THE BLOG
02/24/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2015

Can Brands Be Enlightened?

At Davos this year, political and corporate leaders talked earnestly about businesses becoming responsible, ethical and sustainable... and playing a contributive role in society. Heads of the IMF, World Bank and Bank of England have been suggesting capitalism become more inclusive. But the talk is always easier than the walk, especially when 'nice-to-have' values conflict with the core business model of the firm - simply witness the scandal surrounding GlaxoSmithKline in China in recent months. Even as we applaud Paul Polman, the CEO of FMCG giant Unilever, for his stance on responsible business, we must also acknowledge the reality on the ground: Middle-managers and country heads -- where much of the power and P&L lies -- actively resist responsible business because they fear its impact on their careers and cash.

Good intentions in business are often scuppered by the prohibitive costs, vested interests and complexities of implementing ethical, environmentally-conscious business. However, there exists one area of corporate activity, which often gets overlooked when we discuss corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is directly, permanently and microscopically managed by the organization itself. Here there are no excuses for not ensuring it is responsible. It takes little, if not no, money to transform (because it is always being evolved). And it impacts the lives of millions. I am talking about the positioning of their brands: The bricolage of images, ideas, meanings, values and vision that is orchestrated and communicated to us by a small army of marketers, market researchers, and creatives so that we fall in love with the brand. After a century of branding that used the dark arts to flog units, some leaders are realizing that enlightenment is not solely the preserve of mystics and yogis. It can happen to brands too.

It's hard to emphasize how much effort and energy, time and money, is invested in the generation and maintenance of a brand, particularly a globalized, high-value, brand that creates enormous wealth for its owners and shareholders. Youth brands, in particular, are micro-managed to an extra-ordinary degree - every change in direction is considered, a myriad of ideas are developed, concepts are researched - until the brand's army of thinkers and actors agrees. The resulting creative platform forms the basis of all communications to the consumer. It is a set of words, images and assists that form a 'Big Idea' designed to keep the brand relevant, engaging and exciting for a year or two. What is even more remarkable, is that much of this effort is expended before any adverts, mailouts or websites are twinkle in a young creative's eye.

Strategic brand management, for this is what it is called, is a well-advised and profitable route to take. If a brand can capture the hearts and minds of its hard-to-please consumers and, even better, harness a 'spirit of the times', it will benefit from commitment, passion and even advocacy. This attention and emotional engagement translates into high margins and renewed revenues. There is a reason Apple can get away with 60-70 percent margins for its iPhones.

Brands serve a purpose beyond driving sales. In these days of crumbling traditional institutions, brands offer signposts for to consumers about how to live a good life, whether they realize it or not. They even offer a connection to something bigger than the individual, a role that used to be the domain of religion, dogma and ideology, whether communism, capitalism or existentialism (if you used to hang out on the left bank of Paris and in the Village in NYC). Big brands shine a light, albeit often a very dim light, on what it means to be a human being in this stretched and strained post-modern culture. Those that have done this well, like Orange, Nike, VW and PlayStation, have reaped the rewards of value-creating loyalty for many years.

Yet how many brand managers, consultants and agency staffers, who together set the agenda for so many people's lives across the world, are aware of the true extent of their cultural power? How much time do they spend contemplating and considering the long-term socio-cultural impact of the values and ideas they espouse? And, most importantly, how many of them are conscious enough of their own values, their own ethics, their own humanity to design the mores and morals of generations of the public with wisdom and heart? 'Risk Everything' (Nike). Or 'All In Or Nothing' (Adidas). Which, if either, is going to empower consumers (that means you and me) to thrive in an age of complexity and challenge? Which, if either, can tap into their innate wisdom and help them be contributive human beings? What are the hidden dangers of each?

As a former brand agency boss who has worked with many of the best brands in the world, I believe we need a new cadre of brand 'shamans': People with transformative power at the deepest levels of both individual and cultural narratives, who can help marketing teams understand their psychological power and cultural influence; and wield it in a way that empowers people to thrive. By developing enlightened brands, even companies with unethical policies and unsustainable supply chains can take responsibility for the cultural narratives that guide and inform the lives of so many.

With the wisdom and world-change media company I run, we are pioneering just this. We act as combined brand agency, creative studio and media platform, offering brands opportunities to create profoundly meaningful content, that has practical value, with a playful tone. We look to connect brands deeper into people's hearts and minds (that drives loyalty and sales); but not by manipulating those hearts and minds, but inspiring and empowering them. This is growth at one with the people; not at the expense of their 'thrivability'.

There is absolutely nothing - nothing - intrinsically wrong with brands; nor branding and marketing in general. They are agnostic tools, that can be used to spread love or lack; fear or hope. In fact, the skills of a brand strategist can be invaluable in changing behaviors around social problems (e.g. drink driving or charitable giving); and mindsets on important issues such as discriminatory stereotypes or HIV. In one project with a large drinks company, we used brand strategy tools to promote authentically responsible drinking, impacting millions. I use the same toolset working with leading non-profits and governments on poverty reduction and welfare program design. Skills at branding and brand storytelling can help us heal suffering and create democratic movements as much as they can manipulate our need in the service of greed.

However, branding is usually used to find the most damaged and wounded parts of our individual and shared psyches, and trigger those wounds into need and greed. It does not need to be this way, although it takes profound transformation of marketing leaders themselves to realize how their brands can amplify what is most noble, or most base, about the human experience. Imagine out of every $100 of marketing spent - the money that supports the vast majority of the TV, radio, Internet and news industries - is spent on limiting rather than liberating the human spirit. Is the world not full enough with media, tech and advertising companies making billions helping brands make effective content that sells... but without heart that is in service?

To break through from disempowering to empowering branding - that moment of brand enlightenment - takes change in the hearts of minds of the team, leadership and organization. That is why brand shamanism has to work at the level of the marketing team (and the culture as a whole); as well as the brand communications themselves. What we are finding is that, as the brand looks to nourish human flourishing as much as extracting revenues from it, it transforms the team so that each begins to tap into, and unlock, their own life purpose. It is much more inspiring to deliver ethical business through brand growth than it is through CSR constraint and regulatory compliance.

With such an awesome power, it is time for brand owners to become more aware of their foundational myth-making abilities; and question and re-question what the right thing to do is both for their brand and our shared society every time they commission a campaign.

What are the values we should promote more to co-create the kind of society we dream of for our children? What are the ideas that help consumers feel more peace and express more love and creativity? What are the ideas that inspire people to work together, share resources and make a difference?

There is always a win win win (win for the company, the consumer and the world). Yet often, to find it, we have to give up our old assumptions and mental habits and embrace new ones.

In this area of ultimate ownership and enormous influence, every organization can, right here, right now, chart a profoundly ethical and generative path; and be positive contributors to our society. As well as manage their environmental and social footprints, they have the opportunity to immediately effect our inner lives and social systems by ensuring the values they say we should live our lives by are supportive of human connection, peace and inclusivity.

Surely, if our favorite brands have the wit and wherewithal to create such amazing ads, inspiring internet content and dazzlingly disruptive products, then - with the jolt of enlightenment - they can use their power to consciously switch us all onto what is possible when we consumers become the most awesome version of ourselves, serving the greater good?