Brands have played an intrinsic role in our lives. Some brands have mimicked culture, while others have created and driven it. Brands have lifted the world from poverty with economic growth and human development. In 2017, the world’s 500 largest companies employed over 67 million people, while producing $30 trillion in revenues and $1.9 trillion in profits.
Brands have brought the world to our doorsteps. Brands have taught us about global values and uplifted our spirits. Brands make the world go ‘round. They have poured billions of dollars into our communities. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Brands: Force of Good
Can you image a world without brands? It would be a world made of lifeless commodities and generic products, void of any personality, aesthetic, emotion, or aspiration. Brands have brought us together in joy, happiness, and pleasure (and yes, also in anger, hatred and desperation). Brands have been the catalyst for change and new innovations. They have inspired arts, technology, government and social causes. Brands are the true global consciousness of governance and consistence of quality, regardless of race, geography, politics and religion. They are a true friend that remains loyal, delivering on their promises around the world. Brands have also made a lot of money, having a positive impact on society as the wealth of nations increase around the world. The assumption is that brands understand and respond to the needs of their consumer, and that will in variably deliver value to them and shareholders. Everyone wins.
Brands: Force of Evil
Critics argue that greedy global brands, with their huge appetite for natural resources, are destroying forests, ruining oceans, and polluting our environment. Human resources are also being taken advantage of, with low pay and poor working conditions. Brands are seen as the source behind the plastics pollution pandemic and linked to rainforest destruction and the extinction of wildlife. Brands are the motivation behind the endless consumption of society. Brands have created a disposable society of the one use, throw it away mentality.
There is no question that some brands’ ethics and motives aren’t acceptable. Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster or WikiLeaks to inform the public of any atrocities. Today, unacceptable conduct is quickly responded to with financial pain in the form of boycotts and brand-damaging messaging.
The billion dollar tech brands like Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook have captured unprecedented market share in the new digital world. These brands and others like them all collect large amounts of personal data and, in some cases, misuse this data. Apple’s iPhone, for example, tracks users about 129,000 times each year. These brands have the ability to map your entire behavior, becoming so accurate and so detailed that they know your next move before you do. Share this information with a third party, and you have a political mess. Misuse of information will continue to be a threat by unethical brands.
Good brands will be seen as those that nurture the planet and promote human wellbeing, while bad brands will be seen as those that exploit the planet and its people. At the end of the day, the consumers will decide which brands win.
Brands: Drive Prosperity
In 1949, Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery.” It was around that time that Minute Maid Orange Juice, Sony, H&M, 20th Century Fox Television, Burger King, Adidas, McDonald’s, and Visa made their brand debut. Shortly after, Wal-Mart, Nike, Mastercard, Intel and the Gap made their presence felt around the world. World War II was finally over and the Bretton Woods Agreement had been signed, opening the world to a new global system of free trade.
Poverty rates started to collapse as the world shifted to free markets in the 1950s. The world’s population was around 2.52 billion and more than 70 percent (1.81 billion) lived in extreme poverty (making less than $1.90 per day). Experts attribute two-thirds of poverty reduction to economic growth and the other third to greater equality. By 2015, the world’s population had tripled (thanks in part to the Boomers) to 7.35 billion. During the same period, extreme poverty dropped by 60 percent to less than 10 percent of the total population. Over this 60 years of incredible economic growth, we saw the globalization of brands cover the world. Even with the explosive population growth we saw illiteracy rates drop and life expectancy increase. This progress wasn’t caused by time but by brands investing in countries, communities, and people. Everyone profited.
Brands: Empower Women
World War II was also a turning point for women, especially in North America, where they played a significant role in the workforce and paved the way in breaking down psychological barriers. Julia Kirk Blackwelder, author on the topic of feminization of the workplace, said “the war so profoundly altered labor demands and women’s expectations that women entered the workforce in even greater numbers after the war.” In 1950, 34 percent of women were part of the labour force and by 2016 there were almost 57 percent.
Brands clearly understood the major shift in the consumer landscape. In the 1960s, brands were under scrutiny from feminist groups for how women were being portrayed in brand advertising. Over time, a greater emphasis was placed on the independence of women in owning a car, having a career, and participating in major purchase decisions. These images of doing “men’s work” helped instill and grow confidence within women who became the target audience of many new brands. However, there is still room for improvement in the area of pay equity, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
Brands: Generic Alternative
Generics are copycat brands that are generally cheaper and come with no-frills packaging. In some cases, generic brands offer products of similar quality while in others the difference is much more noticeable. Generic ketchup isn’t Heinz, cola doesn’t taste the same as “real thing” and the Goophone smartphone isn’t iPhone. The generics are all about price with no branding or promotional support.
As with most things, you get what you pay for. The branded version is all about loyalty and building a relationship based on quality, craftsmanship, and supported services. Brands are always anticipating future customer’s needs. They are more expensive, but the added profits goes towards further research and development. Brands care about innovations and continuous improvements to keep them relevant. Generics only care about selling you as much of their product as possible, with no attention to your future needs. Generics don’t invest in communities nor new technology; their goal is to make as much money as possible without spending anything more than the absolute minimum.
Brands continue to evolve. Generics come and go while brands create new technologies, industries, business models, goods, and services. A new version of the iPhone is anticipated and expected as an annual event. New technologies can make older ones obsolete, shutting down old production systems while displacing workers. These rapid changes can also destroy traditional work and social relationships that once played an essential cultural and economic role in the lives of a community or country. The Apple iPod and Amazon Kindle Reader had a profound effect on the music industry and the book industry, respectively. Currently, Airbnb and Uber are creating havoc in the traditional hotel industry and taxi industry. All of these changes come with serious trade-offs that aren’t necessarily clear if the future is a better place.
Brands: Control Commerce
Karl Marx predicted in The Communist Manifesto that local business would be wiped out by large multinational brands and the local culture would be lost forever. Karl Marx’s prediction has come true. Go anywhere in the world and you are guaranteed to find a Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC or Pizza Hut. And thanks to ecommerce you can access almost any brand, with delivery right to your door
The reason multinational brands became mega brands and wiped all the local presence is because consumers supported them. Customers will line up for days to get the newest model of the latest product, and spend their entire paycheck to proudly display the brand logo. But do brands really want to make the world a better place, or do they just keep us working so we can continue to buy their products and keep them profitable? Through their mammoth marketing machine, mega brands create consumer aspirations and desires that lead people continuously into debt. No local grocer is a match for a large multinational brand like Wal-Mart, with its global resources of outsourcing, data & digital management, and low-margin high-volume sales model. It doesn’t matter how many years the local grocer built their business, one customer at a time, with personalized service.
We have, however, seen a resurgence in local premium products like craft beers, spirits, soda, natural energy drinks, ice cream and coffee. So maybe we are finding the balance getting the best quality at the best price while wanting elevated quality, and supporting local.
Brands: Define Culture
People build culture and also brands. More than ever, brands are shaping our lives. We are addicted to our smartphones and the social networks we live on. Thom Braun, author of The Philosophy of Branding, says “…brands and branding are fundamental to the way we experience modern life—and the way we give ‘meaning’ to it.” It’s no surprise our top brands are the ones we interact with on demand.
We can’t live without brands. In some cases, they define who we are. Brands are no longer just objects in our disposable lives—they are giving us meaning, as brands weave their stories with ours. Author Paul Auster said “If we didn’t have stories to tell each other, I don’t think we’d be able to understand the world at all.” In the book Storytelling, Branding in Practice, authors K. Fog, C. Budtz, P. Munch and S. Blanchette state “It is, therefore, no coincidence that an ancient tradition like storytelling should appear in a new form-as a tool for brand building…”
Brands are starting to shape culture to remain relevant and break through the clutter. Brands are trying to champion a societal need and change a social attitude or behaviour, with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place (and selling more product). Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick’s racial injustice cause is a case in point. As the ad said “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”
Brands: Bigger Responsibility
Thanks to digitization and globalization, popular brands are getting bigger by the second.
While Amazon is on track to collect half of US online sales by 2021, according to an analyst. But the bigger play is still in the brick and mortar, where Wal-Mart dominates the retail landscape with 11,700 locations in over 28 countries, over 2.3 million employees, and annual sales of over $500 billion. With this clout, they can dictate their terms and define the products with a network of 3000 diverse suppliers to keep their 270 million weekly customers happy. If you visit their global website they say “We want to use our size for good.” Let’s hope so, because they are very big!
Coca-Cola consumes about 289 billion of water (a fact on their website) to produce their 40 different products. To put this in perspective, that is about 115,600 Olympic-sized pools, almost one week of the entire water flowing over the Niagara Falls, or almost one year of water consumption by Torontonians. They claim that it takes about 2 litres to produce 1 litre of product. While agriculture accounts for 70% of all water consumption in the world, Coca-Cola recognizes that a sustainable approach to water is essential to its business. Coca-Cola committed to fully replace the water it uses in its finished products across the globe, a goal it set for 2020 and met in 2015. Now they need to tackle climate change!
McDonald’s has more than 36,000 restaurants around the world and serve 69 million people every day. According to Bloomberg, McDonald’s sells four million kilograms (nine million pounds) of fries every day. To feed this appetite, the entire Madison Square Gardens would need to be filled with potatoes to the ceiling just to supply a year’s worth of fries. McDonald’s employs about 1.8 million people in 119 countries and has become so central to global trade that The Economist values foreign currencies against the dollar using the price of a Big Mac. One in eight US workers has been employed by McDonald’s at some point in their career. McDonald’s has helped put a lot of people through college.
Brands: The Future
The world’s challenges like climate change, obesity, population growth, and dwindling natural resources are so complex that they require collaborative solutions that go well beyond any one brand or government. The world’s mega brands have a responsibility to address social concerns beyond their own backyards something no government is able or prepared to do. Global brands have the resources and ability to make lasting change with oppression, religions, politics, and social injustices. They can define and uphold universal values that all humans can embrace. Every day they must answer to their customers (and shareholders), because it is the customers who choose to buy their brand and keep them relevant. Every day they must not only keep their brand promises but also nurture the planet and promote human wellbeing. The world would be a very different place without brands who truly are making the world go ‘round.