People’s expectations of government, business and other longstanding institutions have been shifting since 2008. And, perhaps more so than anything, Brexit and the US Presidential race prove there’s no going back. Business as usual—with ‘leaders’ running the show and people going along for the ride—no longer speaks to the needs, longings, and practical realities of our modern society. So, it’s no surprise that in a populist world, people are looking to the brands they value the most to have a meaningful purpose and mirror their values.


Since the late 1990’s, every agency, research company, consultancy and digital firm has hung out a branding shingle. And as they have, the word brand itself has acquired a lot of baggage. Ask any two people what a brand is and more likely than not they’ll give you two different answers, although each will associate the word in some way with creating a cool name, developing an eye-catching logo, crafting a memorable tagline or spending a lot of money on multi-media ad campaigns designed to build awareness. In other words, for most people the discipline of branding is a form of push marketing that leverages advertising and attention grabbing tactics often disconnected from delivering real value for users. Rather than being judged as a strategic investment designed to cultivate loyalty with customers, employees, business partners, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders – and thereby enhance profitability – brand development is often slated as a cost to business in financial analysis.

Yet, brands matter more than ever today. In a digital and socially driven marketplace where the lines between a business’ product, service offering and communications are blurred, branding – or the act of consistently building a brand – is a critical investment into leadership, corporate reputation and brand loyalty. The role of branding was never meant to be varnish – or simply a tool to market and sell goods and services. It was and should continue to be about cultivating connections that pull people toward products and services by offering transactional value.


Over the past five years, our research on cultural shifts and the impact they have on with the role brands play consistently demonstrates that people are more loyal to the brands they interact with. Especially in a world of virtual friendships, brands represent more than things and services. They are badges that signify an ethos – one that mirrors our values or an ethos we aspire to. And as more of us grow concerned with equity and sustainability, more people want to feel brands are linked to some kind of larger purpose designed to not only simplify daily tasks but also enrich our modern lives, connect us with communities that share our standards and better the world we live in.

More and more, businesses will need shift their mindset to engage effectively with customers, employees, business partners, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders. For years, managers have focused on engaging people so they will support their brands – recommending them to friends, “liking” them online and positively Tweeting or posting about their experiences using or interacting with them. Today, the tides have turned and people are looking for brands to understand what matters most to them and advocate on their behalf for these things.

Three years of research with nearly 4000 consumers and employees led us to see that people want brands to begin with a “me-first” positioning and culminate in a “we” orientation, addressing issues that are important to the communities they belong to and society at large. In a time when they feel they can no longer count on government and other longstanding institutions, people are yearning for brands to actively pull them across a me-to-we continuum of Brand Citizenship.

noun \ˈbrand\
1. the factual things someone knows and emotional things they feel about a named company, product or service
2.    a relationship a business has with its stakeholders that secures preference and loyalty

noun cit·i·zen·ship \ˈsi-tə-zən-ˌship\
1. membership in a community; how together we make society work
2. the qualities of an active and responsible member of a community


We imbue the brands that represent the products and services we buy and the companies with which we interact with the characteristics of friends and family. As with human connections, the true test of a satisfying relationship with a brand is rooted not in grand gestures, or even constant ‘talking’, but in thoughtful, empathic actions, and small, meaningful deeds that improve and enrich daily life and help us to feel like we belong to a group of likeminded people. Across generations, people aspire to have companies provide solutions to their personal “ME” problems, needs, and dreams and to their generalized “WE” worries about the economy, in the world and the planet.


Brand Citizenship is a five-step model reflective of our flattening, democratizing culture in which greater customer-brand collaboration delivers significant benefits to people, companies and society alike. It begins with trust and an understanding of how customers and employees live their lives and recognizes that brands have a variety of ways to elevate every interaction across the Me-to-We Continuum to a transactional opportunity to add value.

                  The Me-to-We Continuum of Brand Citizenship                 

ME to WE Continuum of Brand CitizenshipThe five steps of Brand Citizenship logically flow from one another:

  1. TRUST: Don’t let me down. First and foremost, brands that deliver on their promises are trusted more.
  1. ENRICHMENT: Enhance daily life. Brands that understand the things that are important to people individually engender greater loyalty by simplifying routines, making mundane tasks less dull, and enriching daily life.
  1. RESPONSIBILITY: Behave fairly. Brands that exhibit human traits, behave sincerely, are honest about their shortcomings and strive to be better are identified as leaders and good corporate citizens.
  1. COMMUNITY: Connect me. Brands that rally communities, motivate behavioral changes and fix social problems, provided that they are not overtly political, attract more loyalists.
  1. CONTRIBUTION: Make me bigger than I am. Brands that play an active role in creating a more positive and life-enhancing future enrich loyalists lives by improving life on the planet

From brand purpose, to delivery of goods and services, to social media, sustaining the environment, and bettering the world, Brand Citizenship engenders pull and cultivates loyalty among customers. A natural outcome of the dynamic shift that social media has fostered, it’s a principle that equips brands to more holistically influence and engage customers.