Leadership.  During this period of sustained economic uncertainty, when people are feeling a significant tension between security and risk, the absence of it is apparent.  Our interviews for CultureQ have indicated this to some degree and the Internet study we fielded over the holidays confirmed it.  With faith in government very low people are looking for brands to inspire progress in society.

When asked to name companies that are bad corporate citizens and act irresponsibly with respect to society, people and the environment, Gen Yers and Boomers rank the government 5th in the US, behind BP, Walmart, Exxon-Mobil and Bank of America and ahead of McDonald’s.  In Britain, government is tied for 4th with BT (British Telecom), behind McDonald’s, BP and Shell.  Frustrated with “[government] not spending money wisely” “civil service jobs [not being] safe any more”, “[business’] wasteful spending habits” and “corporations and companies [being] profit, shareholder and bonus driven” people tell us they are disillusioned with large organisations, and they do not necessarily distinguish public sector ones from private sector ones.

The concept of brand leadership is intangible

Similar to what we learned in 2007, the concept of brand leadership is intangible for many – it’s relatively elusive.  And, as with many things in the past 25 years, size and visibility seem to be surrogates for influence and vision.  The brands named as good corporate citizens are nearly identical to those cited as leaders.  Although many marketers continue to have Apple-fatigue, people clearly do not.  Apple tops both lists.  Certainly, its marketing and visibility help, but it’s more than that.

For many, Apple inspires daily life in small ways.  It’s fully consumerist, even arrogant, yet because it’s sincere in what it is and what it is not about as a business it’s allowed to be. And, Apple is becoming more fluid and transparent in its practices, something that it perhaps has to be since Steve Jobs, its visionary leader, has passed on.  Just think about how Apple recently released its once closely guarded list of global suppliers. The title of the report – Supplier Responsibility Progress report – carefully laid out expectations.  It didn’t lead you to think all was rosey.  It simply indicated that things were moving forward.  That supplier violations had decreased and that Apple is being more diligent year on year.

Brand leadership comes from visionaries who inspire people to follow

So, brand leadership.  What is it really?  It clearly can still come from market position but when it’s acquired that way it is not necessarily accompanied by respect.  Leadership comes from visionaries who inspire people to follow.  And, in the absence of prophets, people are seeking leadership through connecting with other people.  Through sharing purpose and meaning.  With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why opportunity now exists for brands to step in and shape society.  When coming from a sincere and transparent place, brands readily unite people in a way that the government no longer is doing.  In our CultureQ research, people describe the government in almost the same manner they speak of banks and oil and gas companies:  “Whatever government is in they will be out of touch with what people want…lack of morals and values and money seem more important than a caring helpful government.”

However, brands can only shape society if they take on the ethos of the man on the street.  Because of social media, the wall between producer and consumer has crumbled.  And with the fall has come the calling for brands – especially large corporate ones  – to behave more like people, rather than demigods.  The most successful brands reflect the paradoxes of human nature.  If we return to Apple, it’s innovative, progressive, and uncompromising.  It’s cocky in a sense, but that cockiness is somehow justified.

Brands can represent our human potential

More than ever, brands can represent our human potential – they turn principles and ethics into results (products and services) and when these results take on a persona they are also a cultural expression.  Brands shouldn’t feel compelled to convince us they are perfect.  After all, humans are inherently imperfect and the maximization of potential represents an attainable form of perfection. Apple’s ability to simplify our lives through pushing the boundaries of human innovation, convenience and creativity is something we can all aspire to.