We’ve had enough of ‘experts’. The ‘mainstream media’ is lying to us. You can’t rely on the government. You can’t trust big business. The ‘metropolitan elite’ live in a bubble and look after their own vested interests. Trust nobody…
That’s the striking cultural take-out of 2016: what some commentators have described as an emergent ‘post-truth’ (truly, post-trust) narrative, coupled with a climate of deep unease about the system we live in.
The clear direction of travel is that the long assumption of a stable shared culture is approaching breaking point.
We are not all in it together.
Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer Research (January 2017) backs this up strongly, showing a catastrophic decline in trust across all institutions. Amongst other things relevant to business, to quote from the Edelman survey report: The 2017 Trust Barometer reflects a public that is eager for increased regulation on business, whose fears about the future are fueled by business’ very actions. As [a] case in point, more than half … say that the pace of change in business and industry is moving too fast. Half believe globalisation is taking us in the wrong direction…
Against this backdrop, it is worth emphasising that the credibility of CEOs and government officials alike is now at an all time low. People simply don’t trust them to do the right thing.
So we’re collectively starting to discern that recent political events are as much a howl of cultural frustration aimed squarely at the foundations of a status quo people no longer believe represents their interests. For example, the UK referendum vote has a literal meaning (leave, or remain), but we should not misinterpret its meaning too literally. For many, the declared target was not the real target at all, but a blank canvas onto which people projected vast and diverse social and cultural concerns. Concerns like:
- The assumption of widespread corruption – business and government complicitly gaming the system for the benefit of the few not the many.
- Globalisation and a lack of concern for fairness, coupled with the pace of innovation, all conspiring to the feeling that more and more people are being left behind.
- Culture and society changing too fast for many people to adapt to, and in ways that many struggle to embrace.
Broadly, all this can be seen as a cry of emotional defiance against an increasingly remote ‘elite’ – governmental and commercial – that does not and will not connect with people’s concerns and anxieties.
In researching this, and leaving aside the unfortunate reality that there are some unsavoury populist elements in play, we are learning the full extent of the shocking distance between the ‘establishment’ – in all its forms – and ‘ordinary people’. We need to be honest about this, and address it head on. This issue has been bubbling for some time, it’s not going away, and that is the wider message.
Across the Western World, people are feeling stressed out, disempowered, unhappy and fearful, and a majority now thinks the system isn’t working for them.
We believe a strong onus now lies on big business to address these two all-pervasive and related issues of trust and distance, and to recognise that for many people, business behaviour is part of the problem.
Yet looked at another way, businesses and brands have the opportunity to take a lead, by reframing the way they look at themselves in the mirror of culture and society, and acting accordingly.
Here lies a challenge, and an opportunity. Do businesses really know what is happening outside the so-called metropolitan bubbles? Do brands recognise the shape of this new future? What more can they do to get close to people again, to convince them their views will be heard, that their engagement can genuinely change things for the better, that business actually cares, that corporations can be a force for good in the world?
Long term, it’s surely not sustainable for businesses to be seen as untrustworthy money-making machines, insulated from the concerns of everyday life. Authentic connections, if they ever truly existed, are in danger of being lost.
Surely brands now need to mean something. Surely they need to help people and society flourish – and they need to demonstrate it.
For the sake of their reputation, for the good of society – and ultimately, for the sake of their own future, we believe modern businesses need to:
- Demonstrate a real and believable purpose – something that matters to human beings, not just to the abstract architecture of business.
- Create authentic experiences and connections – meaning, in short – with individuals and society in general.
- Show how what a company does can help people live better, more fulfilling lives.
- Demonstrate a genuine social and cultural contribution, beyond the shallow vacuity of box-ticking CSR.
- Prove it.
In sum, businesses and brands need to collectively rediscover the art of becoming culturised – not thinking and behaving as ‘them’ any more, but becoming part of ‘us’; part of the common good.