<This blog post originally appeared on The Core Code. I’d like to thank my co-authors Nuria Rojo and Philip McKenzie for the fun time writing this.>
Thinkers as varied as John Maynard Keynes, E.F. Schumacher and Buckminster Fuller have contemplated the role of work in the larger society. They envisioned a time when the burden of our labor would be replaced with more free time for more contemplative pursuits.
As a society we have yet to achieve those goals and in fact, we are working more than ever.
The promise and inherent risk of increased technology, automation and AI dominate most conversations geared toward understanding the future of work.
There is no denying the importance of technology and AI in our present work and economic lives.
However, our idolatry of technology runs the risk of us losing sight of the essential importance of turning to our humanity to solve our most complex problems at the precise moment it is most needed.
We are currently living in a VUCA reality: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.
Brand organizations are attempting to navigate and prosper within a VUCA present while increasingly relying on technology/AI. The likelihood of finding long term success with this strategy is slim: creativity and solving complex human problems require human ingenuity to generate solutions.
The future of work is more than the technology we employ.
It is about the meaning we find in our existence and how it relates to the products we create and put into the world.
Why we brand
When we say that the organizational purpose of a brand is to convey meaning, what does that mean?
Organizational meaning is the reason that the Brand exists in the world. The Brand acts as a vessel containing the meaning and purpose behind the organization. The Brand is also there to drive demand for the product and services that the organization produces.
Meaning coupled with the demand initiative is driven by human compulsion.
These activities exist in a virtual human loop, in a constant ebb and flow.
Organizations that find themselves under pressure to iterate out and replace human centrality to the creative process of branding risk a creative malaise.
This is the future of work that can only be properly addressed by human beings.
Labor and the Gig Reality
The economic realities of employment markets have not favored creative (or intangible) labor. The so-called “gig economy” has resulted in a permanent state of labor serfdom for creatives, freelancers and consultants.
At the same time, organizational branding challenges have never been more daunting as they are competing for relevance (attention) and resonance (emotional value-based connection).
Accordingly, two challenges arise: (1) organizations exhibit very little loyalty to the talent they most need and (2) the existing labor pool does not trust organizations to provide economic and psychological security.
A “trust-poor” environment makes it almost impossible to engage in meaningful work.
Organizations must create a working environment that is conducive to building trust rather than engaging in exploitation. In response, workers have been finding a way to organize as evidenced by labor union movements among freelancers and media.
Job security in the traditional sense might be a thing of the past but that doesn’t mean organizations have ceded the social contract of responsibility.
Humans need support to produce the type of work needed to confront the strategic and creative hurdles of branding.
Organizations that are either unwilling or ill-equipped to adjust to the new labor environment will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain talent.
The type of innovative brand work that maintains cultural relevance can only occur through a process of discovery. Discovery, an inherently messy, intangible and imperfect process where human beings excel relative to their technological/AI counterparts.
The Power of “What If”
The challenge that all brand leaders face is how to create, and sustain, demand.
Demand equates to growth and growth is, after we strip away all the hyperbolic Press Releases and all the Purpose-driven CEO speeches, all that any organization really, deeply cares about.
And, here’s the ugly truth of it all, growth is remarkably hard to create. Particularly today.
All the easy routes to growth have already been tried and perfected. We live in a world where there are already 60 variants of orange juice in a grocery store and a dizzying 87,000 variations at a regular Starbucks, so thinking that adding a new SKU or a simple line extension is sufficient, is dangerously naïve.
Here’s the stark reality that many marketers are struggling to address. Real growth, not just tiny incremental steps that your CEO and Shareholders can barely determine, requires an organization to tap into three “I’s:”
Here’s the second critically important point. Machines and technology can’t do any of those three.
Sure, AI or more accurately “machine learning” can wolf down trillions of data points and detect patterns and sequences that no human ever could.
But machines can’t answer WHY that happened. It can only say it DID happen.
There’s a critical difference.
Insight requires humans.
Ingenuity is the same. Ingenuity is the ability to see things in new ways. One of the most powerful brands in the world was started by ingenuity. The “waffle shoe” story and the ingenuity of Bill Bowerman is legend at NIKE.
Seeing the possibility to use a kitchen appliance to create a shoe that would give better traction and speed to distance runners is not something, again, that technology can do.
And then there’s Imagination.
The Holy Grail of Marketing. The Grandfather of every product you wish you’d created.
The High Temple of every great advertising campaign idea you wish you’d thought of.
That wonderful moment where you say “What if….”
Imagination is the ultimate fuel of any organization’s growth. It’s the accelerant that says what if space was a vacation destination (Virgin Galactic), what if we could make electric cars look sexy (Tesla) or what if an ice-cream company could be one of the most socially powerful brands in the world and profoundly impact topics like racism, gender inequality and climate change (Ben&Jerry’s)
What if creates new ideas.
What if changes outdated processes so your company can be nimbler.
What if considers new audience segments you’ve never considered.
What if uncovers new partnerships that open new markets.
What if develops ad campaigns so achingly beautiful and moving that consumers rush to your brand.
“What if” resides in the deep, dark, funny, weird, joyful and brilliant imagination of your people.
“What if” is your only real sustainable path to growth too.
“What if” doesn’t reside in a line of code in your technology stack.
The Culture of Fear
When we are afraid, it soaks through. Colleagues, customers, friends and families can smell it, feel and suffer it. Not many though are able to acknowledge it.
Fear is a pervasive virus, enabled by organizations that are gradually choking their own human potential. They have been doing it for so long that people accept it as the norm.
We cannot be authentic and vulnerable. We cannot speak up and express our perspectives. We cannot be human and treat others like humans. We cannot think.
Hence, we cannot create.
In order to avoid fear, that feeling of being gobbled up by rejection and judgement, we have secured our comfort zone within jobs, careers and organizations, lulled by a steady paycheck by means of compliance.
In Seth Godin’s words “Fear's a dream killer. It puts people into suspended animation, holding their breath, paralyzed and unable to move forward.” It creates an emotional drop-down spiral.
Eliminating fear is not a job for machines. It’s no longer in the hands of top management from prestigious Business schools. It is not about rules and processes, or dare to say, well-being programs for employees.
The key action is a drastic and courageous shift in our thinking, as Jim Collins and Jerry Porras already suggested in 1994 in their book “Built to Last.” A complete backbone change deep inside the Taylor management paradigm organizations have been relying on since the last century.
Organizations need to focus on their people. They need to adopt a new model based on strong values and behaviour where people feel to be aligned with. A new model based on responsibility, respect, courage, gratitude, compassion, and connection.
This model is not a prerogative of leaders but a shared system for everyone in an organization, imprinted through the role of its CEO.
This model debunks every traditional Management and Human Resources practices, the way we collaborate, the way we work, the way we create a Brand. It allows humans to observe and relate to other humans, feel like humans, solve problems like humans and create products and services like humans, meant for other humans.
This is the new model that fosters the intrinsic values of “what if.”
If You Listen
A Brand story does not exist in a vacuum.
The story is shaped, consumed and shared by everyone who comes in contact with it. It is how a Brand provides a justification for their existence and breathes meaning into their narrative.
The relationship that a Brand maintains to work in all of its facets, from organizational labor to culture will ultimately determine its relevance.
A rapidly changing business environment means nothing short of a radical and transformational branding approach that centers humans in the future of work will suffice. Data, AI and other technological tools have their place for certain but to what degree we allow them to shape our collective destiny is up for grabs.
If we listen, there are emerging Brand stories that are in line with an emerging future and in that story, humans, not machines, are center stage.
And, to close this off, one of my favourite ads from Ogilvy for IBM