The future has already been and that "client" is the society

It wasn't that long ago that corporations were happy to interpret the promise of fulfillment, joy, abundance, and instant solutions to general problems that could be bought. That time is gone. Not because of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation and the energy crisis. Nor because of the state's (many states') inability to deal with any of it. The crisis became the new normal at the moment when we lost the right to call the consequence of modernity "unintended". Therefore, the situation is reversed: the company is in the position of a "client" to whom you present the plan of your own change through all marketing - from theories and schools, to consultants and corporations.

Exhaustion of the future

A German sociologist wrote about the end of the promising power of capitalism Jens Beckert: personified by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the economic crisis of 2007/8, but she started earlier . In many ways, it foreshadowed the exhaustion of the future - a crisis of the legitimacy of the economy, politics, the state and ideas about a progressive society. It is a crisis of decades of neoliberalism, knee-deep in Reagan and Thatcher, but it is mainly a large and global social crisis.

There are many valid explanations. However, I ask a practical question in general notes: what does the loss of legitimacy, expectations and promises of the future mean for a brand? What is the loss of hope, the half-baked meaninglessness of the best technology in a design package?

Mantras about making a profit, about business schemes that at least worked a little before or during the pandemic, are still heard in the meeting rooms. Is it possible to return to them? And does it make sense? Brand weight, as we know it, is so-so. You can't catch up with recitals, or a funny or heartbreaking position that wants to give hope. There is not much to save - not where words like "performance" and "success" come to mind. One cannot naively pretend that nothing much has happened, nor hide behind greenwashing, CSR and the happy returns of generations of family businesses. It will no longer be a story about freedom and progress.

Your neighbor, space-time

Only recently did the situation look more innocent. She accepted the alibi that we were perhaps only spectators or victims of all those events. We can only do a little for the warming of the climate, each of us only with our small share in the production of carbon dioxide and a few microtene bags in food. We can't blame the war in Ukraine at all, we can't blame the pandemic either, ditto for the Nazis in the parliament. Those snapshots looked like they would hopefully remain snapshots. Well today? Where are the lines of responsibility today? When did they start drawing? And what did you do at the agency or in the marketing department at that time? I don't go into controversies, they are not important. The point is that the future has already been – and that tells us something important about the present.

The historical context, the space-time here and now, became an actor. The world is complicated, interconnected and chained, and there is nowhere to hide from it. We are concerned with "everything" that is "out there" as if it does not concern us. We're here, we see it, and we already understand very well. We have a couple of great prusers on our neck who act like annoying neighbors - they are right next door, and every time we forget about them, they remind us with a message that our presence actually bothers them. Not them, it's WE who bother them! WE bother the climate, WE bother the virus, WE bother the armies and politicians, WE bother history. (Unsurprisingly, we hear something similar from the opposite side: WE mind the "twelve families" behind the business, WE mind Western propaganda, WE mind the liberals.)

In established ideas, the state should play the first violin here. That robbed, opportunistic state that (especially in the countries of the former Eastern bloc) has lost the ability to promise anything and not to keep it at all. The state that is governed by the power of bureaucracy and inertia, the hope of flowing Eurofunds and "chair fanaticism". So different. All that remains is for someone else to play the first violin: people. A good old rule (belongs to anarchist theories) says: people don't act like idiots when you don't treat them like that. It resembles the text of the folkloric "if you talked to people the way advertising talks to people, they'd punch you in the face".

Marketing regardless of growth

It affects everyone. Banks, insurance companies, car companies, airlines, operators, electronics stores, retail chains, beer producers and bookstores. All of them, including their advertising, research and media partners, willy-nilly bear a share of responsibility – not for the economic outcome, but for the meaning of everyday things. It is no more about supply and demand, sales effectiveness and Maslow's pyramid of needs. It is about the meaning that the brand can offer despite the fact that the corporation no longer expects growth. (If you don't know it yet, google "ungrowth" and "degrowth" in English, "nerást" in Czech, and "mineral economy" in Slovak.)

In the marketing register, it would sound something like this: the endless client-agency dialectic, with all its transformations, the nice ones and the servile ones, that we have experienced in three decades, no longer makes sense. It is no longer about finding a creative partner who will come up with a "brilliant" idea, or a strategic partner who will come up with a relevant insight for the target. It is not a space for the realization of great visions and missions. It is not about exercising an artistic desire to create through a brand. It's about overcoming the meaning of traditional marketing on all sides and redefining what it can mean.

Very specific: no one will leave the Russian market for you when you have nothing to do there. No one will solve food safety for you when there are microplastics floating in the water. No one will solve regional differences for you when even the state persistently ignores them. No one will reconstruct democracy for you when it doesn't even matter in politics. Look there when you want to do something - solve the problem, because there are too many of them and they will increase. It's a good challenge. And it is also good because it better reveals who is speaking loudly even when they are not saying anything.

The challenge means seeing, understanding and realizing - with all the consequences - that this is the role that the brand takes on in this situation. What can it serve, what good can it do? However, the word "can" has a more radical meaning than just potential. It's about a broad social function, about responsibility, because today more than ever, "if you're the only one who can, you must." And it seems that the corporation with its brand is really the only one, or even the last one, who has power at the moment : money and subjectivity not to behave like a characterless populist.

The perspective of universal crisis and risk will come together very much today. Surprisingly or not, it is also possible to find a meaningful place for the brand. But we have to clean our house first.

The community explains

The target group is dead. It ceased to exist when it became a PowerPoint chart, when it appeared in an archetypal image, when it was expressed by psychographics and demographics in an empirically based brand model. Target group is the wrong category because it doesn't capture the most essential thing that makes us human - that we know something and don't know something, that we believe something, that we somehow explain something to ourselves, that something excites us and something else repels us, that we share all these things , we ritualize and that it all changes over time.

Therefore, it makes no sense to talk about target groups, but about interpretive communities. Yes, to communities of people who are united primarily by interpretation: understanding the topic, guidance about the world and a view of the world, of the problem, of the situation. They can do a lot at one moment and then regroup around something completely different.Because they are interested and solve (not only) their problem. And so it starts to be almost a no-brainer, whether they have abundance or it's hard to find just enough, whether they're worn out or enthusiastically flying into the new. Regardless of age, place of permanent residence and education - we gather in a square or in a neighborhood and start doing something that takes shape seemingly by itself. We are united by meaning - in anti-government protests, in shopping or car sharing, in the restoration of a children's playground or a dilapidated housing estate fountain from the 1970s. There is a lot to be done, and this is how corporate marketing should understand it: as clouds of work that await the brand if it wants to maintain any kind of legitimacy among people (not just short-term effectiveness based on signals, rubbing ointments and stupid mascots).

Be careful! Let's not confuse this with outdated notions of sponsorship and CSR, there is a big difference. It is not "out of the way", it is not secondary or tertiary, it is not just "in the eye" and it is not "in the small". It is a business that this time does not work for the concentration of profit, but for a society that demands meaning. It is not a grant scheme or a decision from the table - it is literally responsible participation in shaping the life of society. The everyday one. There at those protests, on that playground, at that fountain, or when getting into that shared car. It is not the utilitarian value of the product, it is an honest, well-worn, toiled and sweated engagement of the brand. Almost like the real thing, right? Well, that's because it IS in reality, in that raw, difficult to grasp and without a unifying slogan. Not "in advertising", rather without it.

Materialize change

It is more difficult than the comfortable marketing of likable spots, suggestive photos, testimonials and headlines. But - let's face it - advertising no longer entertains anyone, slogans can no longer contain the essence, and people are more demanding of what we tell them. And it won't be easier. Millennials really didn't fall on their heads, Husák's children are in their forties and all the others have either completely resigned, want to leave (and don't know where anymore), or are very loudly fighting for attention. It is not generations and cohorts with different visions of life, it is the whole society that is experiencing crises. And that's whywe should go among them and tell them something that touches them intrinsically - even if it's not always pleasant, and even if it's not a comfortable escape from the urgent everyday. It SHOULD be harder, it really SHOULD be, and that's a good challenge if it really matters to maintain the everyday, to have a fulfilled life, or even to have your own children.

We can, as always, start with ourselves. To challenge those settled deposits of marketing standards that we have picked up along the way. Not believing that the segmentation and focus group from which we just finished reading the report makes us masters of understanding, tactics and strategy. Doubt what the textbooks say - no stone was left unturned from their lessons. To challenge our own concerns and fears, which we reflect in our ideas about goals and messages, about personas and archetypes, about claims and logos. To challenge the value of money and the meaningfulness of performance parameters that drives that fear. There's no point in shaking your own chair when you have to make a decision. We should not be afraid. We have to search and create meaning, because there is no difference between "us" and "them", and in fact there never was. Only this kind of meaning-making still gives hope - in the limits we cannot run away from and the problems we can solve.

A corporate brand is not a sales tool or a feeling that remains after the "product" has been rubberized. It is (1) a tool and (2) a space of understanding, guidance and sharing. It can express and materialize the invention and social change we live in, if that change is urgent, necessary and really useful. He can even initiate it to some extent. Therefore, the challenge belongs to all of us: to prove that corporations and agencies can create meaning not for themselves, but for a sustainable society.

A bit suggestive below the line: why do it if not for profit? Because it makes sense to imbue the everyday with meaning. Because it is essential to reinterpret stories that question one thing and confirm another. Because it is important to learn to understand yourself (also) through a brand. Or (also) because we enjoy it. That's more than enough.