From Civic Brands to Unpolitical Brands: How has the Civic Brands era led to a market’s polarisation and ostracisation, with consumers shifting back to a first-degree materialism?
Welcome to this auto-initiated cahier focusing on trends, foresight and cultural intelligence founded by 2sight, an independent foresight duo based in Paris. Aside from forecasting future trends, deciphering consumer intelligence and crafting foresight strategies for our clients, we are taking this 2sight substack medium as a space for creative research, meaningful scepticism, and uplifting learning, where chaos gets enlightened and future trends are demystified.
Business, brands, politics, responsibility, commitments and marketing have merged together, giving birth to the Civic Brands era. Any marketing specialist is now fully aware of the apparent absolute necessity of brands to fit into the Civic Brands mould — and as marketers, forecasters, or strategists, we undoubtedly know that most of our client briefs must automatically include some bits on “how to market brand commitments and responsibility in order to appeal to 2020s conscious consumers”.
Civic Brands era tracker:
Civic Brands: In 2017, London-based consultancy The Future Laboratory published its macro-trend named ‘Civic Brands’ forecasting a state where “businesses are increasingly stepping in where governments are falling and acting as a force for good in society”.
Backlash: In 2018, a survey from public relations firm Edelman found out that nearly two thirds of consumers around the world would buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. The same year, “Nike Has Initiated A New Era for Politicised Brands [by using] Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of its Just Do It slogan anniversary campaign”.
Vocal imperative: In 2019, data from Sprout Social revealed that “the majority of consumers (70%) believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues”, a number that’s increased since the previous survey on this topic in 2017.
Wokism standardisation: In 2020, Forbes titled “Brands Can No Longer Be Neutral”, while Vogue Business warmed “Woke brands walk a thin line with ‘moral merch’” and Highsnobiety published a guide-like listicle on “how to make a purpose-driven clothing brand”.
Politics gatekeepers: In 2023, “Kering is creating a position at the group level to oversee ‘brand safety’ after a backlash from a Balenciaga advertising campaign dented sales in the final weeks of 2022”.
“The current so-called conventional wisdom is that consumers instantly gravitate towards brands with strong belief systems or shared values. The truth is way more complicated than that. Many brands have survived just fine without taking any substantial social or political stands at all.” said Dan Goldgeier, copywriter, strategist & author. To us, the statement resonates strongly and manages to deliver another truth on the Civic Brand era. A truth we tend to minimise when convinced of the absolute necessity for civic brands.
Yes, we are very familiar with the marketing need to position brands and businesses almost as social justice experts, just like governments. Yet, in front of polarised communities of consumers, enjoying the entertaining and pleasurable consumption to the fullest, it also appears fair to raise a set of challenging questions: Does being a civic brand really make a difference? Are commitments compatible with business? Are brands trustworthy social justice experts? Should it be mandatory for them to take a stand and be vocal? Should brands be political?
We might not come with a definite answer — and do not want our readers to get disappointed when finally reaching the end of this long piece. When navigating the political involvement of brands, the reality is more nuanced than black-or-white. We rather want to provide some food-for-thought bites from the examination and analysis we conducted on the matter. From Civic Brands to Unpolitical Brands, we’d like to observe how the Civic Brands era had led to a market’s polarisation and ostracisation, with consumers shifting back to a first-degree materialism through Unpolitical Brands.
The era of Civic Brands was proclaimed following a required call for a value-based consumption framework. Benefiting today from a stepped-back perspective authorises us to underline the binary aspect of the moral that was set up against this newly-formulated responsible outlook on our ways of consuming. Dichotomies have flourished: the good versus the bad consumption, the civic brands versus the uncivic ones. Consumption became moralistic.
These oppositions also gave birth to another, and yet, quite ignored dichotomy for both consumers and brands: pleasure + responsibility versus reality. From the Freudian psychoanalysis, this value opposition or quest to reconcile both sides of the consumption story falls under the term “reality principle” (German: Realitätsprinzip), defined as “the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world, and to act upon it accordingly, as opposed to acting on the pleasure principle”. Statistics are not lying: yes, the large majority of consumers would be more than willing to sign in for civic brands and responsible consumption. Does this desire coexist with their financial reality and access conditions to responsible consumption? Not necessarily.
Among 200 global cities polled, 90% were found to be unaffordable to live in, with the average home costing more than 3x the average income. (World Economic Forum, 2022)
81% of French consumers are considering sustainable consumption as a source of pleasure, but 55% report being unable to please themselves as they would like to, considering the rising cost of living. (Opinionway x Bonial, 2022)
57% of US and UK consumers want fashion shopping to be more sustainable. But with living costs rising, 61% will prioritise price when 55% agree that sustainable fashion is often too expensive. (Nosto, 2022)
Along their path of becoming culturally relevant, politically progressive and gaining value over their competitive landscape, civic brands in the making favoured a polarised market where the top of the class got premiuminised, and other businesses went discarded for the consumers who can’t afford to pay for the brand’s betterment efforts.
Among those numerous brands’ betterment efforts, in late 2022, high-end resale facilitator Vestiaire Collective created headlines by banning fast-fashion brands from its platform, in a bid to reinforce the company’s positioning towards clean premium fashion. If the initiative found great resonance in the industry’s press, it also managed to deliver an ostracising message: “You’d like to resell your dirty clothes? Sorry but you are not good enough to belong to our community. Come back to us with high-end labels”.
“‘We know it's a polarising decision, to say the least,’ says Vestiaire Collective co-founder and President Fanny Moizant, adding that both she and Wone [Vestiaire’s Head of sustainability] heard criticism that this stops its community from extending the life of fast fashion via resale. Seventy per cent of Vestiaire employees ‘from all different backgrounds’ backed the ban, she notes.” (Vogue Business, November 2022)
In this polarised and ostracised market, the good, i.e. “responsible consumption”, became elitist, whereas the “bad”, i.e. the negative impacts of irresponsible consumption, turned into new forms of control over the ones not in power — as demonstrated by “waste colonialism”. In the attempt to address top issues at stake, brands favoured the emergence of guilt-trip morals and collateral crunches.
“It’s an uncomfortable topic that sparks strong reactions because it forces people to confront the role they — and their shopping habits — play in big, systemic problems. And the solutions on offer aren’t as simple and easy as continuing with the status quo.” (Rachel Deeley, Editorial Associate at The Business of Fashion)
State of denial:
On the edge of uncivic consumption disaster, responsibility has been displaced and assigned to civic brands rather than handled by the community. While audiences expect brands to become more accountable, consumers' paradox also lies in the embracement of denial — an idea we’ve already explored through Tragic Optimism in our Dark Futures article. Denial and ROMO (the relief of being oblivious to an event or news item) are more comfortable positions and the chosen coping mechanisms to avoid facing the colossal amount of issues at stake.
38% of the world's population actively avoid reading the news as it has the potential to trigger their anxiety and negatively impact their day. (Reuters, 2022)
Global consumers do not consider themselves to have primary responsibility in taking action to combat climate change (50%) vs. the government (75%). (Ipsos, 2021)
Respectively, only 5% and 9% of US consumers think they are much more or somewhat more responsible than brands for sustainability. (Morning Consult Research Intelligence, 2022)
"There is the increasing belief that companies have a responsibility to make everything better." (Tim Maleeny, CSO of Havas Worldwide)
The denial behaviour is not limited to consumption and was already encapsulated by another Freudian theory, the “displacement effect” stating “that the human mind has a defence mechanism which involuntarily displaces the effects from an individual or anything which are felt unacceptable to another situation which the mind distinguished more acceptable” (Communication Theory).
Here, we are far from pinpointing this displacement effect as a condemning judgement and picturing consumers as irresponsible, scatterbrained individuals enjoying consumerism at all costs — as titled by Alec Leach: “The World is On Fire But We’re Still Buying Shoes”. Yes, consumers would love brands to be civic and support them in addressing socio-eco-political issues, while ignoring them and happily filling their SheIn and Temu’s shopping carts.
78% of US consumers say that a sustainable lifestyle is important to them. Yet many CPG executives report that one challenge to their companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives is the inability to generate sufficient consumer demand for these products. (NielsenIQ, 2022)
39% of global consumers say it is important to them that the products they buy are produced in safe and ethical working conditions, whereas only 18% of the same respondents have made a conscious decision to try to buy such products. (Ipsos, 2021)
Marketing agencies attempted to solve this binary behaviour by creating complexity-proofed personae under names such as “Schizo-Flex”, “Paradox Consumers”, “Elusive Green Consumer” or the “Ethical Scammer”. On the matter, The Future Laboratory has also moved from the 2017’s “Civic Brands” to the 2022’s “Paralysis Paradox” forecast, envisioning a stage in which “citizens find themselves paralysed [...],unable to determine which routes or decisions should be taken to secure a future for the planet and its population”.
In an extensive 2021 research piece, Ipsos Views explored this state of denial named as “sustainability say-do gap”, a situation in which “people want to live in a sustainable way and do their bit towards environmental protection [... but] do not always act in ways that work towards these goals”. In conclusion, as a way to “drive sustainable behaviour change” over best intentions, the research group suggested that “consumers need to be supported to enact sustainable behaviours… Critical to this is for industry and government to help people to close the say-do gap”. Yes, but this overheard recommendation taps again into the Civic Brand situation. And yet, the action of the good, responsible, progressive businesses have already shown signs of failure over humanity and planet-saving actions.
Stage of failure:
As we evolved across the Civic Brand era, consumers have not only favoured comfortable denial, but have also grown sceptical of betterment promises and CSR-oriented initiatives.
Only 30% of online European consumers trust companies when they say they will commit to reducing climate change. (Forbes, 2022)
43.5% of customers think that a brand is just jumping on a bandwagon when making political statements while 23% think it is purely promotional. Nearly half of the respondents think that any response from the brands on major social or political issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights, isn’t genuine — but rather another mischievous marketing tactic. (adzooma, 2020)
Only 18% of LGBTQ identifying consumers’ purchase decisions are positively impacted by LGBTQ-targeted comms during Pride Month. (AlixPartners Retail and LGBTQ Advocacy survey, 2021)
The distrust did not emerge out of the blue since marketing counter-tactics have exponentially multiplied, using twice as much imagination and inventiveness: focusing solely on the sustainability-related topic, we moved from single greenwashing to greenwashing + greenshifting + greenhushing + greenrinsing + greencrowding + greenlabelling + greenlighting (Planet Tracker, 2023). And proofs of misleading claims already came out:
60% of green claims made by 12 major brands in the UK and Europe were unsubstantiated or misleading. (Changing Market Foundation, 2022)
In October 2022, HSBC ads were banned for misleading consumers about green credentials.
On green hushing: 72% of the 1,200 private companies polled have set emissions targets in line with global climate goals, while nearly a quarter of them don't plan to publicise them. (South Pole, 2022)
Only 20% of the world's top 166 companies by emissions have set science-based emissions targets. (Climate Action 100+, 2022)
A few years ago, designer Djo Schütt already materialised the marketing’s -washing reign with her “Woke Wash Agency”, a speculative design project envisioning an advertising agency equipped with a washing machine for companies to whiten or regild their brand perception thanks to pre-defined washing programmes such as “Toxic masculinity”, “Racial diversity” or “Save the planet”.
To avoid falling into the opportunistic trap perception consumers hold against companies, brands are already required to consider an important trustworthy criteria: their audiences are actually craving for proof-of-impacts and supporting evidence — without expecting brands to become social justice experts — over 2050-something-oriented commitment claims.
66% of global people surveyed agreed with the statement that “companies say they care about the environment, but their actions fall short of their words”. (Dynata, 2022)
68% of US consumers agree that brands should be forthcoming about the political parties and social issues they financially support while 84% say brands need to prove they treat their customers and employees fairly. (Sitecore, 2022)
Beyond proofs come the actual beneficial effects. The state of failure deepens even further when initiatives for good are being re-questioned. In a refreshing and insightful opinion piece for Business of Fashion, Beth Esponnette finally questioned the actual effect sustainable fashion has on the issues initially raised. Such a difficult conversation that brings light on the idea that the sustainable concept and the actual “less bad” truth have become interchangeable:
“Replace ‘sustainable’ with ‘less bad’ in today’s fashion headlines and you get a more accurate picture of reality... ‘Less Bad Fashion Trends You Need To Know In 2023.’ ‘Less Bad Fashion Influencers Take On Fast Fashion.’ ‘Building a Less Bad Fashion Industry in 2023. “Less bad” than the status quo is how I have come to make sense of the industry’s attempts to sell itself as more sustainable. But some of fashion’s favourite sustainability solutions can actually result in outcomes that are worse than the status quo.” (Business of Fashion, 2023).
If the era of civic brands managed to make businesses step in as vocal socio-eco-political advocates, it has also failed to establish brands as trustworthy social justice experts. This stage of failure has revealed that CEOs and brands stakeholders are not social justice experts — or, at least, are not expected to behave as such. A middle ground needs to be considered.
Unapologetic hedonist consumption:
While individuals hold a certain degree of optimism towards the long-term future — with half of global citizens agreeing that “the world is becoming a better place with each new generation” (UNICEF & Gallup, 2022) —, the current social context paired with the rampant cost of living crisis are only reinforcing an anxious atmosphere where consumers are struggling with stress and uncertainties.
Common discourse would state that a conventional response behaviour from consumers would be for them to adopt a recalibrated investment mindset where priorities get even more pragmatic, leading to a reduced budget towards leisure, entertainment and non-necessary items. This argument is often used to legitimise “the return of minimalism”, “frugality” or “slow consumption”: in difficult times, consumers should be more considerate and re-focus their budgets towards the basic resources needed to ensure their future. But it is not surprising that this theory actually fails to explain a more nuanced reality: the rationing logics prove to be much more complex and consumption behaviours hold more grey areas as humanity often lies within paradoxes.
With 78% of UK and US consumers planning to cope with the year ahead by just “keeping living my life” (Bamm, 2022), the consumption mindset is much more oriented towards maintaining an access to sources of indulgence, rather than recalibrating towards sobriety or frugality. Truth might be: while abundance is being disregarded in face of the current rising cost of living and critics around overconsumption’s impacts are growing, the craving for escapism and solace gets even stronger.
Some 58% of Gen Z and 52% of Millennials identify as emotional spenders, i.e. someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows. (Credit Karma, 2023)
Even if consumers might not benefit from the resources to afford original luxury items, they might still fiercely invest in dupes and second-hand ones, allowing them to keep spending on numerous other categories. Although consumers can speak their voices and global awareness towards the state of environmental or social issues arises, concerns around their own immediate future seem to hold them back into perpetuating conspicuous consumption patterns. The spiralling narrative is winning in favour of the “cool” instead of the “real and conscious” values.
On uncertainty: does Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard’s “The less you know, the less you need” mantra still apply? Recent researches proved that under stress and anxiety, individuals' ability to self-regulate (to control one’s impulses in a way that facilitates the pursuit of long-term valued goals) is negatively affected, and, as an aftermath, tend to indulge even more in hedonic consumption. Call it the result of the attention recession era, a post-fear of missing out sentiment from consumers, or even revenge buying: the equation always reveals an unapologetic consumption behaviour in which consumers legitimise their shopping cart’s weight with its psychological benefits. Materialism and retail therapy always remained a quick fix for consumers. But in times of lasting uncertainties and permacrisis, hedonic consumption tends to root deeper than usual, favouring the thrive of some industries, such as luxury:
“Revenge buying is rooted in the anxiety about death. Luxury brands are built on this anxiety, as demonstrated by the 300% increase in sales at the Hermès boutique in New York the week after 9/11, a similar increase in Hermès sales in Tokyo after the tsunami, and in Paris after the Bataclan attack in 2015. Luxury is a kind of safe haven that helps us cope with crises.” Frédéric Monneyron, scholar and author of “L'Imaginaire du luxe”, 2015
62% of US respondents plan to spend the same or more on luxury compared to the last three months despite record inflation and a plunging stock market. (Saks, 2023)
Within an overconsumption landscape in which luxury has been commodified and made even more accessible, chasing those safe havens is even easier, no matter if it means to surrender to our immediate compulsive desires. The inflation and current societal context are draining. They require consumers to develop strategies and compromises, while anxiety adds an overwhelming layer to managing everyday life. To counterbalance this loss of energy, hedonic consumption offers a supportive access to pleasurable experiences.
Morals often considered this impulsiveness as shameful. But in the age of social media, concealing and hiding one’s impulses isn’t viable. Instead, people legitimise their irrational consumption with assertiveness, justifying their actions with a guilt-free statement which could be resumed as “I’m not rich, I’m irresponsible”.
Such narrative can reveal itself as pretty narrowed and dangerous as it tends to associate pleasure with irresponsibility. But somehow, this could only mean that we are still in an early stage of development, in an “adolescent stage”, when consumers are still caught struggling with a diminished self-regulation ability to correctly align their political ideals with their consumption behaviour. Just like companies still struggle to fully reconcile their business with their commitments.
In order to overcome this stage, we need to first acknowledge the very reasons behind this need for unapologetically hedonic consumption and work around the conditions that favour it in the first place: human need for fictions, beauty and pleasure.
The question sounds naive, yet related to the very essence of our current examination: when it comes to branding and consumption, is responsibility and activist-like commitment actually compatible with money-making business?
According to Yvon Chouinard again, in his “Let My People Go Surfing” manifesto, the failure of companies’ CSR values finds root in the financial considerations they pursue, i.e. the mutual dependence between ecology and economy. More recently, Kering’s CEO has opted in for a decoupling strategy in which value overpasses volume by updating its climate goals in March 2023 to address this tension for the first time. The latter example could potentially confirm the incompatibility between ecology and economy then.
On the matter, at 2sight, we’ve recently run some client-led research on the current state of activism-led marketing. For confidential reasons, we will not disclose the insightful learnings that came out from our conversations with industry experts. However, we can surely testify that, for the first time, the need for pleasure over responsibility emerged from our research. In short, we discovered that, in global markets facing chaotic social, economic and political situations, consumers are not expecting brands to save their life, but rather to support them in turning away from chaos, thanks to pleasurable experiences. Entertaining consumption reigns here.
Look at the success of eco-responsible footwear brand Allbirds in China for instance. We could easily suppose the positive impact of environmental-friendly product development on consumers’ enthusiasm. Yet, industry leaders’ perspective on the matter rather pinpoints the coolness factor behind a newly-imported brand resonating with a coolness-craving consumer audience. It’s not about eco-responsibility, but status and symbol then:
“Usually known for their progressive values and sustainable lifestyles, these West Coast DTC players have a slightly twisted narrative among their Chinese fans [...] To China’s young middle-class, the core appeal of these DTC brands is less about sustainability or ethical fashion and more about the social status implied by wearing, knowing about, and owning the same taste as America’s West Coast elites.” (Jing Daily, 2020)
This situation is not limited to APAC markets enjoying the introduction of foreign brands. In other geographic areas, which already appear mature in mastering eco-responsible behaviours, the same situation appears: the commitment-towards-the-good selling point does not seduce as much as the coolness factor.
27.8% of 13-28 consumers do not buy sustainable products or services because “they are not cool enough”.
"It's hard to be green, it’s not appealing." — Ambre, 20 years old (“Connect the worlds: fashion & sustainability for new generations” study by Views Research, 2022)
This observation does not only find roots in the need for entertaining coolness, but also in the way responsibility has been branded so far. A quick look at the civic brands’ communication materials reveals a situation in which consumers are confronted with what we call a “Below 0” lexical field: “reducing”, “recycling”, “diminishing”, “without harming”, “zero impacts”, “zero waste”. The semiotics of responsible consumption also revolve around imaginaries of innocence, fear of the future, or heroes against villains. It’s all about negativeness, subtraction and decreasing movements, instead of add-in values. Brands remove, decrease and diminish — circling back again to the “less bad” mentality analysed by Beth Esponnette and already mentioned above. Is the idea of getting less (or less bad outcomes) from consumption appealing? Not really. Do consumers content themselves with investing into the acquisition of goods in exchange for negativeness? Not sure.
Here comes again humans’ condition as creatures of fiction. Let’s put it simply by focusing on the fashion industry, one of the most vocal ones when it comes to saving people and the planet with responsible claims. In reality, isn’t fashion’s role to sublimate our experience of the world, instead of saving it? The same hypothesis could easily extend to all consumer-led sectors, from food & drinks, to wellness and hospitality. When it comes to sublimation, fashion brands have recently turned back to surrealism, a space between reality and dream. Just to name a few, Loewe stuck to surreal experimentation, while Paco Rabanne dedicated a collection to the memory and work of Dali. As Schiaparelli’s creative director Daniel Roseberry stated in Purple magazine’s 30YRS issue: “As the world is going to shit, people have an appetite for a parallel reality”. And this parallel reality does not seem to fit in unappealing socio-political considerations.
This is what we call Kalopsia consumption. The term is not limited to the surrealist movement, but signifies “the delusion of things being more beautiful than they are” (Wikionary) according to Ancient Greek καλοψία (kalopsía), from καλός (kalós, “good, beautiful, lovely”) + ὄψις (ópsis, “view”). Kalopsia is about sublimating, circling back to the primal expression of beauty and favouring a vision of everything beautified. Combined with consumption, the Kalopsia concept could be summarised as: creating beauty, shadowing reality’s ugliness. Yes, consumers absolutely do care about the sustainable production of their sneakers. But we are also convinced they do massively care about the beautiful designs of what they put on their feet.
One way of contextualising the Kalopsia consumption theory lies in another one we formulated: the Soma market. Appearing in Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World”, the “soma” is a fictional recreational drug promoted by the government as a way to increase the happiness and complacency of the population. In this case, the Kalopsian beautification of consumption goods could potentially be a form of having consumers forget about the greater consumption’s issues at stake.
Assuring here that brands should only sublimate our experience of the world without even maintaining its existence — i.e. affirming for instance that fashion brands should just produce beautiful designs while destroying the planet and their people — would be antinomic, even controversial. Yet, in face of the guilt-trip morals, polarisation and ostracisation created under the reign of Civic Brands, and taking into account the elevating voices on the need for brands to focus on everything-beautified and coolness over justice, legitimately, we end up raising the question: should not activism and civism take the back seat?
In a world where consumption became political with brands holding more influence than governments, human issues became branding issues. This Civic Brand era led marketers to reposition their strategies to make brands appeal as more authentic and relevant (CONSUMPTION) by engaging in activist commitments (POLITICS).
To quote Dan Goldgeier again: “People simply don’t care about the beliefs of the majority of the brands they use. There’s just not enough time in the day to be so woke or outraged.” The statement is bold but purpose already seems over-used, over-displayed, over-marketed. Values are out-of-stock.
Then, should brands rather be civic or unpolitical? In the light of the Civic Brand’s era’s overall stage of failure that can no longer be ignored, and with a solid half of Gen Z US adults who do not think brands should align with social and political issues (Civic Science, 2023), we rather envision brands’ civic implications as latent, then solid, rather than obviously displayed out-there as an appealing varnish.
Brands cannot escape the Civic Brands trope, but should rather not fall into the social justice narrative. While they still play an undisputable decisive role in culture and society, their deliberate choice to engage in political matters is rather making them unpolitical, as they are often unconsciously unaware of the real political implications their influence embeds. We are fully aware that corporations’ financial capital (and power) exceeds governments'. Still, brands’ political power shouldn’t usurp governments’ action, especially considering the very chaotic situation of our societies that would surely not be solved overnight by superheroic marketing strategies. Let’s also assess that their actionable financial power actually does not mean that they benefit from an extended public social power (and competency).
To us, it’s not about having to commit to a civic positioning versus an unpolitical one. Let’s reassure brands: not taking a stand is political. Marketed dreams and fictions — stripped of apparent political stands — are already political.