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Is it now the job of a creative director to fix our crumbling institutions?

Helping brands take a principled stand in troubling times is now just part of the job description.

Is it now the job of a creative director to fix our crumbling institutions?
[Photos: Andre Benz/Unsplash, Joshua Chua/Unsplash, Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash]

Manuel Oliver, the father of a Parkland shooting victim, took the stage at Cannes last Friday to ask agencies and brands to help him change gun laws in the United States. Just four months ago, he was nearly thrown out of a congressional hearing on gun control by his own congressman, Rep. Matt Gaetz. (The clip is incredible.)

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It makes sense. Fed up with inaction from the very institutions meant to protect him, Oliver turned to an industry that specializes in shaping hearts and minds.

Brands lending a hand to social causes is not a new phenomenon. But today’s era of purpose-driven marketing feels different: Creatives aren’t expected to take a supporting role in fixing societal ills. We’re now expected to take the lead.

In many ways, Manuel Oliver’s plea at Cannes was a brief that’s becoming all too common: I’ve given up on my elected leaders to do [XYZ], so I need brands to enact real change.

[Photos: Andre Benz/Unsplash, Joshua Chua/Unsplash, Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash]

But why?

For one, public trust in government is at an historic low and trust in brands is on the rise. A recent Pew study reported that 64% of respondents said CEOs, not the government, should take the lead on change, and 53% said they believed brands can do more to solve social ills than the government.

It’s no wonder. During January’s government shutdown, we saw brands like Kraft offer free food to furloughed government workers. Just this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce finally supported the Equality Act to extend civil rights protections for LGBT citizens—only after brands like Apple and Amazon pushed them to do so. And companies like Chobani and Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing are leading the charge in helping refugees find employment.

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A steady decline in religiosity may also have something to do with it. In its 2019 prediction issue, The Economist described millennials as “the least religious generation ever.”

Many fill the void by placing their faith in brands. We’ve already made a religion of work, and are now elevating the brands we love to godlike status. In a sense, we’ve traded the cross for the swoosh. We seek salvation by tidying our closets like Marie Kondo, and following every sacred word from wellness brands like Goop and SoulCycle. Tara Isabella Burton, who is currently writing a book on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, said it best:

“The language of wellness isn’t just coded diet culture. It’s also encoded with religious promise.”

Brands know their fate if they don’t give us what we want. If they dare to exist without standing for something, they’re done. At a roundtable at Cannes last week, Unilever’s new CEO Alan Jope said as much. He vowed to axe any brand in his portfolio that didn’t serve a higher purpose, or worse, tried to “woke-wash” its consumers. After his TED Talk in April, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya spoke to PBS NewsHour about this new social contract. “You either do it or you die,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of businesses and brands continuing to exist for generations to come with the motto of ‘I exist only to make money.'”

[Photos: Andre Benz/Unsplash, Joshua Chua/Unsplash, Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash]

As a creative director in this new world, all this seems too heavy a load to bear. How can we possibly take on the task of helping companies meet consumer expectations in this new reality? We focus our creative process on three principles: trust, purpose, and action.

1. Trust is a commodity

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Transparency stands out in a world of opacity. Actions speak louder than words, and in today’s social media-fueled world, consumers expect full access to the inner workings of the companies they patronize—not just lip service. But don’t overthink it. A creative execution can be as simple as Everlane’s “Transparency Tuesday” series on Snapchat, which is basically an AMA on topics ranging from how factory workers are treated, to how their cotton is sourced.

2. Don’t just sell a purpose; embody one

Remember, brands are the ones satisfying our desire for meaning in life. We want our mascara, coffee creamer, and yoga pants to embody the values we hold sacred. But ethically sourced ingredients and eco-friendly packaging are table stakes. To up the ante on purpose, many opt to partner with social impact organizations. But, as Roma director Alfonso Cuarón recently warned a room full of creatives at Cannes: “It has to be a genuine commitment . . . These relationships have to come from a standpoint of honesty.”

3. Take action, no matter how small

Fast-moving brands win. With constant updates, activations, and innovation, they present themselves as different from the status quo, bent on a better version of reality for their customers, and the world. We saw this in Nike’s Circular Design guide last month, an incredible example of a brand open-sourcing its best practices for sustainable design. Or the Clif Bar vs. Kind Snacks Twitter feud last week. This wasn’t your ordinary “our product is better than yours” campaign.

The current hope is for companies to be vehicles of change in the world. Today, brands stand out by standing for the very things that are going unattended to—trust, transparency, accountability, purpose, inclusion, and action. This is the ultimate litmus test in business today. What was once a high bar is now the baseline, but the best brands are rising to the occasion, and it’s up to the creative community to help them do just that.

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Grant Wenzlau is the director of creative strategy at Day One Agency, a creative communications agency with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

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