In PR360’s year-in-review blog, the leadership team brought you their perspective on the year that was. Reading it reinforced for me my own big picture theme of the past twelve months: identity.
Consider some of the dominant stories of 2018: Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the Repeal referendum, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Ryanair’s trade union flip, the Royal Wedding, CervicalCheck, Google’s sexual harassment protests, Peter Casey and the Presidential election, ‘the backstop’, US mid-terms and, as the year closes, the gilets jaunes protests in France.
At the core of each are identity themes like equality, race, social background, gender, self-determination, representation, privacy, and fairness.
How a person is valued—as a citizen, colleague or consumer—by those seeking to influence their decisions is now paramount, surpassing traditional, broad-based themes like pay, employment and price. If a brand, business or politician doesn’t ‘get’ my worth—my personal and professional identity—then they won’t get my money, skills, or vote.
Heavy stuff, I hear you say. Perhaps, but brands and personalities that view identity as irrelevant to their goals or merely a distraction from other issues are the very ones struggling to connect with the people who matter to them.
A new challenge for corporates
Identity has moved beyond politics. It is now a very real factor in consumer decision-making and business operations. I lost count over the year of the number of times a CEO or HR director highlighted how company culture and principles are key considerations in the staff recruitment and retention challenge.
For these leaders, identity presents a real and often uncomfortable challenge:
Certainly, many brands have attempted to ‘identify’, and with varying success. Nowhere was this more evident in 2018 than at the annual gay pride parade in Dublin. The streets went into logo overdrive as companies, products and political parties jostled, physically and financially, to show how they identified with zeitgeist. The bandwagon was close to buckling under the strain of what was, with notable exceptions, a cynical quick-win pursuit.
Another social issue which became entangled with identity in 2018 was housing. The ‘Take Back the Streets’ protests were notable for the support of non-traditional placard-holders from the world of business, such as the founder of Web Summit Paddy Cosgrave. Big employers, too, faced with the domino effect of rising rents and prices on salaries, are venturing into the housing debate, provision and policy wise.
Risk vs reward
Identity in comms is full of risk. It challenges corporates to move out of the comfort zone and venture into an arena that is subjective, opinionated, and fundamentally uncertain.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that it is getting harder and harder for brands and leaders to sit on the fence. Trying to be everything to everyone rarely resonates. Half-hearted or clumsy attempts to identify are inevitably seen for what they are: cynical tactical plays. The target audience recoils, and the sponsor behind it is mercilessly torn to shreds online and in traditional media.
Looking to the year ahead, the issues driving identity are set to stay (Brexit and Trump alone will ensure this is the case). So, how do brands, businesses and politicians seeking share and influence navigate this tricky terrain? There are two choices:
1. Embrace – All the truest things in business, as in life, are anchored in core convictions. Those brands with a distinct culture are generally those that invest in it—and not just financially. The initiatives they support are ones that they believe in beyond mere veneer gestures. Initiatives that may be boring to others but true to you are more valuable in both the immediate and longer term.
Play in a space that you believe in and do it well. And if someone takes a pot-shot at you, stand firm—your brand will resonate even further.
2. Stay away – You can’t ‘half do’ identity. Following the crowd just to be seen to be on trend is high risk. There is no in-between, especially in a world where consumers and media are hungry for deeper stories.
If you aren’t prepared to live and die by your opinion, particularly when there is a chance your campaign may lead to tough questions or the proverbial hitting the fan, then stay away until you are clear in mind with a fully thought-out plan.
The world of identity is full of risk and reward for brands and businesses, where the pay-offs can result in positive exposure, talent cultivation, and traction with key stakeholders. It’s also a harsh world, where uncertainty and difficult choices are routine.
Regardless of the path your brand takes, 2019 is the year you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Founder and Managing Director of PR360, Dan’s career spans business, politics and professional representation. He has overseen the agency’s rapid growth, developing a premier client portfolio and a talented team of professionals.