The term ‘generation gap’ used to mean implacable cultural and, very often, political differences. Think oldies listening to crooners, while youngsters flocked to rock’n’roll rebels. Or Ma and Pa saluting the flag, while Junior and his boyfriend sneak off to get high. With multiple generational demographics working together in unprecedented numbers, it’s more nuanced and complex, so we must reckon with it differently.
In the final article of The Evolution of the Brand Consultant series, we look at how we might handle the range of values, attitudes, temperaments and tech abilities that different generations bring to the party, while attracting youngsters into our profession and hiring the brightest and best into our businesses.
Additional contributions to this article were provided by Ezri Carlebach and Olivia Asiedu-Ntow.
“Bad leaders care about who’s right. Good leaders care about what’s right.” – Simon Sinek
One of the defining characteristics of any profession is that its practitioners contribute to the continuation of their profession in future generations. This is usually done through a mix of education and training, continuing professional development, mentoring, networking, sponsorships, awards schemes, and so on. There can’t be many professionals who would prefer to see their line of work disappear once they’ve shuffled off to the great C-suite in the sky. But continuity can’t be taken for granted, especially where membership of a particular profession is not protected by regulated ‘gatekeeper’ institutions or has, shall we say, a mixed reputation among the young people it seeks to attract.
Is that the condition of ‘brand consultant’ as a profession today? In theory, anyone can set themselves up as a brand consultant and start hawking their wares. In reality, of course, there’s a great deal more to it than that, and in the industry there are guardrails, if not regulated gatekeepers, protecting both the practitioners and their clients. But, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, the world is changing faster than ever. If some combination of ChatGPT and Midjourney isn’t already attempting to approximate what brand consultants do, it soon will be. That exact combination is already considered a ‘team member’ by at least a couple of design studios. At the same time, we mustn’t underestimate the ongoing impact of the pandemic on those entering, or soon to enter, the workforce. There is a growing body of research highlighting young people’s loss of confidence, educational shortcomings, social isolation, and generally stunted development.
But even the combined effect of waning pandemic and waxing machine minds can’t dislodge the central importance of human values in determining how businesses are run, how consumers behave, and, therefore, how brands perform. As management guru Peter Drucker noted, transformational change occurs periodically throughout history, and when it does everything gets rearranged, from basic values to big institutions. The upshot of which is that young people born during such a transformation”, Drucker wrote in his 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society, “cannot even imagine a world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born.”
Drucker got some things wrong, of course. Predicting the end of capitalism by 2020, for starters. But he was right when he said the transformation of Western society – the subject of so much angst these days – was well underway in the 1990s, and that the biggest single factor in how that transformation would turn out is individuals’ values. Curiously, although not entirely coincidentally, a year after Post-Capitalist Society hit the bookstores, a marketing agency in San Francisco sent out a snail mail survey to a representative sample of the US population. Note to young people reading this; ‘snail mail’ is a metaphor, snails being famously slow-moving animals. In those days, surveys were printed on paper, stuffed into envelopes along with a pre-paid reply envelope (remember those, older folks?), and then researchers waited patiently while the postal service delivered them, respondents filled them in by hand, and the postal service delivered them back again. I know… sounds kinda weird, right?
The results of the survey were analysed by marketing maven Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson, for a research project funded by The Institute of Noetic Sciences and The Fetzer Institute, which both take an interest in holistic approaches to life and encourage interdisciplinary methods. They wanted to understand the impact of emerging digital technologies, the end of the Cold War, and the imminent transition from the twentieth to the twenty-first century on the values of individuals and communities in the US (and, by extension, the West in general). Ray and Anderson identified three ‘subcultures’ and associated demographics in terms of age, geography, affiliations, and attitudes. They are worth a few minutes’ discussion, because they shed some light on the characterisations of different generations in the workplace today.
First, there are the ‘traditionalists’ or ‘heartlanders’, folksy folks peering through rose-tinted spectacles at a nostalgic view of Main Street, USA, with its packed churches, homespun philosophies, and staunchly nuclear families. Next up are ‘modernists’, with their eyes set on the future and a technologically-driven, secular, and commercially ambitious set of ideals. But the key insight of the research was the appearance of a large minority called ‘cultural creatives’. Even if the wording has changed a bit, the core values of cultural creatives can now be encountered throughout the business world, and are easily spotted in the brand guidelines of many a corporate marketing department – ecological sustainability, globalism, social justice, self-actualisation, and health and well-being. You could use ‘ESG’ as a shorthand for that list and it would be a pretty good match. This group’s name is a clue to its continuing influence. Cultural creatives are people who consciously and diligently seek to align culture with their own values, at home, at work, and in society. Generationally speaking, they are mostly ‘Baby Boomers’. They are also, mostly, the parents of ‘Millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to accuse Drucker, Ray, Anderson and others at the time of failing to spot the nascent MAGA movement within the traditionalists, or the interventionist militarism of the modernists, or the emotional fragility of the cultural creatives. But the point is to ask ourselves how all these generational and demographic types can not only co-exist, but also be proactively included in teams, organisations, professions, and entire industries. Because we need them. All of them. (Not the outright haters and crooks, obviously, although they can be found across the demographic spectrum).
To include these different groups effectively, we need to work on our collective obsession with status, and focus more on gravitas instead. Status can be granted through qualifications, awards, appointments, or inheritance, but it can also be acted. It has a good side, where it is granted out of respect towards others, but sadly it is largely present in bad behaviours, such as bullying and elitism. Gravitas, on the other hand, has to be learned. It has a bad side, where it is used deceitfully, but it is largely good because it is rooted in dignity, integrity, and empathy. It is possible to combine status and gravitas, but it’s more common to spot the mismatch between them. Just think Donald Trump (high status, low gravitas) and Greta Thunberg (low status, high gravitas).
If we genuinely want inclusive, multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-everything businesses, we need to be leaders in the latter style. That means recognising that value is created by a mixture of experience, quality, innovation, and risk-taking. No group, whether it be based on age, gender, ethnicity, or any other characteristic, has a monopoly on that mix. And the key groups, as far as attracting talent is concerned, are acutely aware of this. What’s important for leaders, as Simon Sinek so succinctly puts it in his quote, is not caring about who is right, but caring about what is right.
As brand consultants, we are leaders in our own businesses and must also show leadership in our interactions with clients. We can choose to serve those we lead, or demand that they serve us. When it comes to the future of our profession, we can choose gravitas, and share the rewards of success; or cling to status, and hoard.
In the spirit of the holistic, interdisciplinary ethos favoured by the funders of the ‘cultural creatives’ research, let’s end by borrowing the words of jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia. Writing in his Substack column ‘The Honest Broker’ he responded to the many young musicians who write to him for help with their struggles. With his kind permission, I’ve adapted the eight pieces of advice he offers to provide a framework for current and future brand consultants, regardless of age, gender, etc., etc.
1. Focus on the intrinsic joy of what you do, not the material reward it generates.
2. Learn every day, get better in your craft, and take satisfaction in this.
3. Collaborate with others, whether colleagues (whatever their role) or peers in other organisations.
4. Be part of the larger community, from the building and the street you’re in to the whole of humanity.
5. Nothing beats the in-person, first-hand, real-world experience of working directly with end users.
6. Never let managers, execs, shareholders, or other hangers-on control your sense of self-worth.
7. Use every digital tool available, if it makes sense for your work. But don’t let them control you.
8. Don’t be afraid. There’s a place in this crazy world for brand consultants, for designers, for you.
We need much else besides, no doubt, from recognising our strategic strength in the design of business, to the value of the simple 3Rs of resonance, relationships, and returns. I wrote about these in the first and the second article in this series, respectively. We also need a serious debate about the responsibilities of brand consultants towards the development of their profession. The purpose of this series was always to start a conversation, not to set out a manifesto. So whether you’re a McLuhan fan, a degrowth activist, or a graduate thinking about a career in branding, you’re invited to join in.
This article was first published on Brandingmag.com.
Cover image source: Mbolina