Legacy Brands, It's Time to Take Charge of Our Shared Values

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Demonstrators wave flags and hold signs during the Boston Women's March in January.
Demonstrators wave flags and hold signs during the Boston Women's March in January. Credit: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

Dear legacy brands,

For a long time, we have watched young, disruptive companies take a vocal lead on the issues of our day. They found it easy to reach the masses, while you found it difficult to break through.

But now is your turn. We're no longer living in a time of disruptive brands, but one of real disruption. We are in need of substantial, unifying forces. We don't expect you to solve our problems, but your rich heritage and experience can fill a void left by our upended institutions.

Think about it. It doesn't matter if you're left or right, urban or rural -- we've all dunked an Oreo and looked for the toy surprise in a box of Cracker Jack. We've just done it with Nike at least once, and we know what it's like to be lovin' it at McDonalds. Newer brands can talk all they like, but when you take a stand, it carries much more weight with us.

In times of stress, we used to look to our major institutions, government, or press to provide a sense of stability. We may not have agreed with our opponents' tactics, but we trusted them to work in predictable ways.

But today, we have lost our faith in those institutions. No branch of government has a positive approval rating, and only 32% of people trust the press. A recent BuzzFeed analysis showed that fake news was more influential on Facebook during the election than the real deal.

Brands do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a culture. They have an obligation to consider what the current environment means to their consumers. Speaking up is not about sales tomorrow, it's about relevance today. It's about being human in a human environment. Unless you acknowledge the present, you risk alienating your audience and getting left behind.

Research bears this out. A recent Wunderman study on Wantedness found that 79% of consumers felt that brands must actively demonstrate "they understand and care about me." Another 89% are loyal to brands that share their values. In other words, we expect you show us that our opinions matter.

Today, you have what we need: familiarity, stability and consistency. You have been with us through many times of crisis. You have weathered fads and storms, and kept true to yourselves no matter what. That means something.

Some, of course, are speaking up. On Super Bowl Sunday this year, Budweiser took a stand for immigration, as did Coke for diversity (using the pre-game to re-air a spot from the 2014 Super Bowl). This is a good first step, but commercials alone will not drive your message home. To get it right, you must meet modern people at modern touchpoints. Your call to action is clear:

Be a unifier and connector. When traditional institutions aren't willing to bring us together, they create a space for you to speak up on ideas that have long been part of our culture. Coke has talked about inclusiveness since the 1970s, but every legacy brand has an opportunity to renew and strengthen messages like that. You have the scale and the messaging to connect with us on a basic level -- in mobile, social, and everywhere else.

Raise a sense of personal possibility and optimism. People want to know everything is going to be OK, and who better than you to deliver that message? Starbucks, for example, reinforced the American Dream by committing to hiring 10,000 refugees over the next three years. There's nothing more hopeful and optimistic than that. To really make it work, however, you have to connect in a human way. So put to good use your multidimensional understanding of us to act and speak in ways that hit home.

Create a sense of energy, renewal and doing. No matter how things look today, we know that what's to come is still exciting. You can deliver that message better than anyone. So use your insights to anticipate our expectations and alleviate our anxiety about the future.

Above all, you can stop trying to become the next Uber. That's not your strength or the value you bring. Instead, dig deep into your stability, solidity and heritage. You've been through it all with us before. We trust you to reassure and re-inspire us. To bring us together.

Think about how you want to be seen ten years from today. Will you be a voice that spoke up about what matters, or one that watched silently as others took charge of our shared values?

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