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How Can Brands Thrive in a Divided World?


FleishmanHillard's UK head of youth culture and partnerships, Vijaya Varilly on the current culture divide and how brands can remain culturally relevant

How Can Brands Thrive in a Divided World?

Vijaya Varilly is UK head of youth culture and partnerships and senior cultural strategist at FleishmanHillard

Authentic Insights: The Culture Gap, research conducted by FleishmanHillard, analysed the true depths of the current culture divide, and explored how brands can remain culturally relevant without sacrificing their authenticity.

Today, people aren’t just divided within society, they are divided in themselves. They are struggling to reconcile what they are feeling and what the society surrounding them is telling them should be feeling.

Society is driven along more nuanced lines than the traditional demographic tropes and as a consequence has become Generation Divided – AKA Generation D.

This conflict is apparent all around us, but most visibly on social media, where certain platforms have become as much an arena for division as a commune for socialising. People are straying much further from their ideological bubbles as they once did, trespassing onto the territory of those who don’t share their views and contributing to the devolution of Generation Divided. 

Almost six in ten people surveyed said they think politeness is trapped in a downward spiral caused by the proliferation of online debate.

This division has profoundly penetrated brand behaviour. The Culture Gap revealed that opinion on how brands should act is divided along the same fault lines as society in general. “Be bold and brave,” said 58% of respondents, while 56% urged brands to be “sensible and conservative”.

In this era of heightened cultural sensitivity, brands must keep abreast of the major social themes and trends to protect their reputation while at the same time taking care to be mindful of and consistently revaluating diversity, equity and inclusion.

Woke versus wake-up

The divisions that Generation D feels within themselves was apparent when the survey found that 61% said they felt as though they are compromising their true selves so they can be perceived as ‘politically correct’.

This sits at the heart of the debate on the concept of being ‘woke’. This conflict is fought along various issues in society that epitomise the divided world we live in. From gender fluid identities to the reversal of reproductive rights, many feel that changes in laws, practices and actions are infringing on their beliefs.

The tension is perceived to exist most keenly between higher and lower socioeconomic groups, as well as between people with different values along the lines of politics, social class and immigration.

In such a divided world, brands need to remain inclusive.

More than three-quarters of people surveyed for the research believed that brands must be conscious of the language they use when speaking to different communities for society to head in the right direction. However, a majority warned against using convoluted communication, observing that such a strategy could deepen divisions. So perhaps brands need to strip things back and speak in simple terms.

Brands need to be authentic when picking a path through this cultural minefield. Language used must be respectful to all perspectives and communities and action – however altruistic – must not be perceived to favour the 'woke' or those holding opposing views. And nor should actions appear synthetic or inauthentic. Consumers will see right through such conceits, inviting criticism and potentially causing damage to the brand’s reputation.

Kai D. Wright, a partner on the report and a lecturer at Columbia University, says, “When it comes to dismantling the language around concepts like ‘woke’, people want brands to be sensitive to cultural shifts.”

Who are Generation D?

The research conducted for the report enabled a number of traits common to Generation D to be developed.

Brands should focus campaigns on one or more of these dilemmas that Generation D face.

Complexity norm – Generation D are acclimatised to existing in a state of confusion, and because of its omnipresence are almost content and competent in living in such a way.

Brands can create value by building trust through tangible actions.

Layered reality – They are able to switch smoothly between online and offline personas, adjusting their behaviour to align with the cultural context.

Brands can create value by catering to online and offline attitudes, appreciating the impact of environment on attitude.

Ambition ambiguity – Breaking with the traditional linear route followed by previous generations, Generation D forge their own path to their desired destination on their own terms to achieve their ambitions.

Brands can focus on empowering Gen D with help and support for priorities, lifestyles and achieving goals.

Evolving ID – In society and in themselves, Gen D know that a change is needed and is coming and know which way they’re going but not where to.

By celebrating new norms seen in society, brands can help Gen D to express their unique personalities. 

Internal conflict – Generation Divided often doesn’t quite know where it stands on the divisive issues of the day and may oscillate from one viewpoint to the other, but always doing so passionately and with an antipathy towards the status quo.

Brands can focus on creating a neutral philosophy, seeking out and considering blind spots and intersectionality in their practices, processes and policies.

Information restraint – Deluged by a tsunami of sources, Generation D want a news source that is reliable and which they can trust to convey to them clear information on the cultural issues that divide society.

Brands can respond by aiming to appeal to apposite audiences by using voices and scenarios that speak loudest in their world and which grab their attention.

Where is the change happening?

The cultural divisions in society are concentrated on a number of issues within major industries.

Regarding the inclusion of transgender people in sport, half of those surveyed in the research think it will be important to have more mixed team sports. And this is already happening – the London and Boston marathons have created a nonbinary category for their races in 2023.

In healthcare, 62% said they weren’t confident they understood the term ‘digital healthcare’, indicating that brands need to better educate the public to prevent some people getting left behind.

In food, using local resources to reduce the environmental impact was of paramount importance to three-quarters of respondents, while more than two-thirds would be willing to eat lab-prepared food to aid the environment.

Politics was unsurprisingly an area where Gen D was most divided. Fifty-one percent of people were loyal to one party, while 49% aren’t. Young people are far more concerned about the issues rather than nailing their colours to the mast of one particular party.

And following the seismic change in working practices induced by the covid-19 pandemic, 89% of people think that a virtual workplace would be beneficial. Meanwhile, 58% of people would choose an employer that supports important social issues.

How can brands respond?

Kai D. Wright notes that Gen D have their fingers on the pulse of authenticity and can sense whether a brand is genuine or insincerely profiteering by jumping on a cultural bandwagon. 

In response, he says, “Brands and organisations must understand that they need to dive in when championing a cause versus dipping their toe if they want impactful change; that means putting themselves in the shoes of their consumers where one’s moral responsibility to society comes first.”

He concludes, “In an increasing world of viral sensations, economic headwinds and political change, infrequently revising brand assets and guidelines create significant brand risk as sentiment and social norms change.

Ultimately, to remain on the front foot, brands must begin their relationship with Gen D with cultural understanding. Previous communications should be changed to keep in time with the contemporary cultural heartbeat, while paying pin-sharp attention to societal sensitivities. This will not help brands stay authentically connected, but they will see more brand advocates in their camp.

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FleishmanHillard UK, Mon, 06 Mar 2023 13:56:48 GMT