Today’s culture of ‘either/or thinking’ is omnipresent from fat-shaming to gender issues, Brexit and Trumpism – whatever the topic, polarised views are the norm. There’s little room left for moderate or balanced responses with social media in our lives. But what does this mean for mainstream brands, who by their very nature aren’t extreme?

We’ve always been tribal animals, designed with group-centric ‘us/them’ mindsets. Binary oppositions are intrinsically appealing; they are comfortable and easy to navigate, whereas finding the middle ground and reconciling opposing points is cognitively effortful.

The internet has compounded these tribal norms because it’s divorced from geography; geographical proximity forced us to interact with people with different viewpoints, and it moderated our outlook. The internet changed that; we can now join new, conveniently comfortable communities based on like-mindedness, making our views even more extreme.

Strong, clear points of view are attractive, whereas the middle ground is linked to words like ‘vanilla’, ‘lukewarm’, ‘mainstream’. By definition mainstream or ‘ordinary’ is what most of us are but balanced, mainstream views don’t gain traction online; hyperbole does. It’s easier to be loud and opinionated nowadays because there’s no longer a clear, collective sense of right or wrong. Fact and opinion are increasingly blurred and social media has made it more important to be liked than to be right.

For brands, this tendency towards extremes poses challenges. As brands increasingly attach themselves to ethical issues, we’re seeing more 'for or against’ thinking and more reductiveness. So what’s a brand to do? What’s the art of dealing with a world of extreme views? How do brands strike the right chord in increasingly fragmented marketplaces?

Here are eight tips to help brands navigate today’s divisive times:

  1. Understand the psychology: it’s easier for people to sit on one side of a debate rather than in the uncomfortable grey area of the middle ground, and they’ll do anything and everything to avoid the discomfort – including ignoring information that does not fit their narrative. Once people have put forward a point of view, it’s very hard to step down from this. Brands need to recognise this dynamic and consider how to be able to give people permission to do this.
  2. Consistency is king: brands need to earn permission to have a strong point of view. Arguably one of the ads of 2018, the Colin Kaepernick campaign is the latest in a long history of purpose-led Nike ads. For 30 years Nike has supported different causes – ageism, AIDS, women in sport, and now, race and religion. They’ve had a lifetime of provocation. Without consistency, there’s no credibility. Contrast this with fashion brand Jigsaw’s 2017 ‘immigration’ campaign. They tried to enter the world of ‘brand purpose’ from a standing start, with no consistency or follow up.
  3. Identify your tribe: Even going back to the world of evolutionary psychology, we see that social proof is more important than fact. Brands need to know which tribes they want to connect with, and recognise that this is no longer about simple segmentation.
  4. Identify patterns of influence: Look beyond traditional, top-down models of influence, and actively recognise and identify micro-influencers. Recognise that influence isn’t direct – it comes from all angles which means that brands need to respond with multiple initiatives. Experts do still have an important role to play – they act as shortcuts if they align with the right set of values. But patterns of influence are much broader than this.
  5. Connect with the middle ground: A good 80%+ of big business is mainstream. And without the mainstream, there wouldn’t be extremes. It’s fine to be mainstream – big is only bad when there’s no connection. It’s the brands that are simultaneously big and personal that really connect with people – and to do this, means doing it with humanity and sometimes humour.
  6. Be authentic: authenticity means delivering products and services, not just comms. In the UK, Virgin trains introduced talking loos to inject brand personality (‘Hello, it’s me the toilet’ – you get the idea). It’s all well and good to have some tone of voice – but incredibly infuriating when there’s no soap in the dispenser, the train is late, and the wifi which you’ve paid for never works.
  7. Make a real change: linked to the above, making real change means enlisting the whole of the organisation, not just the marketing team. Committing to a point of view and using that to guide delivery of your products and services.
  8. Listen: listening requires listening in the right places. We need to go beyond talking to people face to face – we need to be in multiple contexts with the same people, understand how their responses differ on social media vs in a focus group, and so on. This might not always be easy, or offer tidy answers, but it will be a test for what will happen in the real world.

In short, taking a stand can be a risky strategy, and the more divisive the world becomes, we’d argue that there’s an opportunity for some brands to promote cohesion instead.