It’s tempting to look at pop culture for insight into the zeitgeist, and it’s hard to look at pop culture without seeing a lot of Zombies. This may well not be a coincidence. Americans themselves have been stumbling around shell shocked the past few years. While the country may have narrowly averted a Depression in the economic sense, the consumer psyche wasn’t so fortunate.
This February will mark the four-year anniversary of the lowest point ever recorded in this country’s consumer confidence index. And while today consumer sentiment is improved from that all-time nadir, it continues to lag well behind the historic average.
Those of us in the advertising business are well aware. Massive shifts in consumer attitudes and behavior have forced us to question how we steward brands through these turbulent waters. After all, with Americans’ job security uncertain, their homes under water (figuratively and literally), their pensions unfunded, their national pride wounded, their personal security threatened, their government dysfunctional, and their leading corporations distrusted, business as usual hasn’t seemed so assured.
Especially when business as usual generally meant appealing to people’s grand aspirations. Is there any word bandied about the corridors of marketing departments more than "aspirational?" From fashion to automotive to alcohol, the conventional wisdom has been that success lay in offering people a chance to buy their way to a better life.
But the simplicity, the very credibility of this approach came to feel increasingly tenuous these last few years. After a long stretch of economic malaise, political instability, and a "new normal" characterized by uncertainty, the shift toward a different model, a different kind of motivation, is now well underway.
Great brands, those most in touch in with consumer sentiment, have evolved their message from one of Aspiration to one of Inspiration. They are focused less on what they can give, and more on what consumers themselves can achieve. In those very same aspiration-prone categories, quintessentially American companies like Chrysler and Levi’s have been calling on Americans to make a better world for themselves, by themselves. These brands have realized their role is not to be the solution, but to be the motivation for one. The call to action isn’t merely to buy something, but to build something.
Of course, some brands have always acted thusly, particularly in categories predicated on personal achievement, like sporting goods. What’s interesting is how badge brands, whether of style, wealth, wisdom, or popularity, have taken the same tack.
So while Levi’s "Go Forth - Braddock, PA" or Chrysler’s "Imported from Detroit" are obvious proof points, the evidence is much more widespread. Although, in another way, the evidence is quite concentrated—just look at the award show circuit or recent industry’s "Best Of" lists.
Take Google. The brand’s advertising, like "Dear Sophie" and "It gets better" is widely praised. And while the work seamlessly incorporates Chrome, the message, "The web is what you make of it", puts the onus less on product features or the Google brand, and more on the consumer. It celebrates the power of the individual to touch lives, both those we know and those we don’t.
Or take Axe. We’ve come to expect entertaining work from Axe year after year. But while "Angels Will Fall" won Grand Prix at Cannes this year, a far more interesting (and more talked about) spot was "Susan Glenn." Traditionally, few brands have more audaciously promised to fulfill their audience’s dreams than Axe. But Susan Glenn turned this proposition on its head. For the first time, Axe suggested that success in the mating game lay not inside a spray bottle, but within guys themselves. Susan Glenn challenged guys to step up and take their destiny in their own hands.
And then there’s Red Bull. Stratos was one of the most spectacular marketing efforts of the year. While not an American brand, it certainly felt and acted like one (including executing here). Their record-breaking initiative gave people a renewed sense of wonder and confidence in what we can accomplish—as individuals and as a society. Like so many of these similar-minded brands, the hero here wasn’t the brand, or the product, but the people behind the project and their achievement.
All this work was beautifully crafted, but it touched us as people, not just advertising professionals. That’s why it’s no surprise it resonated so strongly beyond the industry. It’s a body of work we can feel good about as practitioners, because it makes viewers feel good about themselves.
Who knows, it may well be that we are poised for a jubilant recovery, with housing prices going up and everything from unemployment to global temperatures going down. And maybe as the next bubble buoys, brands will once again succeed with glitzy promises of the good life they offer. But perhaps, brands will continue to benefit from the lessons of these last few years and remember that inspiration can be as powerful a proposition as aspiration.
Alan Snitow is EVP, Director of Integration at DDB Chicago.