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Nationalism Is Coming To An Economy Near You

Yesterday, Oxford Dictionaries announced the international word of the year for 2016.  The winner is post-truth, an adjective defined by Oxford as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford notes that post-truth is used to modify one noun above all: politics.

Post-truth politics.  While there is no phrase that better describes the current international political discourse, the global rise of nationalism is a hard fact. Brands and agencies are not yet prepared for this world. We haven’t grappled with some of the causes of nationalism—including our own role in that—and haven’t sorted out how we should act in the face of it.

Market Disintegration 

All of us have spent our whole adult lives in a globalizing world. In fact, all of modern society has played out against the backdrop of globalization, but no matter if globalization began in 1492 or the mid 19th century, it ramped up alongside the digital revolution, intermodal shipping, and freer trade. Nations have encouraged these changes by forging common markets and enabling easy cross-border currency flows while corporations have been primary drivers and beneficiaries. Supply chains are global and fungible. A product ostensibly made in Germany may contain materials and components that crossed numerous borders. Global sourcing often increases price efficiencies, but it also reinforces inequities, particularly amongst those whose jobs have departed for distant shores.

Populist political movements in the US, UK, and Europe have sprung up in response to the frustration and anger of those who feel displaced by globalization. Freer trade is under political siege and common markets are disintegrating amid calls for active protectionism. A time of market disintegration or deglobalization seems much likelier now than it did the day before the UK voted to leave Europe.

Social Disintegration

Even though the market forces were there for everyone to read, the success of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump surprised the hell out of many so-called elites. That’s not really a fair term. They are too numerous to be elites. Instead, let’s call them the Globalization Class.  As the benefits of globalization devolved onto them, the chasm between their lives and those of globalization’s cast-offs grew. And with that divergence came a fault-line in worldview, one that expanded to such an extent that the truth on one side became unrecognizable on the other.

And now values, too.

That’s where things get hairy. The headlong movement toward greater social equality and opportunity, the full-throated embrace of feminism, and the celebration of all racial, sexual, and gender identities largely has been driven by the beneficiaries of globalization. Its victims live close to home, often in homogeneous cultures that have seen the wreckage from changing social bonds (such as addiction and family dissolution) rather than the benefits.

This is good, fertile bottomland for nationalism, and it has thrived.  The Brexit campaign in the UK made liberal use of xenophobia, making an effective linkage between the “other” and the very real economic pain many felt. Moreover, the global values espoused by Londoners started to look like the alien notions of a continental invader.

The US, true to character, took the UK’s quiet bigotry and turned it into a strident rebel yell. Nationalist ideas—white supremacists and neo-Nazis especially—got amplified by Trump’s disestablishmentarian campaign and now, in the person of Steve Bannon, have a seat at the right hand of the President-elect.  Bias crimes and incidents are on the rise, and Trump has demurred from denouncing the hate spewed in his name.

What’s a Brand to Do?

Britain and the US were shocked by the results at the ballot box, and the reasons for that surprise will be poured over for years.  But one thing seems clear: the globalization class didn’t pay much attention to the fortunes or opinions of others.  They disdained them as not sharing their values or their merit. In short, they treated them as their own brand of “other.” And in this post-truth world of parallel yet opposite information it became inconceivable that the other side could prevail. But they did, and similar movements are building in France and Austria, Italy and Greece, Slovakia and Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, Hungary and Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

How does a brand, especially an international one, respond? After all, corporations are the ultimate examples of the globalization class.  Any economic repercussions from a deglobalizing world will be baked into performance outlooks, government relations, and share prices. Moreover, international brands look with anticipation on the burgeoning middle class in the Velocity markets. These consumers—often urban, Muslim, and female—present a great opportunity for growth.

Marketing departments have a different task: to reflect back the mood of the countries in which they operate or to continue to show a vision of a diverse world. Do they, as they deepen the connections between corporate purpose and corporate actions, continue to highlight a more inclusive, more equal, and more tolerant future? Every brand will have to answer these questions for itself, and even for international brands, the answers will depend on who their consumers are.

That said, a few things seem clear.

  • Brands need to listen to consumers in ways they haven’t before. Consider this: The Guardian is asking a pool of volunteers from either side of the political divide to swap Facebook feeds in order to better understand each other. Perhaps it isn’t practical for the Koch Brothers Brawny brand to swap with P&G’s Bounty, but it’s a reminder that social listening and market research can do a better job of illustrating all worldviews.
  • Brands should tend to their own gardens while still caring about the world at large. Climate change efforts are in jeopardy due to the Trump administration’s positions and energy policy. That is not a signal to brands to abandon their own sustainability initiatives, but marketers targeting, for example, consumers in hard-hit areas must balance their self-congratulatory sustainability messages with a sensitivity to economic costs of a transitioning economy.
  • But brands must also reject hate, bias, and bigotry in all forms. Our long march toward justice for all continues, and brands play a major role in making human life better all around the world. The long-term damage—to society and to the brand—from dog-whistle-marketing far outweighs any immediate gain.

The time for surprise is over. Brands must awaken to the reality of global nationalism and decide how they will respond as corporations and as marketers as well. Brand truths, too, are not as clear cut as they once were.

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