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The Future of Brand Purpose: Global Futures Forum 2018

For the past few years I’ve attended the Future Laboratory’s Global Futures Forum event, as in my role, it’s both necessary and wise to keep in touch with future innovations, not just in our industry, but in every conceivable industry. This year in particular, it wasn’t youth, wellbeing or gender which I was most excited for (although keenly interested) it was the ‘Future of Brand Purpose’. Brand purpose expands on quite dated notions of Corporate Social Responsibility. It goes further than that, recognising that today, the big players in our lives aren’t orbiting our society, dipping in now and then to do good deeds. They are intrinsic, part of the furniture, vital to run our day-to-day. Brand purpose is a far more fitting moniker for what we expect from brands today.

Those who control the past control the future

So, the Future Laboratory team unpacked a few futures for Brand Purpose, a Utopian, dystopian and somewhere in the middle. Each of these visions conceded to one thing. That brands are being invited to take greater control of our lives in spaces that were once reserved for Government. They are involved in city planning, public works, deploying tech to improve the lives of citizens, and much, much more. On the surface, there is little wrong with relying on our greatest minds within the industry to do what they do best on behalf of the public, but it all comes down to purpose. Largely the societal shift has come from us expecting more from our brands – we want large companies to recognise they owe us a debt and should behave accordingly. They should prioritise society and public wellbeing over profit. This will of course lead to a harmonious and utopian mixing of brand, culture and society for everyone’s benefit. But is brand purpose actually this altruistic? Can we trust brands with our societies?

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 If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself

Some brands may truly believe that their purpose is no longer just profit. Millennials and generation Z don’t. The most recent Delloitte Millennial Survey, shows that youth perception of this concept has taken a sharp nosedive. 48% believe companies behave ethically and 47% believe companies have an interest in benefiting society. This is down from around 65% in 2015. Companies may well believe that their purpose is more aligned with society than ever, but the reality seems to be very different. It would be nice to think that since brands are owned and operated by people, that the benefit of people would be high on the agenda when it comes to brand purpose. We, of course, know that this hasn’t been the case in the past and so is something we must definitely watch as a society to best manage the outcome.

We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it

What can we look forward to, in a worst case scenario, with brand purpose left unchecked? Well, there are already some worrying examples floating around today. The truly terrifying Chinese Social Credit system, straight out of Black Mirror,  where the government uses tech to bring every day factors into a score that either allows or denies you services. This will be a model for businesses indulging in city planning to allow or deny access to certain areas of public space. This could be based on your brand of device, ability to spend or general rating. This could result in the ghettoisation of our society but determined by cookies. For those thinking it’s not possible, if we totally relinquish ownership of public spaces and hand it over to brands, we won’t have a say.

Google are currently developing Sidewalk Toronto. A project mired in controversy for the above reasons and more, but one very much going ahead and marking a watershed moment in Brand Purpose evolving into control of city spaces. Undoubtedly, the design will be seamless, those who live and work there will have flawless experience, but the true costs is yet unclear and what precedent it sets for governments relinquishing control of what many perceive to be their fundamental responsibilities, direct to brands. 

"This year in particular, it wasn’t youth, wellbeing or gender which I was most excited for (although keenly interested) it was the ‘Future of Brand Purpose’. "

Big Brother is Watching you

The keen reader among you will have noticed the 1984 references peppered throughout the blog. What I find so interesting in this example is that it is a weak and feeble system of government relinquishing control to brands and not dictatorship. The arguments revolve around lack of public funds to regenerate spaces like Google have in Toronto. In reality, there are many examples of organic transformation of public spaces. I blogged about the potential rejuvenation of the high street and how experiences can and should be prioritised. There are also some amazing stories coming out of Detroit, with artisan businesses and makers reclaiming space, deemed ‘used up’ after the recession. Perhaps it is not just big businesses that can provide new paradigms of brand purpose, perhaps small independent communities that support creativity and diversity rather than hegemony can help create a counterbalance to vague and sinister brand purpose. 


By Callum Gill - Head of Insight and Innovation