2021 – the convergence of responsibility, values, and experience

By Jose Ferreira, senior VP, product and innovation, at CMI Media

The end of 2020 heralded what seems like a new age of brand and corporate influence in the public sphere. There are myriad reasons why that is the case – technological disruption, dominant discourse through private platforms, the pandemic, and on and on – but the most important reason from a marketing perspective is the expectation and responsibility that brands have to align themselves with the values and belief systems of their customers. This is not really new per se. In a lot of ways, it is a digital and social media-oriented version of the communities that used to exist around manufacturing nodes. In those early examples there was a system of co-dependency usually tied to work, whereas today I think it is largely driven by the need for brands to confer something more experiential on their customers. That they stand for a set of principles and engaging with or buying that brand is like being part of a community that has implicitly aligned themselves with those values.

We have seen this play out in big tech, especially, and it is now something every sector is starting to think about. For example, Apple experienced exceptional growth by juxtaposing themselves with the PC by using two distinct and recognizable characters – Apple was a cool twentysomething, and PC was a nerdy older person. Cool almost always starts as a fleeting niche designation that gets quickly appropriated by a much larger group to become more of an acceptable norm. And in this particular case Apple cultivated a set of creative and mold-breaking values that many of their early adherents adopted as being in line with the perception of themselves. Fast forward to recent events of political turmoil and social upheaval, and many brands are taking a bold, public stance. We can draw a direct line from the kind of branding via cultural signaling during that heavy growth phase for Apple to the brand and company level reaction we saw in response to those recent events. But signaling and sharing a set of values and beliefs with a customer is just one part. The other is how those customers experience the brand. 

In social media or any digital platform for that matter the idea of experience is pretty clear. Customers segment themselves across those platforms largely based on a combination of shared values and the experience they offer in relation to the platform itself and their peers. Over the last five to ten years this idea has expanded significantly in the consumer products sector. The for-profit social enterprise companies like Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, Cotopaxi, et al, have all extended beyond values to offer a more holistic set of experiences for customers who want to participate and contribute to their shared mission. Those incentives are now more or less becoming a normal component of brand building across all industries. 

Jose Ferreira

These emerging trends in branding and marketing based on the significant influence brands have in the public conversation come with significant responsibility. I am interested to see how this continues to play out over the course of 2021. It feels like a tipping point where our notion of private vs public and the relative power each wields is being upended, and for the most part brands are responding in an extremely positive way.