The increase in the speed of culture and the production of new ideas has been well documented.
In fact, I wrote last year about a shift in the fundamental role of culture from the preservation of rituals and behavior to the enablement of progress and evolution. This shift has impacted us profoundly. It has altered our biology and sped up the rate of human evolution. And it is reshaping our values in new and surprising ways.
One of the biggest shifts we’ve seen is the rise of adaptability and fluidity as prized characteristics, especially among younger generations. This fluidity is most visible in the areas of fashion and gender: many kids and young teens have a much greater ability than their predecessors to feel at ease with the simultaneous presence of (previously) irreconcilable ideas, without feeling any need to reconcile them. Indeed, fluidity is now celebrated, admired and aped, which isn’t surprising when you consider the fact that it’s a key survival mechanism for coping with all this cultural change.
While this kind of change represents the positive side of fluidity, in the form of the rejection of labels and the increased acceptance of different ideas and points of view, there’s a darker side of this trait that is also beginning to emerge.
Cultural fluidity and adaptability can quickly become moral and ethical ambiguity. Without culturally accepted ways to separate good from bad and right from wrong, some people start to detach themselves from reality.
We’re beginning to see the impacts of this in many areas.
Mental illness is on the rise, especially in the US. There are alarming increases in loneliness, especially among teens, and growing evidence that the health impact of loneliness can actually be worse than obesity. And there has been a sharp rise in global anxiety as a widespread sense of feeling adrift sweeps over the world.
In our collective search for fixed points of reference and shared symbols by which to navigate, brands - and in particular global brands - have taken on new roles. They deliver much-needed constancy, connection and even a small measure of community. And while these are not new characteristics, the context of today’s culture makes them more important than ever before."
Indeed, corporate values and ethics are often more closely scrutinized than those of traditional institutions like government and religion. I also think it’s fair to say that we often hold corporate leaders to higher standards than elected leaders, and it’s certainly easier for public opinion to remove them from positions of power. In many cases, corporations and corporate leaders also act more ethically.
Clearly there are huge philosophical and societal implications of this shift, and, as brand stewards, I believe it’s our duty to understand and acknowledge our responsibility to the society our work influences.
And with that responsibility comes a significant challenge.
That challenge is for global brands to both keep pace with the rate of cultural change and also provide a measure of constancy within it.
With very few exceptions, brands that were darlings a year ago have quickly become dogs, attacked on one side for lack of innovation and progress, or on the other for ethics and values lapses. And, in some cases, attacked on both fronts.
It is incredibly difficult to innovate fast enough to stay relevant in culture while still retaining the consistency in values and ethics that delivers upon people’s heightened expectations.
That balance requires the combination of two things, neither of which is easy to achieve: one, a strongly defined compass for what your brand believes, and two, a flexible and adaptable approach for how your brand functions. It’s rare to find a brand that has mastered that balance. But it’s rarer still to find that balance where it really matters most - in the people behind the brands that hope to achieve it.