A few years ago, I joined a panel to discuss the implications of Nike’s “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign, in which the brand encouraged customers who disagreed with its position to look elsewhere, while locking in the loyalty of shoppers who shared their values.
One of my fellow panellists suggested that the campaign’s success meant that similar ones would soon spring up for every conceivable social justice issue, with rival brands picking opposing sides of an argument to attract different political tribes.
They were half right.
An avalanche of political brand campaigns followed. Traditionally activist brands like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia were soon joined in the Culture War by everyone from Sainsbury’s to Coutts.
But branding’s marketplace of ideas has only served up one flavour of politics.
Today, there are few brands ready to espouse conservative ideas, let alone libertarian or reactionary ones. There are no ‘pro-life’ ice cream makers or supermarkets demanding ‘tougher sentencing for criminals’. When Chick-fil-a, a US brand rooted in ‘traditional values’ did try to plant a toe on British soil, they were chased out of town.
A range of incentives prevent established brands from taking non-progressive political positions.
Progressives not only have more spending power than conservatives and a greater propensity to use it to reward brands that share their values, they tend to run the brands themselves.
Any company seeking to challenge progressive values would soon find itself at war with a progressive hegemony and activist corps in the arts, education and the media, as well as among its metropolitan, university-educated employees. Spotify discovered this when it poached Joe Rogan. ESG has also enshrined progressive values in the calculations made by investors too.
Brand activism is taking place against a polarised political backdrop, when the most effective way to rally customers behind your values is often to condemn those you stand against. Picking a side means ostracising the other side.
Just as political leaders around the world have shifted from trying to persuade the unvaccinated to emmerder-ing them and creating a more hostile environment, so too have the diminishing returns of brand activism required brands to take a harder line with dissidents.
For example, when ITV received record complaints about BLM messages in Britain’s Got Talent, it responded by taking out a full page advert in every national newspaper, telling these viewers that they were wrong.
Most people are indifferent to most of the Culture War fights most of the time, but with each fresh victory for liberal progressivism, the ‘Basket of Deplorables’ gets bigger.
Into the basket have gone everyone from ‘the intellectual dark web’ and ‘trans exclusionary radical feminists’ to ‘conspiracy theorists’, and a host of other untouchables. Didn’t like the He-Man remake killing-off He-Man? You’re the problem. Don’t like super hero comics swapping plot and character for social justice? Then ‘don’t buy my book.‘
The Culture War is over. Liberal progressives won – and conservatives know it.
But The Culture War’s losers haven’t vanished off the face of the earth, nor recanted. Polarised debates rarely change minds. Dissidents now number in their millions. Their reluctance to say what they really think in public means the size of their ranks are often underestimated. And increasingly, they aren’t ‘buying the book.’
The result is a Culture Schism, where a growing share of people have stopped watching, reading, supporting and buying content and brands that they feel lectured or insulted by – and started building and embracing parallel communities, brands and institutions. As Axios put it in December:
“Conservatives are aggressively building their own apps, phones, cryptocurrencies and publishing houses in an attempt to circumvent what they see as an increasingly liberal internet and media ecosystem.”
This has produced an increasingly large and valuable Dissident Economy.
Where do people who feel unrepresented by contemporary mainstream Western culture go? The Dissident Economy has three components:
The right came to dominate US talk radio in the 90s, largely because commentators felt they had nowhere else to go. The same process is happening now.
Disruptive consumer brands have also rushed in to fill the void.
Both brands have now outgrown the Dissident Economy and have adopted progressive causes to appeal to a wider group of stakeholders.
2. Old Things
The Dissident Consumer finds solace in culture that pre-dates The Great Awokening and demand for old content is soaring.
3. Non-Anglo Things
The right is developing exotic tastes as it scours the world for content that doesn’t push progressive values, while rejecting a growing number of American franchises. Out goes The Last of Us Part II, in comes Squid Games.
Marketing is downstream from culture. Established mainstream brands will need to tap into the Dissident Economy to avoid a loss in market share.
Mostly, they won’t be willing or able to.
Major companies have been demanding their customers pick the progressive side in the Culture War and they will find it almost impossible to court those who have since deserted them, even if they wanted to.
Polarisation has left the reactionary right largely untouchable for big brands:
As a result, we will continue to see big brands snub The Dissident Economy, leaving the way for challengers, as comedian Ryan Long observed:
Big brands will become more like political parties
Eventually, market leaders will get tired of having their lunch eaten by challengers, and the size and spending power of the ranks of disaffected consumers will force some sort of accommodation with the anti-woke.
Just as the brewing giants had to find a way to assimilate the craft brewers who stood in opposition to the globalisation and homogenisation of the beer industry, so too will big business have to learn to straddle parallel communities with virtue counter-signalling.
Big brands will stay woke, but find more room for the unwoke, becoming coalitions of factions, in the same way that political parties are – staging the occasional ‘Operation Red Meat‘ for their own customers.
Expect purpose campaigns to pivot towards less polarising areas, such as conservation and animal welfare – and for big brands to be less quick to cave to social media pressure.
The size of the Dissident Economy is why Spotify will stand by Joe Rogan, even in the face of a growing progressive backlash.