The Case for Brands… and Why We Need Them Desperately

By Annette Yan, Associate Strategist, Design Bridge and Partners

Are we, as the pessimists say, having a crisis of trust?

Confidence in our social institutions has been on the decline. Gallup’s yearly poll reveals significant drops in confidence for 11 out of 16 tested institutions, many of which govern our beliefs and behaviors, facilitating community at the same time. As our trust in these shared sources of identity weakens, we’re left without a logical replacement. This is where brands come in, uniquely positioned to fill this void.

Why brands? If institutions are structures that organize social life, brands might just be that second force making our lives more colorful.

The overlaps between the two are significant, such that even Harvard Business Review has stated that, “because of their pervasiveness, many global brands can be likened to powerful institutions—capable of doing great good and causing big harm.” Beyond just shaping consumer preferences, successful brands can have significant influence on our behaviors, values and norms. Think about how Nike has reshaped the way we think about athletics and personal achievement, or how Google has embedded itself as a verb in our lexicon. A McKinsey study found that Android users trust well-established brands such as PayPal and Square more than they do traditional banking institutions.

Like institutions, brand has always been a promise, and we seem to put a lot of stock in that. Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, “Navigating a Polarized World,” declares that amidst a broad lack of faith in societal institutions, “business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical.” While the nature of the promise may differ, we seem to increasingly search for stability, continuity and community through brands when institutions fall short. More than ever, brands have an opportunity to effectively cross the trust gap we are currently experiencing.

What to do with all this trust? As we move into this new evolution of brand, let’s explore the potential futures of branding and the guardrails that come with them.

Social responsibility

Beyond acting truthfully and with integrity, businesses are facing growing demand from consumers to address social issues. In fact, nearly half (48%) of U.S. respondents to Edelman’s Barometer believe that businesses can address social issues without being politicized. The key is understanding where your company is situated inside the cultural ecosystem.

Wins and failures abound.

When it comes to the latter, there’s BP’s infamous “Beyond Petroleum” rebrand which faced backlash for greenwashing when the company’s underdeveloped sustainable energy initiatives were unable to substantiate the claims of the campaign. A burst pipeline in 2006 and one of the biggest marine oil spills of the decade later, BP was forced to divest from many of its solar and wind assets and quietly abandoned the 2001 rebrand. The inconsistency between BP’s reality and their updated brand promises negatively impacted its reputation with consumers worldwide.

If we look at Unilever and its ongoing dedication toward addressing the lack of access to drinking water in a number of its markets. They developed an affordable purifier that provided safe drinking water without the need for gas, electricity, or continuous tap water supply— deploying their considerable resources towards R&D to solve an issue that public policy could not. The move successfully addressed a highly politicized social issue and greatly boosted Unilever’s public perception and long-term loyalty.

When done with integrity and strategy, addressing pressing social issues can enhance brand equity, create a competitive edge, and heighten a brand’s long-term viability. At the same time, there is a limit to which we can expect a company to prioritize social good—especially when it might conflict with the company’s financial interests. Which is to say that despite increasing consumer demand for companies to ‘do the right thing’, there’s a risk in placing more trust in brands than institutions as agents of positive social change.

Building communities, driving culture.

Whether it’s by maintaining a strong internal culture (Clif, Netflix, Airbnb), or creating a strong external community (Lululemon, Harley Davidson), branding has unique storytelling capabilities that can move people and build communities around it. When done well, brand enables businesses to transcend their core objective of generating profit by allowing it to connect authentically with people.

One of the most powerful examples of community building via brands can be found in fandom. While it’s perceived to be mostly online, fandom is an example of a dedicated community built around a brand that has both economic and social impacts. Beyonce’s Renaissance tour and Taylor Swift’s Eras tour both recently made headlines for the unforeseen economic boom they brought to their tour stops, respectively dubbed “The Beyonce Bump” and “Swiftonomics.”  Their fans band together over a shared love and respect for their artists, making friends with strangers through an unspoken mutual understanding. Both leveraged their respective brands in ways that directly engage with and create a shared identity for their fans, and the resulting cultural impact has been extraordinary and profound.

That’s because brand has distinct power as both a necessity of business and a form of media to create something that unites people around shared values, stories and experiences. At a time where trust in institutions is waning and cultural fragmentation is amplified, many sense a profound loss in shared cultural meaning. Perhaps this is why we’ve moved closer to brands as a source of community and meaning-making, but it could also explain why nearly every brand seems to want to change the world these days.

Unequal influence.

Not all brands are created equal—which is why we should acknowledge brands for their influence on our lives, but also see them for what they are.

Brand is a promise, but it’s also a middleman—a conduit for monetization, a way of reaching consumers. What one finds at the other end of branding is often a business or product, but sometimes what’s there is a philosophy, someone’s core values, or their sincere hopes. Good branding generates profit to keep the hope at the other end going, but it requires a strong foundation to be meaningful and move people. Though it’s tempting to get pulled into the orbit of certain brand worlds, not all brands can provide meaningful impact to our lives.

At its best, brand can be a form of commercial art. The most memorable and impactful brands often achieve commercial objectives through genuine artistic expression and storytelling. At its worst, branding overreaches, tries too hard to be human, is incoherent—noise vying for your already limited attention.

All this to say: there are times where we should let brands do what they do best and connect consumers to the other end of the equation. There are other times where it’s incredibly rewarding to push forward and build something that truly lasts. The challenge in branding is recognizing when these moments are, and seizing them.