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The American Brand Awakening

America is not the same. The economic recession has profoundly changed peoples’ values systems in this country. Facing adversity, Americans have decided to take back control of their lives. The millennium generation, aged 18-29, experienced a 37% unemployment rate in 2010 according to Pew Research Center. This generation is leading the pack, driving shifts in how Americans think about business, technology and community. They have started their owned ventures with a different set of values from Wall Street. Their new set of values has also made companies reconsider the way they market to consumers.

Yesterday, I went to a conference featuring fellow Medill alumnus John Gerzema, author of “Spend Shift”. John conducted research across the country to understand the impact of the economic recession on peoples’ lives and on their buying behavior. Gerzema findings challenge the media’s presentation of public sentiment as depressed and pessimistic. Instead, he argues that the recession has sparked innovation and strengthed bonds among local communities. The new crop of businesses rising from this recession cannot more different from Wall Street: they are kind, friendly, high quality and overall socially responsible.

In the past decade, America has been tied to two wars, a housing bubble and a financial meltdown. Public policies have been focusing on artificially maintaining our status quo, especially its high levels of consumption. We have fallen behind on investing in infrastructure and education. Across the country, local governments have been forced to cut back on public services such as education, healthcare, parks and security in order to close the budget deficit. Americans have also shared a disdain for people in the financial sector who we see on the news getting big bonuses despite the mess and taxpayer bailouts.

This situation has pushed our society specially the Millenniums to reject the notion that the government or other major institutions will take care of them. Instead, they are compelled to support one another and take control of their own lives. They have started innovating through new technologies. Companies such as Groupon and Etsy have successful developed social consciousness and community-mindedness as a business model. The number of patents filed in 2010 was up 31% versus 2009 and about 27% versus 2006, which at the time was a record year for the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) with 173,000 patents issued.

The shift in America’s values system has also affected the way to approach branding. Dan Hill’s “Emotionomics” suggests three areas that we might need to reconsider: reflected believes, provide a sense of belonging, and telling brand stories.

Reflected beliefs: Brands need to keep customers values in view. Forget about pushing customers down the purchase funnel. Brands need to focus on serving people. To paraphrase David Ogilvy, “The customer is not a moron; she is your wife”. Brands need to be kind by supporting customers who have been through hard times in the past few years. This is not only social responsible, but also good business. Brands that have pursued this route have gained equity and social capital. Kia‘s “Driving Change” initiative, Amex’s “Small Business Saturday” promotion, Panera’s “Pay-What-You-Can” offer and Pepsi’s “Refresh Project” are all examples of brands that are reflecting the new values of their consumer base.

Belonging: Brands are also social by nature. People want to feel part of a tribe, which is moving American toward a socially responsible culture. Brands should project a destination bigger than reality, for example, a destination for helping small businesses grow, or a club for sharing resources to improve or acquire new skills. Brands needs to have a well-defined and committed community, wiling to protect and defend the brand at the local level. Proximity to market is key as brands establish relationships with people.

Tell their stories: To successfully tell a brand’s story, marketers need to make sure that all elements on the table are related and that they appeal to the target market. A storytelling structure has three elements: problem, confrontation and resolution. Brands should emphasize problems that already relevant for their target audiences (e.g., jobs, savings, learning new skills) and feel as close to home as possible. People tend to favor familiar information. In this new environment, successful brands are leveraging aspects of community pride and responsibility in their stories. A good example of this is the Chrysler Anthem commercial, which celebrates the grit and resilience of the city of Detroit (see additional detail in a previous blog post).

In summary, brands should pay close attention to how the political, social and economic environment is changing customer values systems in the US. According to Hill, brand equity grows from staying as close to one customer as possible, reflecting their beliefs to build viable, sustainable and emotional connections.


  1. I couldn't agree more, especially on the "brands need to focus on serving people." We preach this often and often its a hard sell, but worth the effort. My only hope is that brands do this authentically, that agencies do it responsibly - meaning we don't create a "get-involved-washing" where people have a hard time distinguishing who gives a sh*t vs. who is seeking a self-serving, short-term lift. Nice post. Cheers:)


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