By Jasmine Bina
2020 is an inflection point for brands
Brand strategy, at its most basic level, is a prediction. As a founder, you predict where the user is going in their journey, what the market will be able to bear, and how your competitors will move, so you may defensively place your brand in the landscape. In a way, a strategist’s job is to be a futurist.
In my decade of brand strategy work, I have found that the most effective way to predict the future is to look back at the past. A world of change has happened in the space over the last 10 years, and if we pay attention, we’ll find the clues that point to what the next 10 may look like.
A decade of identity brands behind us
Premium is the new luxury
If there’s one thing that’s dramatically changed the landscape in the last decade, it’s the outsized growth of the premium segment across all categories. From Whole Foods invading our neighborhoods, SUVs overtaking our roads, and a steady stream of subscription boxes like Ipsy and Dollar Shave Club collecting in our homes, the last 10 years proved that people were ready to pay a premium for an elevated experience. Meanwhile, premium products were eating away market share from both the utility and luxury ends of the spectrum.
Fueled by the direct-to-consumer (D2C) madness, which was bolstered by the VC world, this trend felt unstoppable until this year. Copycat majors like Walmart came out with their own ‘disruptor’ brands such as Allswell–a cheaper take on Casper. Meanwhile, conglomerates like P&G used their in-house venture arms to help launch companies such as Kindra, a line of hormone-free lotions and supplements. They revealed that D2C is not a defensible business model, while the huge spike in Facebook Ad costs proved that social targeting is not a sustainable advantage for D2C companies.
Lifestyle reigns supreme
Lifestyle brands came in strong, but they took a specific turn halfway through the decade. The rise (and false promises) of the gig economy, coupled with the romanticization of Silicon Valley’s overwork ethic, became the most prevalent cause of the 2010s millennial burnout. Add in a healthy dose of political instability, increasing financial inequality, outrage culture, and outcries like the #MeToo movement, and you’ve just opened the floodgates for what we now know as the new wellness lifestyle.
Wellness has become all but ubiquitous. Rebellious acts of self-care like meditation, healthy eating, functional medicine, and partaking in the exercise cult du jour have now become commonplace, where most of the products you’ll need can be found at your local CVS.
We’ve been searching for personal transformation these past 10 years. We wanted experiences that changed us. Even the brands we hated to love (or loved to hate) like WeWork, Uber, and Away tapped into this desire. No matter how many times we tore them down, we found others to build back up in the same way. They gave us identity, community, and belonging in unsafe places. They gave us a way to place ourselves in the world.
Now with 2020 upon us, they signal what the next 10 years might look like.
A decade of worldview brands ahead of us
Perspective in a changing world
The proliferation of technologies has made the need for near-constant decision-making in our lives more complicated than it has ever been. But new technologies, namely AI, promise to change that. The incentive to make our lives more frictionless has never been higher. As we accept more and more of these AI-based technologies into our homes and worlds, we’ll find that the platforms that own them become even more significant stakeholders.
We’ll see this dynamic play out most prominently on social media, where manipulation of public perception will only grow in magnitude. We’ll be searching for context in an increasingly context-less, virtual world. Herd mentality will inevitably rear its head over and over again as it has for centuries, except this time, the herd will be fragmented and unanchored.
In the face of such uncertainty, a brand’s new role will be to reflect a worldview. We already see early signs of this shift, such as when Patagonia sued the President or when Nike gave Colin Kaepernick both a voice and a vote of support after the NFL tried to silence his message.
We’re at a point where brands are permitted to enter these discourses and offer alternative perspectives that only they can initiate. They stand at the intersection of power and service–an intersection once inhabited by government and religion–and as such, they can move the needle in a uniquely meaningful way.
A worldview means power. Creating perspective, owning a value system through which to see oneself and others, and a metric to measure reality by–these are the things that will make a worldview so valuable, especially in times of change.
For brands to compete in the next 10 years, a worldview will be imperative. We will all be forced into this new paradigm, and the winners will be those who can square that view with the internal workings of the company.
The blurring line between the internal and external
The real difficulty with having a worldview isn’t in defining it, but in living it. Hiring, product development, organizational structure, and mission all need to feed into it. This task can be difficult when a worldview stands in opposition to competitiveness or growth.
We already know that consumers are discerning, but in the next 10 years, they will become increasingly empowered as well. We stand to see a consumer base that doesn’t just vote with their dollars, but one that creates pressure campaigns, self-organizes, and sways the media narrative just as it does the cultural narrative.
We may shift our centers of morality away from government, religion, and other authorities, but whatever that focus lands on–brands or otherwise–the actor will be held to the same standards. What a brand says and what a brand does must be completely synonymous. This statement may sound obvious, but it is a far cry from where even the most transparent brands are today.
Look no further than Away’s recent PR fiasco involving leaked Slack messages and the exposure of a toxic work culture, which stood in stark contrast to the aspirational travel lifestyle the brand portrayed. Consumer and media pressure led to the swift replacement of the company’s CEO. Not even a US$1.4 billion valuation could distract from the disconnect between internal and external values. In fact, it likely magnified it, instead.
A worldview of tolerance will mean radical tolerance within the company. A worldview of equality will mean equal treatment for employees. A worldview of humanity will mean reengineering the company culture to embody humane practices. What’s more, none of these actions directly correlate to revenue or market share. They may even push against those considerations.
We are looking at a future where CEOs and founders will have to consider their role in society outside of their product. It’s not the same as corporate social responsibility or doing business ethically. It’s making your brand your operations. It’s selling the way you do things.
Premium positioning and lifestyle branding have led us to a future of worldview brands, where perspective reigns supreme. It’s a new territory that leaves no room for a separation between the internal and external, but it’s also a horizon brimming with opportunities.
The next 10 years will change how we relate to ourselves and our communities, and it’s a chance for brands to renegotiate their roles in society.