Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Power of One

"Worship the gods if you wish, but first, know thyself." Socrates

 Until 9th August 2011, ‘rebellion’ was the rallying cry for a raft of sportwear, fashion and lifestyle brands.  Carrying the archetype of the Outlaw, with its ethos of disruption and destruction, as their battle standard, these brands urged young people to fearlessly confront authority and challenge the establishment.    


Scene from Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ campaign, now postponed.


This isn’t new.  Empowerment of the disenfranchised has been a compelling story since the earliest myths and historical records.  There has long been a prevailing theme in music, books and films aimed at young people, of exercising power otherwise inaccessible to them in their everyday existence.  Nor are the riots and attendant looting new – war and pillage have always been partners in crime.

But what is new is that brands are being associated with these rebellions – and with the shadow archetype of the Outlaw – the Anarchist.  The same brands who told their consumers it was cool to be dangerous looked on in dismay as hoody-clad looters took this call to action a little too literally and gave their logos a reach and visibility they’d pay good money for in any other context.    Sedition makes for great advertising – but terrible PR.

 So now that the young firebrands have to find a new kind of rebellion to champion and authority to challenge, what might it be? 

 Given that the power of the Outlaw lies in his separateness and singularity, the answer might lie in undermining the increasingly pervasive culture of sharing.  “We’re better connected”, “We’re better, together”, “Life is for sharing”, ”Connecting people”, “Love it, Sugar it, share it”.  In our socially networked world, brands, from mobile phones to banks are constantly encouraging us to get a sense of belonging by being part of the network and achieve bigger and better things than the sum of our parts.

These brands know perfectly well, that in our always-on world, what frightens people most, and particularly young people, is being alone. Invisibility is social death and the thought of not having safety in numbers is terrifying.  We are defined by our membership of a community – from the friends we add to our collection to the brands we wear on our sleeves and whose advocacy programmes we happily join.

 As brands have spent the last few years telling us to look outwards and think of ourselves in terms of our connection to other people and products, is it time for them to tell us to look inwards?  To be alone, rather than together?  To be unique, rather than one of the crowd, and to think for ourselves rather than letting our badges of belonging do the talking?  

Maybe the next big thing will be to celebrate the joys of leaving, rather than joining, the crowd and to recognise and reward the power of the individual. 

 But if we do look inwards, what will we find there?  The answer, especially for a lot of young people, is not much.  Thanks to Google, we have no need to keep knowledge in our heads any more.  Thanks to Facebook, we don’t need real friends.  Thanks to brands offering us a lifestyle and personality on a plate, we don’t need taste or discernment, we buy what we’re told.

 So in that case, maybe the call to take a long hard look at ourselves will be about improving and enriching our own lives and our individual skills and experiences.  Perhaps we’ll start seeing campaigns that encourage and empower people to confront their personal demons – to gain kudos and credentials that will help them stand out in a crowd rather than blend in.  Maybe we’ll see more celebrations of eccentricity and a recognition that crowdsourcing is a great leveller – but not in a good way.  Tomorrow’s culture might be one in which cerebral athletics are as admirable as sporting excellence is today. 

 We may start to see a growing emphasis on what makes us individuals, what makes us stand out rather than fit in.  Status will come, not from liking the same things as everybody else but from having ideas that don’t need validity from being liked.  Self-awareness will be the state to which we all aspire and being a work in progress will be the life journey we all want to take.  We might be our own pride and joy -  not our car, or our trainers.

At the same time, perhaps we’ll start to see a reversal of the culture of service and comfort, of VIP pampering and all-inclusive, all-you-can-eat buffets of information, food and drink.  Our culture of living in a bubble might now face a threat from an alternative movement – the Discomfort Zone – in which emotions such as fear and insecurity are harnessed, for exhilaration and innovation.   Witness the growth in outdoor shops, the popularity of reality TV programmes that push people to their physical and emotional limits and products that cause pleasure and pain in equal measure.  Hot and spicy food is only the beginning.

 This Discomfort Zone might then extend to our social networks, with a trend towards ‘less is more’ – in which social pioneers overturn the long-standing credo that lots of friends is a badge of popularity.   Fewer friends might become the mark of social confidence – hundreds of friends a sure sign of the sad and desperate.  We might reach a point at which the more friends you have the lonelier you are and the lower your social capital – which poses an interesting challenge for those tasked with the evaluation and measurement of social media marketing campaigns and in identifying influencers for word of mouth campaigns.  

 As part of this, there may be a backlash against the open culture and lack of privacy that ‘sharing’ engenders.  We might see a growing realisation that no brand gives us anything for nothing. Rather, it’s a business arrangement in which we sell something of ourselves, in return for free ‘stuff’, whether that’s membership of a social network or services, such as email or storage, access to information or entertainment.   Of course, people on the inside have known this for years and most consumers know it too, but in the same way that going Ex-Directory and opting out of junk mail became more mainstream a few decades ago, so too might keeping a low online profile in the future.

 In the same way that privacy and exclusivity are the preserve of the rich, we might see the emergency of a  two tier Information economy – in which the majority travel third class, getting ‘no frills’ in order to enjoy free services but a few will pay a premium in order to enjoy business and first class experiences.  These are the people who have nothing to gain by maximising their visibility to others – they exist within secure gated communities with members of their own tribe, online as well as offline.   To be hard to find might increasingly be the badge of wealth and privilege to which we all aspire – which is going to make things correspondingly difficult for the brands who rely on easy access to pools of receptive and interconnected consumers.

So, to go back to the question posed at the beginning – is this a revolution that young people will want to join?  In terms of seeing big changes any time soon, I’d say no.  It’s asking too much.  It’s too uncomfortable, too much of a risk – especially as this territory is currently a brand-free zone, so there’s no social incentive.   But the minute one of the brands aligns themselves to it, and more join them and young people look at themselves for the first time and, like the emperor, realise they are naked for all the world to see, the tipping point won’t be far away.  







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