As circumstances change, so too do people’s needs and values, and it’s in understanding those shifts that brands and business can successfully evolve to meet changing consumer mindsets, says Olivia Stancombe.

“The only thing that is constant is change”. That was true when the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote it 2,500 years ago, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of it this year – change that has rightly been noted as ‘unprecedented’, such is the pace at which we have been forced to adapt to global disruption.

But in being unprecedented, this time we are living through is also uniquely instructive.

From purpose to responsibility

With the rise of ‘purpose’ we saw brands start to align themselves with social causes and political opinions. But brands now have a more proactive role to play in helping to actively change behaviours for the better – for the health of individuals, society and the planet.

There is, of course, a careful line to tread here. I am by no means suggesting unwelcome interference or nannying, but rather a more deliberate consideration of how brands can lean into their role as choice architects, to use Thaler and Sunstein’s thinking.

These nudges can take various forms, from KFC’s latest global brand campaign dropping their iconic “It’s finger lickin’ good” to encourage more Covid-friendly behaviour, to the numerous campaigns and initiatives from Patagonia aiming to break the untenable pace of our consumption cycle and have consumers buy for the long term.

The executions are quite different, but each manages to deliver a nudge in a way that feels like authentic brand behaviour. And that strategic link to the brand is the key to evolving with this shift – understanding what kind of nudges a brand has the permission to make and delivering them not as instructions but as an extension of the brand voice.

From confidence to competence

People have long looked up to those who lived loudly, fabulously and extrovertedly. But the pandemic has made us reconsider who we admire. There’s a new respect for truth, fact and science and a far lower tolerance for showmanship in this time of crisis.

With consumers feeling so untethered, they are looking for brands to be useful, to cut through the noise and clearly communicate the role and value they have in people's lives. The New York Times’ ‘The Truth Is Hard’ brand campaign series is a great example of this. Ostensibly a media company, this campaign underlined what it is really in the business of – truth and ratified information. It was highly relevant when it first launched in the aftermath of Trump’s election and is just as relevant now.

But to demonstrate competence and be useful does not mean being dry and bidding farewell to light-hearted comms. The key is to ask what a brand is really in the business of. As Simon Sinek urges: start with why. Understanding why a business does what it does is crucial to building a brand. And it’s the kind of unifying thought that can rally not only consumers, but also colleagues within a business.

From transparency to vulnerability

The thing about ‘transparency’ is that, while it was an invaluable development, it always felt like it was a decision that business, brands or governments got to make only when it suited them. But now it’s being thrust upon us.

The dangerous dominance of the Default (straight, white, middle class, cis, able bodied, male) Experience has been made all too apparent during this pandemic. The world has been built and improved upon using an incredibly narrow frame of reference – not necessarily through any kind of deliberate malice, but because it is impossible to fully understand a life experience that is not your own.

During the pandemic there has been a widespread realisation of our personal and societal blind spots. It has triggered crucial intersectional discussions about race, gender, identity and countless other issues, while at the same time complaints about ‘cancel culture’ continue to grow. It’s a complicated tension, but if our goal is collective progress, then championing an environment where well-intentioned questions can be asked and teaching moments can happen is essential.

If brands become too afraid to say anything for fear of not saying the perfect thing, we will stagnate. But I’d like to think that honest curiosity and vulnerability will rarely be punished. So, we need to help brands to be brave enough to admit imperfections but state good intentions and commit to listening, learning and growing. We need to help them be humble, not heroic.

Call me idealistic, but I have always considered brands and media powerful platforms for change, a power that I think we sometimes forget. American activist Marian Wright Edelman wrote, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, a phrase that, having grown up as a closeted gay woman, I can personally relate to. So, whether it’s normalising behaviour change, representing everyone in society, or driving socio-cultural shifts, let’s learn from the change we’re seeing and use the influence of brands for good.