Conformity used to be all the rage. Memories of school, in the UK during the 1970s, were dominated by the quest to belong to a group, to be accepted; when the slightest difference or alternative was preyed on as a weakness. As the son of immigrants to the UK, I and my sisters were different by ‘default’; so the quest to conform at all costs assumed even more importance. In reality, at school, cultural or racial differences were preyed upon with the same rigour as differences between height, clothing or even hair colour – my ginger-haired school friends had a particularly tough childhood!
The virtues of uniformity extended to the ‘adult’ world. The 1970s were an age of mass, but homogenised, communications (we had only three TV channels); British Rail and British Telecom, and the Royal Mail were protected monopolies. Safety was to be found in numbers everywhere.
Brands followed suit; consumers flocked to department stores such as Woolworths and British Homes Stores (BHS) which, in return, assured them of everything from stationery to home furnishings. And that dynamic is the key – customers went to these brands; it was the latter which held the power. Through the omnipotent ‘buyer’, national brands controlled the availability and price of goods. In effect, the buyer decided the stock, the consumer could take it or leave it.
This was the age of conformity, when brands (and, particularly buyers) defined and determined trends. And this extended beyond the high street into the realms of art and culture. During the 1970s in the UK, the BBC enjoyed a (legal) monopoly of the radio waves; it was the producers who defined the play lists that determined what would be a pop hit.
Too late for me, but conformity ultimately gave way to self-expression and individuality. By the 1990s, the markets and radio networks had been liberalised and open to competition. Suddenly the variety of products, services and culture gave rise to the cult of the ‘alternative’; whether it is alternative fashion, telephone operators or news sources. In this environment, brand ubiquity, or anything reassembling the establishment, was seen as a liability. So brands downplayed their dominance and embraced everything alternative, from the Edinburgh Fringe1, to Glastonbury2. In short, ubiquity was bad, non-conformity was good. The corporate world’s association with the alternative continues today; alternative events such as SXSW3, Sundance Movie Festival4 and, even the Burning Man5 are now considered mainstream.
Throughout these shifts, brands (and corporate PR departments) have responded and demonstrated their ability to adapt. Today, however, we are entering a new era of brand relationships; one which is no longer defined by the brands, but by individuals themselves – whether they be consumers, employees, investors, collaborators or members of the local community. Today, these individuals are the protagonists in news, conversations and content; they define, propagate, legitimise the subjects of interest; they are the new editors-in-chief of today’s news.
For brands, we are entering a ‘post-protagonist’ age; the control and influence which brands used to enjoy through control and access to the media has dissipated. Now, brands’ best hope is to ensure sufficient relevance to enter into other people’s conversations; it is the latter who have become the real protagonists.
This dynamic is possibly a more traumatic shift than the previous ages described above; particularly for brand managers accustomed to driving conversations and owning the media. In a post-protagonist environment, the new criterion for brands is to become an ‘extra’ in the lives of others. Brands that accept and embrace this shift will enjoy a deeper engagement with their public. Those that resist will become irrelevant.