Can Brands Save The World?

Branding 3

Part I: The Transgression

Do you remember the movie, The Fly, (1986) with Jeff Goldblum? This scientist wants to “teleport” from one cubicle to another – similar to Star Trek’s, “Beam me up, Scotty”.

The cubicle disintegrates the human in the one side and then fully reconstructs him on the other using his DNA. The problem is that a fly gets in unnoticed. When Goldblum is reconstructed, the fly’s DNA is incorporated into his… and so begins the breakdown of human behaviour and appearance as the nature of the fly begins to emerge.

That is my assessment of 2014. A fly or cockroach has made its way into man’s DNA and the challenge is how to extract it.

If my level of disillusionment at the current state of the “world” is anything to go by, you’re not far away from the medicine cabinet looking for an upper to medi-transport you to a Disney-like place of suspended reality – or at least a migraine pill to dull the ache.

This is indeed the year that the silent majority (assuming they’re actually there and sane) finally lost their voice; while the trolls, orcs, haters, killers and liars successfully discovered theirs.

A year after the debut of The Fly came the parody song, “Star Trekking Across the Universe” (1987), which also deals with unchartered experiences and encountering a new reality – so possibly that should define us being catapulted back to the 15th century.

“It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we know it”

Part II: The Madness

We’ve been subjected to another harrowing year of our re-elected Number One (if ever there were a euphemism) pulling our magnificent country and its people into greater despair and disrepute. Well, let’s not be too harsh, at least he kept that dangerous man, the Dalai Lama out of the country while instead we entertained our Nuclear-bearing “friends” with warmth and generosity.

We saw a social media group arise, calling for the protection of our brave and unwavering Public Prosecutor – “keep your hands off Thuli Madonsela”. What does it say of our country that we genuinely believe harm could come to this marvellous woman simply trying to keep us on the path of honesty? A woman who Nelson Mandela would’ve held in the highest regard and who is embedded in saving us from the alleged transgressions of one of his successors.

We see the ongoing madness of an unimagined scale coming out of the Middle East. The decapitation of children, of Christians, of Yazidis, of young, moderate Muslims, and of journalists, even those sympathetic to the cause of those who are beheading them.

Then the blunt vilification of all Muslims versus a distorted, radical Islam, and the hatred of all Jews as a result of the Hamas/Israel conflict. Certainly not since World War 2 have we heard the (supposedly “never again”) call for the gassing and annihilation of all Jewish folk around the world.

How many Syrians have died at the hands of their leaders this year alone? And the world stands silent. The United Nations sabre rattles – and then breaks for lunch or tea. It’s rather sad and pathetic.

The global media fuelled the fire in the interests of valuable viewership and increased audiences. Dear old Facebook became a place of hate where people I know and trust became people I don’t, and mobile phones became mini soap-boxes of intolerance.

We’ve had the reverberating volley of bullets from Marikana, Reeva’s screams for help from behind a locked bathroom door, and Anni Dewani robbed of life on her honeymoon.

And then came Ebola.

It’s a small wonder we’re still sane. Or are we?

Part III: The Transcendence

So, how do we survive this incessant onslaught?

The brand world is often called shallow. Skeptics fail to see that not only do brands build companies, satisfy needs, innovate, invent, and create employment – but also inspire the individual.

Brands like Nike challenged you to, “Just do It”. Not by beating your competitor, but by beating your own best.

Apple embrace individuality, “The square pegs in the round holes – people who change things”. They’re now the biggest company in the world built on the very notion of, “Think Different” as is encapsulated in one of my all-time favourite lines, “…because the people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world, are the ones who do”.

Richard Branson’s light, fun, easy and entirely accessible brand, Virgin, encourages us to push, agitate, question, dream, break barriers and thus, to live a better life.

Iconic Coca Cola advertising brings us closer through the generations with lyrics like, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”. Harmony, tolerance, acceptance.

There was a great Old Mutual ad in the early 90’s, which said, “We’re there to help you make the most of your life, every step of the way”. It was a visual celebration of life. Other than your parents, who would say that to you? Deliverable or not, that kind of advertising inspired you and made you feel safer through having a wingman.

It wasn’t governments that got us questioning farming methods and the food we eat. It was Tex-Mex restaurant chain Chipotle with the Willie Nelson and Coldplay track, “We’re going back to the start”. Whether or not you eat at Chipotle as a result doesn’t matter. The message hit home and raised awareness of sustainable farming, what we put into our bodies, and what we feed our kids.

How many individuals today represent the embrace of possibility? Of kindness and of good? Through TV, print, OOH and social media, it’s brands that resurrect the voices of Ghandi, Neil Armstrong, JFK and Martin Luther. It’s brands who challenge the status quo.

Brands and well-meaning corporates need to help rid the world of The Fly, and become The Fireflies – a shining light in our society. Brands don’t foster hate. Their role has always been to find commonality, varied interests and shared values. Advertising that demonstrates the very best of the human condition.

Part IIII: The Possibility

Brands, the most unlikely of saviours during these dark times, possibly have the greatest role to play.

If you’re in any doubt as to the massive power of messaging wrapped in entertainment, versus that which is important but delivered without “razzmatazz”, consider this:

Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the greatest living minds of our time, talks about the future of the universe, our very world. The most views he’s had on any YouTube video is 1,5 million. By contrast, Miley Cyrus reached over 100 million views in her release week of Wrecking Ball, and now over 715 million people have listen to her “message”. Similarly, loved and shared ads can reach millions quickly.

Let’s continue to build and grow goodness, kindness, acceptance and tolerance through amazing brand work. Who knows, a soap powder ad may be the very thing that gets someone to like their next-door neighbour just a little more.

It’s about recognising that brands have as powerful a voice as the media, or terrorist groups, or Ebola. And if we use this voice well, it could be the very thing that makes the world a better place.

by Mike Abel: Chief Executive Partner and co-founder of the M&C SAATCHI ABEL Communications Group, South Africa.



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