Gone are the days of value-centered marketing – in which you offered your product and customers could take it or leave it. Now you must bundle social consciousness with your product, and so companies came out in droves to virtue signal throughout 2020. But is advocacy as an extension of a brand really necessary? Do we want the companies that we buy from and work for to wear their politics on their sleeves?
In many respects 2020 was a debilitating year, but as we forge forward, would it be so bad for companies to simply do what they are supposed to do – sell us something of value – and stop using ad campaigns as soapboxes?
Companies taking it upon themselves to champion society’s general welfare can be disconcerting, since the private sector is already a powerful force and business executives lack the mandate to serve as ‘social guardians’ given that they are not elected officials. The practice is liable to backfire (as Gillette learned last year) and is, frankly, exhausting (since we hate ad campaigns to begin with).
Do we really want a hearty dose of social justice with every purchase made?
Perhaps businesses should take a cue from the shows and series we are streaming, since most are far from agenda-driven in their messaging and instead inspire in a more subtle and authentic way, as great stories always do. Whether it is a docuseries, a romcom, a mesmerizing miniseries, or even a show about a show (and an unsuspecting smash hit for that matter) – all have the same theme – how we as individuals are self-motivated and seekers of success… on our own terms, and how society benefits from that.
1. Bob Dylan in No Direction Home
- The Story: Dylan blazed his own trail, and he simply didn’t care who or when others joined him. By creating something of value for himself, it generated value for others. Some of Dylan’s songs are known as the greatest protest anthems, and yet he himself wasn’t a staunch activist. His songs inspired others, but did not pander to others; they were authentic expressions of Dylan’s own soul. He never sacrificed himself and never sold out.
- The Lesson: Rather than pander to political fads, business leaders should find their own beliefs, and be true to them. Not every investor or customer needs to be won over. It is a voluntary exchange and both parties can take it or leave it. Now it won’t be much of a business if no one invests/buys, but you don’t always need to listen to the masses – much like how James Dyson ignored market research and proved how true innovators answer to no one. By being true to yourself, you too can be a change agent like a trailblazing troubadour.
2. Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit
- The Story: Beth matures, albeit imperfectly, before our eyes. And although she is fiercely independent, she definitely relies on and appreciates her network: from the janitor at the orphanage, to her adopted mother, to her chess compatriots, to her childhood friend from long ago. Beth seizes opportunities, embraces competition, and seeks out worthy opponents in a system that seems unfavorable to her gender and status; yet her drive to win ends up inspiring people all around the world – including her most esteemed adversaries.
- The Lesson: Just as Beth desired to streamline her focus, so too should businesses. It is important for a company to understand its purpose and stick to it while leveraging networks and alliances. Competition promotes progress and you can’t compete if you’re being pulled in too many directions and trying to appease every “stakeholder” claim. Social initiatives (which traditionally have been the realm of nonprofits and governments) can dull an enterprise’s competitive edge, and although “performance with a purpose” may sound appealing (as touted by Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo) results may hurt future prospects (which for Nooyi meant the restructuring of management at PepsiCo). Business strategy doesn’t work on moral nuances but rather on bottom lines, that’s why it is a business and not a nonprofit.
3. Emily Cooper in Emily in Paris
- The Story: This romcom series is not without its critics as its depiction of French culture is embarrassingly off, yet it is loved by many as a guilty pleasure and its portrayal of the American millennial culture is spot-on. Emily may be a bit of a ditz and rather naïve, but she is uncompromising about who she is. In fact, the show is unique in that it is not about Emily conforming to or catering to the French culture but rather her enjoying it and finding her way.
- The Lesson: Now this doesn’t mean businesses should be ignorant when embarking on something new (like Emily), but when changes occur, it doesn’t mean a company should sacrifice its own culture and identity (also like Emily). Workplace dynamics shifted in 2020, but the core values of a company should continue to serve as a valuable asset whether trying to stay afloat or looking to scale, and an organizational culture is still relevant regardless of being in-person or working remotely.
4. The Rose family in Schitt’s Creek
- The Story: Season 6 of the now rather infamous series was released when we most needed a feel-good show to watch – March 2020. And now that the series has ended, we are left with a send-off in Best Wishes, Warmest Regards, a short documentary that stays true to the show. The hour-long special demonstrates how the cast cared about the project, and in caring for the project, they cared for each other. The show admits it didn’t have a social justice mission to it. It simply showed life and kindness – and in doing so, it influenced change, with the help of some rather savvy wordsmithing and a few life lessons.
- The Lesson: Companies need to harness and empower their employees. Although they are all part of an organization, they each have their own goals and aspirations, much like the members of the Rose family. Although it was rather cheeky that all members of the family found good fortune around the same time, after having lost it all, the quest for opportunity and the incentive to find oneself was ever present. Entrepreneurship and risk taking became focal features within the later episodes of Schitt’s Creek, and seasoned organizations should encourage “intrapreneurship” to avoid falling victim to competitive inertia. The ideas and success of one person or department leads to the success of others, and by being themselves, the Rose family advanced the whole family unit. Companies do not need a moral mission as part of their marketing – they simply need to market and compete. And what is marketed is sometimes empowering in and of itself in rather surprising ways.
Gumption, individual creativity, and a can-do attitude are all part of the American way. And according to Daniel Pink, regardless of our background and culture, primary motivators consistently include a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose – all of which are found in these shows.
These shows are about opportunities with uncertain outcomes. They celebrate heroic individuals naturally integrated in communities, not mere representatives of collective identities and agendas. And just as these shows have focused on people more than plots, perhaps it is time for business to shift gears as well. Managers and marketers should focus on product offerings rather than conspicuous piety. And like the entertainment above, let your workplace reinforce self-maximizing norms while adhering to ethical ones, and positive results will ensue.
We could all use more enterprise, creativity, and love in the new year, and a lot less pandering.