbed of life on her honeymoon.

And then came Ebola.

It’s a small wonder we’re still sane. Or are we?

Part III: The Transcendence

So, how do we survive this incessant onslaught?

The brand world is often called shallow. Skeptics fail to see that not only do brands build companies, satisfy needs, innovate, invent, and create employment – but also inspire the individual.

Brands like Nike challenged you to, “Just do It”. Not by beating your competitor, but by beating your own best.

Apple embrace individuality, “The square pegs in the round holes – people who change things”. They’re now the biggest company in the world built on the very notion of, “Think Different” as is encapsulated in one of my all-time favourite lines, “…because the people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world, are the ones who do”.

Richard Branson’s light, fun, easy and entirely accessible brand, Virgin, encourages us to push, agitate, question, dream, break barriers and thus, to live a better life.

Iconic Coca Cola advertising brings us closer through the generations with lyrics like, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”. Harmony, tolerance, acceptance.

There was a great Old Mutual ad in the early 90’s, which said, “We’re there to help you make the most of your life, every step of the way”. It was a visual celebration of life. Other than your parents, who would say that to you? Deliverable or not, that kind of advertising inspired you and made you feel safer through having a wingman.

It wasn’t governments that got us questioning farming methods and the food we eat. It was Tex-Mex restaurant chain Chipotle with the Willie Nelson and Coldplay track, “We’re going back to the start”. Whether or not you eat at Chipotle as a result doesn’t matter. The message hit home and raised awareness of sustainable farming, what we put into our bodies, and what we feed our kids.

How many individuals today represent the embrace of possibility? Of kindness and of good? Through TV, print, OOH and social media, it’s brands that resurrect the voices of Ghandi, Neil Armstrong, JFK and Martin Luther. It’s brands who challenge the status quo.

Brands and well-meaning corporates need to help rid the world of The Fly, and become The Fireflies – a shining light in our society. Brands don’t foster hate. Their role has always been to find commonality, varied interests and shared values. Advertising that demonstrates the very best of the human condition.

Part IIII: The Possibility

Brands, the most unlikely of saviours during these dark times, possibly have the greatest role to play.

If you’re in any doubt as to the massive power of messaging wrapped in entertainment, versus that which is important but delivered without “razzmatazz”, consider this:

Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the greatest living minds of our time, talks about the future of the universe, our very world. The most views he’s had on any YouTube video is 1,5 million. By contrast, Miley Cyrus reached over 100 million views in her release week of Wrecking Ball, and now over 715 million people have listen to her “message”. Similarly, loved and shared ads can reach millions quickly.

Let’s continue to build and grow goodness, kindness, acceptance and tolerance through amazing brand work. Who knows, a soap powder ad may be the very thing that gets someone to like their next-door neighbour just a little more.

It’s about recognising that brands have as powerful a voice as the media, or terrorist groups, or Ebola. And if we use this voice well, it could be the very thing that makes the world a better place.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. bruce permalink
    October 23, 2014 1:55 pm

    So many of your sentiments expressed in this blog embrace my own, regarding world affairs…….one must not allow despondence to creep in as can so easily happen……as a brand how do we embrace EFF “Red is the colour she wore… and what’s more…….”

  2. Tim Cumming permalink
    October 23, 2014 2:43 pm

    Hi Mike

    Thanks again for a provocative thought piece.

    I don’t deny the power of brands to convey things like ‘hope’ and ‘values’ but it does beg the question of them: ‘To what end?” Are we not just trying to dress up the ‘wolf’ in ‘sheep’s’ clothing whilst it still wanders over the ‘flatland’ of ‘scientific materialism’?

    I don’t doubt the genuine desire of some brands/companies to ‘do good as we go’ but the more shareholder-serving driven determinants lie just below the surface (‘Where’s my ROI?” “How much more market share?”). I also believe that many brands can be truly inspirational – since, if they get their messaging right they’ll hook you because the get you to ‘believe in what they believe’ as opposed to just ‘buy what they make/sell’.

    But, in truth, how much of the offers made are ‘false’ or ‘fleeting’? Is our self-esteem so shallow and limited that we seriously believe we’re now ‘more fulfilled’ by having bought an Apple product as opposed to Dell’s. Make no mistake, I use all of Apple’s products – but I buy them because I’m prepared to pay the premium for the quality product they are as opposed to the ‘belief-system or image’ they might confer upon me or resonate with.

    I also think Coke’s adverts (and messages) of love and tolerance are very uplifting and touching – but ‘to what end’ their product? Selling overdoes of sugar that really don’t do anyone any good – besides providing another ‘fix’ to your ‘sugar poison’ habit? (Indeed, I think it’s only a matter of time before Coke and sugary-drinks start facing the same challenges as cigarette companies.)

    These messages work, only to a limited extent, to provide some temporary respite or hope to people who struggle to find worth and value in their lives.

    I understand the power that ‘brands’ have to attract attention and the opportunity they have to convey ‘good messages’. But you chose Miley Cyrus as an example of someone who had 100s of millions listening to ‘her massage’. Have you read the lyrics and seen her video? They tell a tale of nothing more than a fateful story of a spurned sycophant who bemoans her loss of ‘opportunity for relationship’ with someone she came on too strongly to. I’ve venture to guess that the only reason most people sought out her video was to see a little bit of titillating pop-porn conveyed by a young girl who feels the only way to get ‘her message across’ (and sustain her multimillionaire lifestyle) is to try and be a little outrageous and appeal to a more base sense of human nature. Some message!

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m no puritan. Quite the opposite. Indeed my biggest pop-hero in my youth was Alice Cooper! However, I learnt to see beyond that – and have no regrets for having lingered ‘there’ otherwise I’d never be able to compare how different it is from ‘here’.

    The sad truth is that consumers will very rarely find any real value or lasting solace in the consumer items they buy as the antidote to their ‘pain’. The needed relief will only come about by their doing the ‘hard yards’ of developing their own degree of ‘awareness’ (or ‘self’ and of ‘others’).

    However, self-development is a tough journey. How do people embark upon it – or even know where to look for the road? And where do the teachers come from? That’s the question you were trying to address.

    Well – I agree with you that it’s definitely not coming from our political leaders. As I’ve remarked above, I also don’t believe it comes from our ‘brands’ and ‘products’ either. I believe that it typically comes from family, civil society and ones degree of ‘faith’ in something greater than us – and it comes from all those who might serve as ‘teachers’ to help people along their way. There is a Buddhist saying that ‘When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear”. Sadly, many pupils never ‘wake up’ and are never ready – but still sense a degree of ‘hollowness that they can’t explain (because they haven’t developed the language [adequatio] to describe or understand it. In a secular world of scientism and consumerism much of that ‘potential to develop’ has become lost – or has at least become very muted. Indeed one might even suggest that ‘brands’ have with muddied the waters. In having bought into their ‘false hopes’ (but they did it so convincingly) you’re already well down the road with their product in your hand before you realise it was indeed a ‘false hope’. In fact you might not even be able to put your finger on it – but you just know, deep down, there’s some sort of con’ going on yet you don’t know where to turn or who to blame. So you buy another Coke, plug in your iPod and hope it makes you feel better!

    If you’d like to get a deeper sense of where I’m coming from then I recommend to you one of my most favourite books called “A Guide for the Perplexed” by E F Schumacher. (You may recall him as the man who wrote ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’. He was a German Rhodes Scholar and ‘refugee’ from Germany to the UK during WWII. A great polymath.) It’s only about 160 pages long and is a transformational book. Like a good cognac or single malt it needs to be sipped and savoured as opposed to ‘chugged’!

    If you’d like to chat further about this or anything else just let me know when suits you.

    Best wishes Tim

    Tim Cumming MD – Scatterlinks Mobile: +27 82

  3. October 23, 2014 11:06 pm

    Well said Mike. Brands have never had as much reach and consequently as much as influence. And strangely enough it is the most commercial of brands which spread the most upbeat of messages. Thanks for your positive outlook, it’s made me think today.

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