We are entering an era of changing values when entire businesses, not just their products, will be rendered obsolete. If you want to be here in a few years’ time, you have to ask yourself, “is my business satisfying genuine ‘need’ or just pandering to ‘wants’?”.

There’s a new and growing societal trend. A values-change that could herald seismic shift that will make our current technological transformation seem insignificant.

I’m talking about the end of the “we are what we own” era, when we have used belongings to represent us and the emergence of a new values measurement — “we are what we do”.

Brands have been my bread and butter for decades. I’ve helped businesses develop brands that have driven their success in markets around the world. Throughout I’ve been aware of all the classic reasons for the exitance and success of the principle of branding. 

It is man’s primal instinct to gather in groups. We are the dominant species because we created tribes for protection and to help us hunt and gather. Innovations going way back to the discovery of fire, or the invention of the wheel are a product of group interaction. Michel Maffesoli explored this idea, Seth Godin picked it up later and it’s since become a fact of marketing life.

We yearn to belong. Which is why brands that understood this and actually stood for something, however facile, have been able to assemble a following of individuals who identify with the same issue. These followers bought the products offered by these brands and displayed them as badges of belonging. This is how the concept of Brand Communities was established. 

Brands have defined us, reassured us and, equally, divided us, for generations and they will continue to do so. The names have changed and they’ll change again with increasing rapidity — Pretty Little Things and Boo-Hoo may have usurped Jaeger and Brooks Brothers, but the principle remains. Nevertheless, there’s a new factor emerging. 

Changing values from “conspicuous consumption” to “responsible consumption”.

Any marketer worthy of the title knows that, today the buzz is about “purpose”. It’s not the product you make, but the solution it facilitates that matters and businesses everywhere are being forced to ask themselves what they actually DO. The sacred cow — product — that has obsessed business leaders for decades has been revealed as transient, secondary, the means to the end. So, what does that mean?

Today’s consumers are increasingly seeking out communities with real meaning, authenticity, beliefs, that coincide with their own. My twenty-year-old daughter recycles or “re-purposes” her clothes, her friends travel less, eat less meat (although, whether that achieves quite what they are looking for is a bit of a debate at the moment). They pursue “levelling out”, not just in the UK, but with a global perspective. They seek out green cosmetics, reduce their water consumption and try to limit their use of electricity. They are searching for ways to contribute rather than exploit and it’s creating a shift from “conspicuous consumption” to “responsible consumption”, that will impact on many businesses in ways they have yet to imagine.

A real brand pins its colours to its mast, assembles its community of like-minded investors, partners, suppliers, distributers, employees and customers (The six community segments common to all brands) and works with them to create the things that contribute to, or facilitate their common objective.

The days when a business would make something and then search for a reason for its existence are gone. The echoes of marketers’ claims to have “generated need” are, thankfully, past. We don’t need to create needs. We never really have, but our job these days is definitely to identify and understand genuine needs and provide the answers to them — products and services that really matter, provided by businesses that really matter.

I understand the resistance from certain quarters to this fact of digital life. People aren’t stupid. They know that, despite the reassurances of business owners to the contrary, there will be less need for employees. Furthermore, it makes the traditional role of sales people as obsolete as the products they used to persuade people to buy, but these will cease to be problems as society changes shape.

Technology is enabling us to do things that were impossible or impractical in the past and that’s removed the compromises from product development. These days it’s possible for a business to deliver the perfect solution to an individual customer’s needs, quickly and cheaply, which removes the need to persuade them that the product available is the best fit they’ll get. The pre-amble to a sale is already very different to what it was ten or even five years ago. Customers will find the product information they need without help most of the time. There will be occasions when they’ll want to talk to a real person, but don’t get carried away by this. Over 60% of millennials say they don’t want to talk to anyone.

The change in values I referred to at the start of this article is led by the new, youthful, socially and environmentally aware and powerful consumer group. Its trajectory is away from shoe and handbag collections, fast fashion, polluting vehicles, aimless pursuits and extravagant homes that have exemplified our past avariciousness. 

It could be the start of the most rapid societal shift in living memory toward a more responsible attitude to life and our purpose in the greater scheme of things. In turn, it will cause us to question our pursuit of financial wealth and introduce a different measure of individual and business success.

If “wealth” is to be measured in terms of the contribution we make to the quality of life for all and self-interest and the acquisition of money and possessions becomes recognised as facile and irresponsible, the world can only be a better place. There is a growing faction of society that have recognised this.

If you want to be at the forefront of this movement your first step might be to ask yourself whether your business is pandering to “wants” or responding to genuine “needs”. And you have to be honest with yourself. This is no time for delusion.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. The senior executive teams I work with will testify to how difficult it is to cast aside generations of prejudicial thinking and focus on your reason to exist. Growth, like everything else in this world, is finite, the pursuit of wealth a treadmill. If you haven’t thought about it before, it’s time you did something worthwhile.

You can still satisfy the needs of investors and shareholders, but don’t forget, they are changing too. Increasingly they are less interested in accumulating wealth than doing something useful with the wealth they have. Those who think the pretence of caring is a route to profit, will find themselves heading over a cliff.

This isn’t a license to throw money at lost causes. In fact, it’s more important than ever to be efficient and economical. Investors don’t want to see their assets dwindle, but they will be measuring their success and yours in different terms and you need to understand this.

Once you get the lie of the land you need to take action. This is real business transformation. Brand-Led Business Transformation — the process of adapting your business to the changing needs of your brand community.

Phil Darby
February 7, 2022

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