Understanding what we’re all thinking and feeling right now will be key to unlocking cultural relevance and driving business growth as we rebuild the economy in 2021. At a recent Magnetic webinar, the Creative Salon’s Claire Beale talked to retail guru and Portas Agency’s chief creative officer Mary Portas about why culturally relevant brands will be the ones to thrive next year.
Smart brands have always played in culture, and the smartest have influenced it. But at a time when real life has paused and reshaped and still remains so uncertain, maintaining a cultural relevance is more challenging for brands than ever before.
The Covid crisis has imposed deep emotional, physical and economic stresses that have changed not just the way we live but the way we feel. For many of us it’s forced a re-evaluation of what had previously been fundamental tenets of modern living, accelerating our concern for the environment, propelling a new focus on community, and redefining the global conversation.
And the impact on businesses around the world has been profound; some have thrived, many have collapsed, all have had to rethink.
All of this has swiftly become cliched shorthand for the brutal changes wrought by Coronavirus in 2020. And we certainly don’t need it explained to us – we’ve all lived it, and we still are. But how can brand owners and marketers navigate such fundamental societal shifts?
For the retail specialist Mary Portas, the Covid crisis is a time to reset capitalism around a more sustainable, “kinder” definition of corporate success. It’s a reset that doesn’t just make moral sense: consumers are beginning to demand it.
Talking at a Magnetic webinar on Maintaining Cultural Relevance in a World of Shifting Sands, Portas said customers are now expecting the brands they buy to enshrine tangible value systems. And those values have to run deep; box-ticking around a nebulous concept of ‘purpose’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. These value systems can be about sustainability and respect for the planet, but they can also be about empathy and decency. “I talk about community and connection and humanity an awful lot and these are words not often used in business. They were seen as soft, feminine powers. Well that ‘soft feminine power’ is going to be the strong power in the future,” Portas says.
It’s an idea that really resonates with me. Community, human connections, kindness seem to me to be universal needs, though Portas is certainly right that in some toxic business cultures they are given little thought. But I’ve spent my career as a journalist and editor building community and connections through a real understanding of my readers and their lives, and it’s this kind of super-power that Portas believes gives magazines an edge when the world around us is changing so dramatically.
“I’ve always embraced the journalistic approach to understanding culture,” she says. “And right now the cultural narrative is also being written by your readers; that connection now is two-way – between editors and their readers – and that is so powerful. You’re sensing, you’re feeling the vibrations of what is happening out there on the ground. And it’s by listening to the people shaping culture from the ground up that we truly offer authentic connections to brands. Great editors harness that.”
At that ground level, it seems that consumerism is in danger of becoming a toxic concept; the Covid crisis has accelerated a growing unease with our buy, buy, buy western culture. For Portas this shift won’t mean we stop purchasing things that make us feel good, but we will certainly think more carefully about what impact our spending habits are having on the world around us. Portas is a passionate advocate of what she calls Status Sentience, a leap on from the idea of conspicuous consumption that was enshrined in the old notion of status symbols. “Sentience means respect and care and it means doing the right thing – in the choices that you are making – for people and for the planet,” Portas explains.
All of which makes comforting sense on a human level, but could sound fancifully naive to a business fighting for sales today in order to pay its employees and secure its future. There’s a clear tension, isn’t there, between acknowledging customers’ demands for brands to be more socially and sustainably responsible and businesses’ urgent need to drive short-term revenue at – given that we’re living through the worst global recession in living memory – almost any cost?
Portas doesn’t buy that. She doesn’t see any conflict between building brands ethically, with kindness, and driving profitability. In fact, it’s increasingly hard to do the latter if you’re not very clearly doing the former. And right now, we are at a unique moment in history to engineer the changes necessary to unite those twin ambitions. That’s an exhilarating thought. So many of us have had our lives brutally, fundamentally and irreversibly transformed this year but amid the rubble there is new space to rebuild for a new world.
So, Mary, what should brands be doing differently in the coming months to truly connect with customers? “Get the tone right, recognise that people are feeling anxious but let Christmas be a time to forget and enjoy. Consider the actions behind your ads: how are they talking to your people – internal as well as external – at a time when stores might be closed and jobs lost; how are your ramping up your service, your delivery, your fulfilment initiatives. Are you delivering the kind of gifts people really want this year – that express thoughtfulness, love, wellness, mind and body and home – or are you churning out the same old thing? Think of all those cultural shifts that have become central to our lives now. But holding up a mirror to Covid every five seconds is making brands irrelevant. I’d just chuck that out.”
Obviously, despite the shifting sands, some strategies still hold true. What should brands keep investing in? “We know from all the evidence how important it is to keep investing in the creative and media blend of your marketing; going radio silent is not the right strategy. Brands should be investing in ideas that create a cultural ripple effect, the things people will share and remember; word of mouth is more precious than ever and creates authenticity. And remember that the walls of business are turning to glass and it’s no good being a business that is not looking after its people and then try to sell a different message to your customers. Those days are over.”
And one piece of advice, Mary, that you’d give to marketers looking to 2021 with optimism? “Stop fly tipping digital with bad, ugly ads that aren’t targeted and respectful. We’ve had enough ugliness to deal with this year. And walk the talk. You’ll be found out if you’re not.”
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