The Moral of the (Brand) Story

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Amidst the travel chaos and ensuing protests that erupted a few days ago, we released our latest work for UNICEF, ‘The Shared Story of Harry and Ahmed’ – the story of two child refugees 80 years apart. The latest chapter of UNICEF’s ‘For Every Child’ campaign that raises awareness for the ongoing plight of child refugees.  It was met with an enthusiastic response from those you might expect – the NGO community and those who have specific link to the refugee issue.

It was also refreshing to see the broader support it mustered: thousands of shares, millions of views and even unsolicited support from celebrities such as John Legend, Sarah Silverman and Kim Kardashian.

It is a powerful piece of storytelling, there is no doubt, but in the context of the Trump administration’s recent immigration policy, it was used by many as a symbol of what is ‘right’ versus what is ‘wrong’.

In the current global climate of heightened political and social tension, voices becoming louder, messages more complex and facts more…alternative, it isn’t just the NGOs who are in the fray. Brands have also taken it on themselves to become society’s moral compass – just look at last week’s Super Bowl. Brands such as Audi, Budweiser and 84 Lumber all aired commercials with strong political undertones. Saturday Night Live felt it was all a little odd and took the trend to its logical extreme last week with a brilliant sketch of an agency pitch meeting with outlandishly political concepts for a commercial about puffed cheese snacks.

So, should brands play moral guardian? And if they do, how can they ensure the issues that matter are addressed in the right way?

In the commercialised world of today, it can be argued that brands have a moral duty to further the values of society. Realistically though, a brand will always have its eye on the practicalities of that message to the business. This pressure stopped household favorites in the 1950s from featuring gay lifestyles whilst today Pringles produces rainbow packaging.

The cynic might suggest that when society moves forwards brands do likewise to ensure they’re ‘on message’. The optimist might suggest brands can drive cultural change by standing for issues that would otherwise be neglected.

Great brands understand the power they have but also use that with humility and honesty to make sure their messages are authentic. When brands in any category embrace issues such as gay rights, transgender issues, diversity or women’s empowerment, their sheer weight of ‘media’ can help normalise the issue for society. In the same way advertising that objectifies women can normalise that behaviour to the detriment of society, so too can advertising that empowers women normalise that sensibility for the benefit of society. Once themes become accepted into mainstream media the sense of societal impact is profound. It can make those who with prejudice feel like the outsiders.

So, how best do this?

One place to look is the playbook of the villain (or hero depending on your political allegiance) of the moment – Steve Bannon and

In October 2015 Joshua Green wrote a piece for Bloomberg on Steve Bannon and founder Andrew Brietbart, that highlights how they understood that the public don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains. Breitbart excelled at creating these narratives, an editorial approach that’s lived on. “When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site,” said Alex Marlow, the site’s editor in chief.

This is simply the same approach that we, as an industry, have practiced for decades: find long-term narratives that have cultural tension and be great storytellers. It’s the difference between the one-off commercial that hijacks an issue and an authentic long-term commitment to that issue.

The final consideration is in avoiding that which regularly hampers the industry’s agencies and brand managers. Thinking what we do and what we know is everyone’s ‘truth’.

Events like Brexit and Trump’s win are examples of both a staggering triumph of communications by one side and an incredible failure by the other. Dave Trott wrote brilliantly about this back in August 2016 (before Trump’s win) and the need to stop crafting messages for those who already agree with us.  We need to craft a message that persuades the ‘undecideds’. Your message grows by capturing the moderates rather than trying (and failing) to convince the fanatics or preaching to the choir.

In a society, morality is everyone’s business. And brands are part of that. Brands at their best help us find our place in the world. They can also be a moral compass – but only if it’s authentic and for the long run. And in dealing with matters of great moral contention any brand should remember the greatest moral code of them all – treat others as you’d like to be treated.

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