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Can Corporations Create Social Cohesion?

The role brands can play in connecting us across political and economic lines.

Key points

  • Polling data suggests that, more than ever before, consumers want brands to be more involved in social issues.
  • However, few brands engage in this way and at the same time, avoid polarization and fragmentation.

This is the fourth and final post in a series on the role of brands in creating social cohesion within American culture.

As we've seen, there has been a decline in the American middle class, as well as shared consumer experiences. While digital platforms have large networks, online users are exposed to very different content. This is a pressing issue, as shared experiences are crucial for social cohesion.

Where do we go from here? Can Netflix, the rare digitally native brand with a massive reach and hit shows that transcend socioeconomic divides, save us with a kumbaya version of Tiger King? Would all our social ills be cured if we simply drank a Coke with a smile? That would solve social cohesion, as well as Kylie Jenner doling out cans of Pepsi and solving social justice.

Photo by Specphotops via Unsplash
How can brands engage in social causes without increasing polarization?
Source: Photo by Specphotops via Unsplash

There are clear limits to the number of influence brands can have to bring Americans together in all seriousness. What's clear is that brands can act as a cog within a vicious cycle: As society becomes more atomized, brands become more fragmented and specialized. And without shared experiences, society becomes even more atomized. And so on.

And yes, there is more to American culture than shared consumer experiences. Artists and celebrities can have massive, unifying appeal as much as brands can. After all, Warhol was almost as fond of Marilyn Monroe as he was Coca-Cola. But reasonable or not, recent consumer behavior data reveals that people expect more from brands than ever before. It's not enough for brands to create amazing products and deliver top-notch customer service. Brands now need to take an active role in curing society's ills. For better or worse, corporations are seen as the fourth branch of the American government.

But brand activism is challenging. Appealing for social cohesion and shared principles isn't guaranteed to be well received by any target consumer. And marketing to a broad, heterogeneous market is almost asking for it to fail. Despite these challenges, could there be an opportunity for a brand to capitalize on a void in the middle? Do a large enough subset of consumers, deep down, want to come out from their specialized subcultural enclaves and come together?

Appealing to "The Middle"

One brand that seems to be testing this idea is Jeep. During the 2021 SuperBowl, it launched its "The Middle" ad campaign, featuring a uniting figure of yesteryear: Bruce Springsteen. It's a serious and somewhat somber ad, which launches in Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of America. With Springsteen driving through America (in a Jeep of course), the two-minute commercial continues talking about America's metaphoric center—voicing a message of unity, togetherness, and commonality. It ends with a graphic of the U.S. with a star in its center and the text reading "To the ReUnited States of America."

Photo by Neonbrand via Unsplash
Jeeps 2021 Superbowl ad provided a rare example of appealing to "The Middle"
Source: Photo by Neonbrand via Unsplash

Clearly, no campaign is for everybody. Many likened it to 2014, when another American folk legend, Bob Dylan, "sold out" by doing a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler (who also owns The Jeep Brand). Others fixated on the ad's austere tone, with one Washington Post headline reading, "If Bruce Springsteen's Jeep commercial doesn't bum you out, congrats on the purchase of your new Jeep".

But with 30 million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours, it resonated with some. And love it or hate it, you can see where it was trying to go. Of course, espousing unity at a tactical level is one thing, and actually creating shared consumer experiences is another. But the fact that they attempted it (and likely predicated by good market research), means that there may still be demand for these ideals.

As we've seen, capitalizing on this spark and creating shared brand experiences can be a critical, cohesive force. At their best, brands can do more than passively reflect society's divisions; they help reconcile them. In this way, we can come full circle with Vladimir Nabokov's critique of brand logos as being beneath an artist's ability. As Warhol recognized, they're not merely corporate devices but symbols for the values that society holds most dear.

This post also appears on PopNeuro.

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