Today, imagination is ‘big business’
It seems as if having a progressive dream about the future has lost its popularity in recent years.
When once we envisioned that everything in the future will get better, that society will become more inclusive, that the economy will become more stable, that the climate will become more neutral, that share of wealth will become more even, and borders will become more welcoming, society has since reverted to a desire to go back to the “good old days”. To when there were closed borders. To a mono-culture. Back to an evident “this is right and that is wrong” perspective. Or even worse, a mindset that classifies race, gender, sexuality, religion, conviction into right or wrong. Anyone who has ever laid eyes on a history book knows that this tendency to cling on to the past is false hope, and that fear of the future is as old as humanity itself.
In 1980, the father of a friend of mine built an underground shelter. He was convinced that the Russians would drop an atomic bomb on Diemen-Zuid, a small town located just outside Amsterdam, and when they would, him and his son would at least be the only survivors. As a 10-year-old boy I sensed that this man somehow enjoyed this potential future scenario. In fact, he was probably yearning for it. It might be that one man’s apocalypse is another man’s heroism. Or something like that.
Everything used to be better in the past. We’ve all probably been guilty of this sweeping generalisation at times. But in reality research proves that life actually used to be a lot worse; today we live longer, lead healthier lives, earn more, have more choices. Indeed, the late Danish statistician, Hans Rosling found that we are now in a time where culture is actually improving. And yet, we still believe that everything is worsening, whether or not stirred by demagogues that reap off the benefits from doing so.
We may now live in an era that someday we’ll actually long for. Which is hard to imagine right now, because today we’re occupied with tomorrow and that doesn’t look too great. At least that is what contemporary politics may lead us believe.
Humans don’t change. We long for the good old days and are scared of what the future holds for us. And that is a trend that comes in waves. Eight years ago we believed we could change the future (‘Yes We Can’, European promises and open borders), while currently we’re reverting back to the past (Brexit, ‘Make America Great Again’, protectionism and walls).
In the present lies the hope for the future; because what you are able to do today, you’ll be able to do better tomorrow. Businesses understand this all too well, while politicians and governments still have a lot to learn with their lack of optimism and hope.
Inclusivity, stability, and labour participation; topics that are on the agenda in most decision-making rooms, and which are still freshly engrained in the DNA of successful start-ups. More often now, brands are actively conveying these messages, sharing them with their employees and a bigger audience.
It’s good to have a recurrent theme for a brand’s corporate story and thus for the way the business is managed; having the right story is as crucial to a brand’s identity as it is to attracting new talent and clients. In addition, the power of imagination and having a clear future perspective, which is deeply rooted in the origin of the brand, keeps you relevant in the present and prepares you for what’s to come in the future. The business world is – in its urge for growth – much smarter and more idealistic than most governments, which have to fight off the everyday sentiments of the people. The business world, in its best form, uses the right words to give itself direction. For that I actually have three simple recommendations:
- Begin with the end. Talk about your end goal.
- Be honest. Be open about being on your way and that you’re not doing everything right just yet, but that you’re constantly improving yourself in order to attain that end goal.
- A promise to your audience is assigning yourself a task. Each promise has two sides to it.
Having a vision is no longer solely the territory of PR, marketing, or corporate communications. It’s the leading principle, which belongs to the DNA of a company, no matter how big or small.
The outdoor brand Patagonia has a crystal clear mission statement: build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. This idea leads in whatever they do, from production to pricing, from managing their business to distribution. Everything serves the same purpose, namely their love for ‘the great outdoors’. This translates into an unfolding business that inspires, and therefore obtains a leading and differentiating position in their market.
At the beginning of 2017, BMW Group gave a presentation in Detroit about The Next 100 Years, in which they not only predicted where the world of mobility is headed, but also which initiatives they pre-select in order to anticipate the future. In that same period REI was named most inspiring brand at the World Economic Forum in DAVOS, because its ability to convert its solid belief into uncompromising behaviour and, consequently, converting that into a shareable story (check #OPTOUTSIDE).
And then there is Triodos Bank, a visionary in the world of sustainable banking. Working towards its common goal to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change, Triodos Bank show leadership and innovation in integrating sustainability in all its activities. They are also one of the fastest growers in the industry, having a magnetic force on both new clients and employees. They show that having a true north gives direction for everything the company, and thus the brand, does.
Brands such as Unilever, Tesla, Dove (I could go on and on) translate their ambitions in such an inspiring way that they create a clear vision for a broad audience. They make the future tangible, motivating not only their clients and employees, but also by letting that idea lead for the (sometimes less) popular decisions they make.
Such a leading principle is an inspiration and puts us in a world that, at times, feels upside down. Politicians are diligently looking for voters and therefore just mimic society’s fears. In the meantime, the business world makes the times ahead evident and perceptible.
In the old days you’d go into politics as an idealist. Now, idealists should consider choosing the business world instead.