Can we really make a difference?

Written by Lilli English (Head of Strategy, BBH London)

I woke up in the early hours of Wednesday morning and immediately looked at my phone. There it was, Trump in the lead. I check Facebook shortly after.  My feed is having a meltdown.  Outrage, disgust, emoji-sobbing, mocking.  I consider joining in.   And then realise: it’ll make no difference.

Whilst I’ve enjoyed all the satirical Trump films, fact checkers, and Hollywood celebs imploring America to vote Hillary (and not be ‘a steaming dump’ about it), I’ve also felt a little uncomfortable about it all. Or rather – uncomfortably comfortable.

I recently read a brilliant piece that asked whether too many businesses today are run like boring dinner parties: ‘The risk with running our businesses like our dinner parties is that we begin to create corporate echo chambers: organisations that repeatedly support the same sentiments…and reinforce the same rules’.

To borrow this analogy, I can’t help feeling I’ve been sat in one long, loud, rather smug political dinner party this year.  Britain stormed out half way in the evening which was awkward, but the chatter soon happily turned to another topic we’d all vehemently agree on – the US election.

In his latest film HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis looks at how ‘we have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world’, made worse by the disconnected, ideological echo chambers of the internet.  We’re essentially talking to ourselves.   All the time.   It’s not just a boring dinner party – it’s scary one. (I’ve watched too much Mr Robot, forgive me).

We can draw a number of parallels between Brexit and the US election.   People are angry.   They’re feeling desperately disenfranchised.  They’ve born the brunt of crumbling infrastructures and intractable social issues.  The world’s accelerated at a dizzying speed and many feel left behind.   Bigotry abounds and trust deteriorates.

But it’s not the first time voters here and in the US have given the Establishment a kick in the teeth, nor is the sentiment of anger driving the mood of these countries a recent phenomenon.  It’s been building for quite some time.

What is striking is this total disconnect in both nations between what ‘we’ thought would happen and what actually happened; between the media and its audience; between our algorithm-happy ‘echo chambers’.   The fact is, we haven’t a clue how the ‘other’ thinks or feels.  The same goes for the people governing us. We’re all too busy admiring our own reflections.  ‘So much a part of the system that you were unable to see beyond it’[1].

So how do we see beyond it?  How can we better understand the reality of our world? And what’s all this got to do with our industry?

The ‘wisdom of crowds’ can only possibly work if the crowd shares and is exposed to different perspectives.  We know that diversity of experience, education, temperament, intelligence, ethnicity, gender and age, leads to better ideas, better solutions, better societies[2].  Lack of difference essentially makes us stupid.  It makes us boring.  It makes us complacent. Me and my Facebook feed included.

This has implications not only on the way we build brands but also the role brands – and therefore our creativity – can play in people’s lives.

As a marketer, you look at what’s happened this year and revisit what you always knew: feeling trumps all else.  You can throw out all the facts and rationale you want, if you don’t get how different people feel and how to make them feel, you’re nowhere.

You’re also reminded of our own marketing echo chamber.  We’ve built a sophisticated system around us, which we ceaselessly tinker for efficiency.  It feels comfortable in here. But not much changes with comfortable. And perhaps like the pollsters, we can now justifiably question what we’ve been comfortably measuring.

Very deliberately making space for and seeing difference is important.  It matters for political brands – the likes of Trump have undeniably understood and exploited this, far better than their opponents. And it matters for our creativity and the brands we’re busy building.   Difference has the power to make a difference – a mantra we at BBH strive to live by for the work and, as heads of planning, a mantra Will Lion and I encourage every strategist to go out and feel for themselves, beyond these walled gardens.

But can brands really make a difference in society, beyond ‘doing their bit’? It’s easy to feel squeamish about mixing good with commerciality, but I believe brands can and should play a more significant role.

People are feeling a profound lack of trust in governing bodies, the media, even their own social echo chambers. This makes the more ‘transactional’ relationship they have with brands seem rather more straightforward.  Buyers know we’re here to sell and seduce, and they know brands have the power to be better and do better – and will reward them for it.  That’s the deal. And it’s in many ways a more transparent and accountable ‘deal’ than exists between voters and leaders.  Or even Givers and charities.  Brands have the permission.  It’s up to us what difference we want to make.

We’ll hear a lot now about uniting and coming together, and of course that’s the noble thing to strive for, not least for the brands we serve.  But before that, let’s hang on to the importance of seeing and hearing difference, outside ourselves – because that’s what’ll make the difference ultimately.

 

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[1] HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis

[2] The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Scott E. Page

Photo credit: The Infinity Mirrored Room By Yayoi Kusama

Lilli English is Head of Strategy at BBH London by day and illustrator by night.

 

One thought on “Can we really make a difference?

  1. Good one! Thank you for sharing your amazing experience, I found it interesting and motivating.

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