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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How Your Brand Can Counter the Cynics This Christmas

Cynicism about the social role of brands soars at Christmas. Back in the 1950s, singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer riffed on various carols:

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

Could brands add something to Christmas beyond gifts and greed? Cultural rituals are all about community: We share food, read stories or sing songs to reinforce shared understandings of our history and the values we share as a society. How can brands help people to get to the heart of the community spirit?

Skeptics of the positive role business can play in society respond to such a question with cynicism. But why should it be a bad thing for brands to offer people something they can really value, as opposed to a seemingly endless supply of disposables and unvaluables? There’s money to be made, of course; think of the considerable sums people pay to be a member of a club.

The assumption of skeptics is that if you pay to be part of a community, then your experience of it might be less authentic and less satisfactory. This isn’t necessarily the case. The money spent is for the context and time in which the relationships can be enjoyed, as opposed to the social bonds themselves. All relationships and communities require some infrastructure: a space to meet (be it physical or virtual), activities to pursue, and ways to recognize each other — from a scout’s uniform to a football club scarf.

In the first chapter of my book, The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire, I explore ways in which brands can respond to customers’ desire for community. Can brands support people to provide a sense of belonging, rather than playing to their sense of status? Can they help to bring people together in authentic ways?

A great example of this comes from Heineken: Recognising that a pint is only a small part of British pub culture, it has set up a new business model that puts community at the heart of enterprise. Its leasing scheme, under the banner Star Pubs & Bars, supports entrepreneurs to lease and run their own pub, drawing on their knowledge of what people in their area actually want from their “local.” One success story (among 1,300) is The Eastfield Inn in Bristol. Alongside food from Ruby & White butchers and Joe’s Bakery, live music Fridays with local bands and the standard pub quiz, this revitalised pub has its own skittles team that competes in the North Bristol charity league.

Heineken won the 2013 Asda Enterprise Growth Award and a Business in the Community Award, recognizing the double win here — both for the future of Heineken’s brand and for the communities in which it invests.

People want to be involved in the design of their environments as this space will shape their behavior: whether they sit, stand or walk; talk loudly or read quietly; mingle with strangers or stick to their friends. Mainstream brands can respond to this desire to co-design community spaces without necessarily devolving their business model. Take Starbucks’ crowd-sourcing initiative,, which used social media to encourage customers to say what they’d like to see in their café. If Starbucks got above 10,000 “asks” for the same development, it would take it to the board for permission to go ahead with it. Winning ideas ranged from LED lighting, to the option to pay for your coffee with your mobile phone, to new recipes for cookies.

Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, believes this sort of consumer-led open innovation is the way forward: "It’s really clever. From a business point of view, it means — any new ideas you put out there, you’ve already tested them.”

My book delves into these case studies in more detail and offers many more examples of how brands are proving the cynics wrong and delivering what people really want.