09/21/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

Brands and advertisers, let consumers do something good.

I often sit down and consider how technology, social networks and advertising messages permeate every part of our life. All too often we find that our behaviors are programmed into us through brand platforms and advertising. Entertainment (viral videos, images etc.), utilities (self-service, fitness measurement etc.) and social mechanisms (likes, comments, shares, RTs etc.) have lead us to document and monitor our lives.

Have you recently shared a LOLCat, viral video or compulsively liked someone's posts that you secretly admire or have a crush on? If so, then you have ultimately been programmed by said mechanisms, branded content and your influencers to do so. Knock-on behavior has been created that is a hangover from advertising and brand engagement.

Picture yourself 3 years ago. How often did you check the internet and email on your phone, how many more real phone calls did you make, how small was that group of people you would share stories and images with. Investment in social campaigns, associated activities, personal ownership of smart phones and membership of social networks has exploded over the past three years with an effect on behavior and culture.

Take a long hard look at yourself today. It's quite enlightening how your behaviors have changed, isn't it? It seems like we stand at a distance from many of our connections and look into their world. Most of the time it adds no values at all. Granted. Finding a great new song or a piece of news that you were not aware of can be enlightening and worthwhile. On the flipside we have become inundated with digital noise that we have to wade through. This has resulted in consumptive behaviors that ultimately lead to a negative impact on culture and society. Brands, advertising agencies and marketers are really taking full advantage of these behaviors by introducing viral memetic infections ('memes' for short) to our lives to carry their brand messages to stimulate sales and to help win all of those shiny awards. These in turn feed the hungry ad revenues of Facebook that result in even more ideas that result in more banal behavior.

We actually talk to each other less, spend time in many situation in our bubbles obsessively checking Facebook, and the suchlike rather than connecting with and positively impacting other human beings.

Stop! It doesn't have to be this way. We can make a choice to look at the world differently and actually feed positively into human culture through brand association and impacts on culture. There are three groups of people that need to activate on this - advertisers, brands and consumers.

Advertising agencies thrive on creativity and use insights to drive connection with consumers. New creative ideas win awards and the best turn the dial for their clients (although this is always not the case). These ideas are the platform for brands to communicate with consumers. Digital engagement through mobile, apps and social networks can cheaply make this happen along with a push from paid media (TV, banners and the suchlike). Digital strategists, like myself, try and find ways in to the daily behaviors and routines.

Advertisers and brands need to stop creating campaigns that add nothing to culture, community and connection and switch to a movement philosophy. To help us get there, we should ask three simple questions every time we try and create consumer engagement:
  1. Will we enrich people's lives?
  2. Will we create behavior that leads to positive impact on human culture, either in a large or small way?
  3. Will we give people the tools to carry that behavior to other people?

If we follow these then we create something that perseveres and remains way beyond the initial push of a campaign. Here are three examples brands that have created movements for positive change.

Firstly, let's look at a brave move by a big brand. In 2010 Pepsi decided to take the $20m that it normally would pour into advertising in and around the Superbowl and put it to some real good. Rather than spending money on a Super Bowl ad, Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Project where people can submit their ideas to Pepsi for ways to refresh their communities thus making the world a better place. This evolved over time to become a global marketing platform, expanding into Europe, Asia and Latin America in 2011. It has created quite a different view on soda versus Coca Cola however it has not resulted in increased market share. So, was it successful? Well, it sure has impacted many people in more ways than just quenching thirst and they can be proud of doing something good in the world. Maybe they should start shouting a little louder about this achievement?

Next up we have OpenIDEO, an initiative spearheaded by the design and innovation agency IDEO. They have created a platform for 'creative thinkers: the veteran designer and the new guy who just signed on, the critic and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker'. Sponsors (typically large brands) accompany challenges that members can attempt together. This has yielded nearly 3,000 concepts from over 37,500 members and has positive impacts on thousands of people. Truly inspirational and no one there cares about awards as the teams are not built on single agencies and identities. The brand presence of the sponsors is low-key so it all feels really well balanced. They have five principles that directly address the three questions above - be inclusive, be community-centred, be collaborative, be optimistic and always be in Beta and continuously improve.

Lastly, let's look a little closer to home towards the Aviva Community Fund. This is Canada's longest running online community competition. They have given over $2.5 million dollars so far and is helping to make a difference in communities across the country. Anyone can submit their idea and get a small or large project funded. It's a campaign that is carried by social media through over 47,000 fans with about 20% of them talking about it regularly (certainly when I checked). We know that Aviva is still trying to promote insurance but with something this good we really don't mind that much.

All in all these examples show a democratic approach to consumer engagement. They put their brands and creative platforms into the hands of the consumers and let them take it into new, unforeseen territories and typically with positive results. Now that sounds like something to get behind and maybe when you sit in your social media cocoon liking, commenting, RTing and sharing you will get the chance to make something positive come from it. Now that is positive culture change. Then put down your smart phones and talk about the good these things do face-to-face.