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“Don’t buy this jacket.” And then all the reasons why you shouldn’t. That was the full page ad in the November 25, 2011 issue of The New York Times. On Black Friday no less. Patagonia proved that they stood for something more than really cool, really comfy outerwear.

It’s just one example of the nineties and noughties rise of brands that stood for – and against – things. For rights, for progress and against discrimination.

Think the United Colours of Benetton, collaborating with photographer Oliviero Toscani to produce ads featuring multiracial lovers, child soldiers and dying AIDS patients. Or Warby Parker making a pledge to “give one” when you “buy one” – turning the selfish act of buying a new pair of glasses into a selfless act of giving vision to someone less fortunate.

It’s a trend that still resonates today.

But it would seem the next era in brand narratives has its own theme – agency – and I don’t mean the one I work for with the beer and the table tennis. I’m talking about the kind that puts you in control. Of your actions. Your path in life. Your destiny.

Agency (the verb) is multifaceted. It’s a concept defined by choice and taking control of your own narrative. It’s a sense of freedom. It’s free will.

And agency is the reason we’ve seen the rise of a host of direct-to-consumer brands appealing to a world of interests and passion points, from personal hygiene to bespoke pharmaceuticals.

In this new paradigm, you – the empowered, conscious and cognitive consumer – are the Net Promoter. Your actions matter, and they determine the success of the brand, not the other way round. In this new world, brands need you.

It’s an idea that others have considered. In 2017, BBH Head of Strategy and Innovation Shai Idelson wrote about the ‘complete this sentence’ trend in advertising and communications that leads towards things starting to sound the same. His three-step guide to making a modern ad goes:

“Step 1: Take a verb

Step 2: Add “Your”

Step 3: Finish it off with a word that has something to do with what you’re selling.”

For example – Find Your More.

By doing this, brands appear to be empowering people and sparking agency in others. And Idelson sees a blind following of the ‘be yourself’ trend as moving away from what advertising has traditionally done.

But why are we moving that way?

To me, at least, the shift makes sense. In advertising, we seem to be ever inching higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Designed by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, it’s sketched out as a pyramid.

Things like food, shelter and sleep are at the bottom, and less tangible desires like ‘self actualisation’ and ‘transcendence’ sit at the top. In layman’s terms, it’s saying that our most basic needs must be met before we’re able (or motivated) to go higher.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, taken from simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

But we the privileged are no longer scrapping for survival. We’ve achieved love thanks to Tinder and Uber Eats and we’ve secured esteem as evidenced by the brands of the noughties. And the global derailment of the Corona virus is a reminder about how quickly this can all be undone.

So, now we’ve reached the top of the pyramid – ‘self actualisation’ – which is all about the growth of an individual toward fulfilment of the highest needs, and for meaning in life. You might call this the ‘best life’ box, that mental mode we aspire to where we get to epiphanise ourselves into a nirvana of self-made self-worth.

Is this really a role for brands to play?

It seems to me that agency (the verb) is where most brands are heading. Brand as an enabler. A brand model that can be broken down into a simple formula:

  • Here’s a belief about the world
  • Here are some tools and some ideas you can espouse
  • Oh, and here is some Goop that you use to slap on when you reach that plateau of self-worth

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Dove, Campaign for Real Beauty, 2004

A good example of this evolution is in the world of beauty. Consider the groundbreaking 2004 work contained within Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – a campaign defined by its empowering message and ambition to build confidence in women no matter their body or mindset.

Before then, Dove used the sorts of models you’d expect in a beauty product ad. But 2004 saw the brand promote a new idea of beauty – real women with real bodies. It saw Dove’s profits rise, and inspired the brand to continue with a series of purpose-driven campaigns that highlighted issues around body insecurity.

Compare that to the 2020 Sephora campaign titled ‘The Unlimited Power of Beauty’ – which talks to putting the power of make-up into the responsible hands of the user to accompany them through life’s ups and downs.

“Beauty is changing. It is no longer just on catwalks or in magazines but in our friends’ selfies or the latest uploads from influencers. Our smartphone screen has become our bathroom mirror,” the French agency BETC wrote in their campaign launch presser.

“Its meaning is also evolving – in culture, entertainment and social media, people are challenging the status quo, giving their own interpretation of what it means to be beautiful.”

It’s a subtle shift, sure, but the evolution is pretty clearly there. The former is an expose on body image and the harm it can cause, while the latter is a heartfelt story about self-worth being a mindset and choice you control.

And this is happening all over. Brands are doing more than reflecting beliefs. They are putting the power in our hands. I believe brands see agency as a force for good. Perhaps they believe it’s what people want, after all the reports and data on millennials tells us everyone is searching for their purpose.

As an agency (the noun) guy, I like it. It feels good, it’s empowering, it’s branding with intent. But up can’t be the only way. My genuine worry is where to next? If we’re in the top box – Self Actualisation – where do we go from here?

Perhaps the next wave will be full of ‘repair’ brands – those that pick up the pieces for consumers who have failed to reach the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. As an example of this, consider brands that are emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic: Judy, which sells disaster kits; or hims, helping you deal with your genetic and sexual shortcomings as a man.

Or perhaps the next wave means working more closely with ‘end-ups’ – companies and businesses that operate at the opposite end of the business cycle to start-ups.

John Maeda, the man who put the term ‘end-ups’ in the zeitgeist, argues that these are the brands that ultimately end up facilitating the innovation of startups for the greater benefit of society.

“Don’t forget that for all the bravado of the hoodie-wearing startup crowd, the majority of them wouldn’t hesitate to be acquired by an end-up. It’s easy to forget that an end-up is a company that has earned its reputation for being a reliable source of value,” he says.

“When you’re a teenager, it’s all too easy to dismiss a company that’s as old as a mum or dad. But it’s helpful to remind ourselves that being a ‘grown-up’ company is not a bad thing at all. After all, who wants to go back to when they were teenagers?”

A good example here is Tesla (innovator) and Ford (mass producer). Both benefit from the push and pull of technological creativity, but one is ultimately fragile and the other deep and resource-rich. The same applies to everything from Fintech to global energy businesses.

Perhaps by the time a business idea gets to an end-up, we will once again be talking about the function and benefits of these services and products, not their aspirational self actual promises.

– Andrew Reeves