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A Time To Build Tight Brands In the Chaos of Loose Cultures

How to create norms when your user is lost

The one thing humans can’t handle is chaos. It’s why the Soviet Union fell only to install Putin, and the brief moment of hope that was the Arab Spring led to a familiar regime of autocrats.

It’s also why when there is a decrease in government stability, there is an increase in religiosity in both Eastern and Western cultures. In a 1978 Gallup poll it was found that 80% of people who leave their religion ultimately come back to it, and although researchers are only just beginning to study this phenomenon, I can tell you from my own work with both religious and atheistic brands, people who leave organized religion quickly become eager to replace the void with another system of meaning - a dimension most atheist groups have failed to consider.

In all of these instances, people swung from an extremely tight culture to an extremely loose one, and then curiously, back to a tight culture once again.

No matter the magnitude, sudden freedom brings a normlessness (and in some cases, disorder) so uncomfortable that we would rather subscribe to clear rules than to wade into the unknown without any at all.

It’s a facet of human nature that cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has studied extensively. Every culture falls on the spectrum from tight to loose: from highly structured and normative to loosely held and evolving. When a culture veers too far in one direction, there is often a reaction in the opposite direction.

When it comes to branding in today’s world, however, we’re seeing an emerging trend where tightness is especially effective in loose places.

It’s easy to see the value of tightness in hindsight. Tight brands like Greenpeace, Trumpism or the modern Académie Française may appear like anomalies, but they are in fact deeply human—and highly predictable—reactions to loose cultures. The people in these groups felt destabilized by evaporating social codes, and in that mental state, welcomed in the strong voice of certainty. Where there is chaos, there is someone promising a new order.

But sometimes the most destabilizing chaos isn’t on the world stage. Nor is it a public outrage or even a shared experience.

It’s found instead in the quiet chaos of our everyday lives: making a home, raising a family, putting a meal on the table. These mundane corners of the human experience are also where we find the loosest pockets of culture today: places where there is a glut of information but few steadfast rules. Where despite incredible progress and empowerment, normlessness has taken over.

And it’s in these well-traveled but chaotic spaces that a new generation of brands has stepped in to tighten the vice.

No Hard Feelings

Here's what we've been consuming.

A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement (The Atlantic): “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles...For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

The Personal Brand Is Dead (The Atlantic): “We’ve arrived at a new era of anonymity, in which it feels natural to be inscrutable and confusing—forget the burden of crafting a coherent, persistent personal brand. There just isn’t any good reason to use your real name anymore.”

How Universal Are Our Emotions? (The New Yorker): “Instead of treating emotions as mental and ‘inner,’ perhaps we should conceive of them ‘as acts happening between people: acts that are being adjusted to the situation at hand,’ rather than ‘as mental states within an individual.’ Instead of seeing emotions as bequeathed by biology, we might see them as learned: ‘instilled in us by our parents and other cultural agents,’ or ‘conditioned by recurrent experiences within our cultures.’ In this model of emotions, they are ‘OUtside the person, Relational, and Situated’—ours.

Prenups Aren’t Just for Rich People Anymore (The New Yorker): “Younger Americans, especially, have found their own use for prenuptial agreements: protecting their spouses from the worst impulses of the American debt-collection system [...] Celebrity journalism has long contributed to the public understanding of prenups. In more recent years, reality TV has been similarly instructional: shows such as ‘Summer House’ have woven prenups into their story lines; two of Kim Kardashian’s marriages have reportedly involved prenups.”

Optimism (Not Boring): “Criticism is crucial, but pessimism—‘a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future’—is actively harmful on both individual and societal levels [...] The single most important thing we can try to do is to make the world more optimistic. Optimism is the meta that defines the rate of progress, and progress translates into longer, healthier, wealthier, and happier lives for more people.”

40% of young people don’t go to Google Maps or Search, They go to TikTok or Instagram (TechCrunch): “While younger users may eventually launch some sort of maps app for navigation purposes, this data indicates they don’t necessarily start their journey on Google anymore...younger people were generally interested in more ‘visually rich forms’ of search and discovery, and that wasn’t just limited to where to eat. Young people coming online today had never seen a paper map, but maps products have been designed to look like a paper map that’s been ‘stuck on the phone.’ This doesn’t meet younger users’ expectations and is the wrong experience to offer them, he said. ‘We have to conjure up completely new expectations and that takes altogether new…technology underpinnings,’ Raghavan noted.”

Failure To Cope "Under Capitalism" (Gawker): "When living “under capitalism” becomes a catch-all explanation for what you can’t manage—whether that’s getting on the metaphorical treadmill or stepping off it—it assumes the nature of a complaint to an adjudicating authority... But in fact there is no one to adjudicate between you and capital, no one to say yes, that really is too much, let’s reassign this project. There is no political program that will release you from the necessity of doing more than you should have to or feel capable of doing, in politics as in every other part of life."

Hoping the important peaks always stay ahead of you.

Jasmine Bina
Founder & CEO
Concept Bureau, Inc.