By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®

Brands are amazing things. Neither moral nor immoral, they are simply a bricolage of ideas, feelings and sensations. But how they are used – to empower us to look at life afresh… or confirm our worst fears (that we are not enough without product X) is perhaps the largest (and least understood) contributor to a company’s social footprint. And most brand owners don’t think twice about the society they are co-creating with their brand’s messages.

It is hard to emphasise how much effort and energy, time and money, is invested in the generation and maintenance of a brand, particularly a globalised, high-value, high-touch brand that creates enormous value for its owners and shareholders. Youth brands, in particular, are micro-managed to an extra-ordinary degree – every change in direction is evaluated, a myriad of ideas are developed, full-blown concepts researched – until the ‘brand army’ agrees on a direction; a platform for all communications to outside world; a set of words and meanings that those in the business often refer to as The Big Idea. What is remarkable is that all this effort is expended before any adverts, mail-outs or websites are mere twinkles in eye’s of the creative types.

All this investment in creating perhaps 50 words and a few images pays back – it is a proven and profitable route to take. If a brand can capture the hearts and minds of its hard-to please it stands to benefit from their interest, passion and even long-term advocacy. And in these days of crumbling traditional institutions, with the associated loss of moral and ethical life ‘signposts’ that this decay has led to, brands offer us all (and young people in particular) some inspiration, some sparkle and some connection with something bigger than themselves that used to be the domain of religion, the 20th Century ideologies (communism, capitalism, nihilism et al) and even Progress. But in the impoverished moral and political atmosphere that appeared after the death of the grand narratives of God, the Soviet Union and Scientific Liberation brands have offered us a much-needed sense of self-understanding that these -isms and -ologies used to provided. Brands have shone a light, albeit often a very dim light – on what it means to be a human being in this stretched and strained (post) modern culture.

Those that have done this well (Orange, Nike, VW come to mind) have reaped the rewards of loyalty for many many years. So it has becomes clear that the vacuum of values that brands have found themselves emerging into is a very powerful space, one that has the potential to set expectations, social mores and moral guidelines for young folk starving for guidance and leadership. And led they are, buying new trainers, gadgets and soccer teams at a unprecedented rate. After all, with a total breakdown in trust in traditional social icons and little historical precedent of any relevance anymore do not most of us appreciate someone or something, and it seems increasingly it is the brands who fulfil this role, who had the passion to feel intensely about something (‘the future’s bright’), the courage to say it out loud (‘just do it!’) and the success to be there year after as we age (‘1 billion burger sold’)?

Let us now turn to those managers, consultants and agency staffers who are responsible for setting the agenda for so many young people’s lives across the developed and now developing world through the brands they ‘position’… how many of them are aware of the true extent of their power? How much time do they spend considering the long-term socio-cultural impact of the values and movements they espouse? And, most importantly, how many of them are conscious enough of their own values, their own ethics, their own humanity to design the mores and morals of generations of young people with the neccessary wisdom and equanimity that such decisions demand? In fact, how many of them have a moral life at all outside of the parties, the fashion and the hedonism of the great cities of the world?

Let me be clear. In my view there is absolutely nothing – nothing – intrinsically wrong with brands, nor branding and marketing in general. In fact, the skills of a brand strategist can be invaluable in changing behaviours around social problems (e.g. drink driving or charitable giving) and mindsets on important issues such as climate change, poverty and racism. Even more than this, the art and science of branding is key for anyone who wants to focus, share and realise their ideas in any area of human life. Whether it’s a new project at work, a new tradition at home, a favoured holiday destination or a new opportunity for our children, we all do and must use the skills of a marketer to connect with others and communicate our hopes and needs with any effectiveness. However with such an awesome power the owners and developers of society’s brands must become aware of their foundational myth-making abilities and question – and re-question – what the right thing to do is both for their brand and our shared community.

What are the values we should promote more to co-create the kind of society we dream of for our children? What are the values that aren’t helping our schools, community groups and tribes resonate with mutual respect and fizz with fresh ideas? In this area of ultimate ownership and enormous influence organisations can, right here, right now, chart the much-vaunted ethical path and be positive contributors to our society. As well as manage the stamp of their organisation on the human and environmental landscape they travel over, they have the opportunity to immediately effect our social lives by ensuring the values they say we can live our lives by are sustainable, generative and supportive of human empowerment, peace and prosperity. Surely if our favourite brands have had the wit and wisdom to create disruptively innovative products (think how much Easyjet, iTunes and SONYs DVDs have changed our lives) with bold and iconic advertising (who hasn’t at least noticed the influence of Tango, PlayStation or Nike) then they have the courage and creativity to truly chart a self-reflexive, ethical, but no less exciting course that switches our young people on to be the best they can be for the greater good.

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