My new favorite obsession is the current hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” I could go on and on about the artistic and historical value of this work of art. The show brilliantly turns a biography of one of America’s founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, the father of our economic system which still stands strong today. Author-composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda has turned Hamilton’s life-story into a pop-culture juggernaut, a hip-hop song and dance adventure that’s so entertaining and enthralling it could turn the most jaded teenager into a history fan. I’ll leave the detailed reviews to others and focus on just one profound lyric for just now.
In the second musical number of the show, our protagonist A. Hamilton meets with his would-be mentor-figure Aaron Burr. Burr, whose experience and reputation spoke alluringly to Hamilton, tells the ambitious and outspoken Hamilton to: “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
Burr wasn’t being ironic or a smart-ass. He thoughtfully wanted his potential protégé to understand what he believed it takes to be successful in the 1776-era revolutionary political spheres; and even more so, how not to end up dead for spouting what could be incendiary ideas, values or ideals.
But Hamilton, a bold, peerless young thinker and writer who would later pen more than half of the Federalists papers, would have none of that. He shoots back (pun intended) defiantly: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” We all know how this tragic story ends, but what is brilliantly reinforced here is the stark difference in character between two smart men with similar leadership ambitions; one man who played it safe and another who led with his convictions.
Although centuries have passed, this schism between sitting back and standing up still persists in political and corporate worlds today. There are the old-guard businesses and brands which definitely talk less, and smile more. These organizations have safe and protectionist values and positioning that, sure, may have stood the test of time. But these brands are going nowhere, leading nothing, and I posit may not be prepared to weather the tests of today’s empowered citizen market place.
I believe today’s inspired citizens, and leading brands they admire, are more like Hamilton than Burr. They want their favorite corporations, brands and elected officials today to stand for something meaningfully, to be famous for more than just their products or services, but to own and communicate purpose and values they are willing to fall for.
Standing on principle alone isn’t enough, we know. The current Oregon federal wildlife preserve stand-off is evidence that convictions must be supported by reason and sanity. When they are misguided, or even mis-managed like some of the “Occupy” movements, they miss the mark.
In the workplace, our current generation of employee base doesn’t only want their personal brands to stand for something, they increasingly want their professional brands including employers and trade groups to do the same. These young employees simply are less interested in working for those organizations don’t do right by the community writ large. “Doing well and doing good” is not just a marketing imperative, it’s the employer workforce imperative and that fact may indeed have far more critical and immediate bottom-line business implications today.
Surely, this trend also is proving true in the political campaign year, as non-traditional candidates disrupt the norms — and in several cases lead the overall agenda and discourses, and are winning the debates and polls subsequently. The old-guard archetypes of being fair-to-middling, of playing it safely — are being toppled in favor of a new guard who speak their minds, even if they don’t always get it exactly right.
Aren’t there enough signals that the same which happened in politics will happen with businesses and brands? Hasn’t it already started?
In brand marketing, the same rules surely have been disrupted. The most heralded brands of millennials today are standing up for what’s right and making it known what they believe it. They’re putting their money where their messaging is, and erring on “just doing something” rather than making small meaningless philanthropic donations. The winning brands are promoting both their goods, their goodness, and the greater good.
Successful brands are linking their essence to such issues and/or creative their own efforts to change the public discourse. Brand campaigns like Always “Like a Girl” and Dove “Real Beauty” are famously reframing what is means to be confident and successful women. These brands challenged long-standing stereotypes to public and industry acclaim.
Less obvious or familiar work comes out of the travel sector where a smaller company like G Adventures has reframed the value of travel by making famously helping build communities and sustainable economies in the places its leads tourists. G Adventures has build micro-economies in the places it serves is consumers, and in fact has changed the way it views its tourism communities to mirror B2B relationships.
Which brands will be the next to help move our society forward? Will any be bold enough to tackle the next generation of indisputable issues facing our world such as migration, climate change, and income inequality?
In Hamilton’s message: If you stand for nothing, no one will know what you are a truly willing to die for. When there will be hundreds of brands and businesses being targeted by competitive, disruptive upstart companies with little to lose, I issue a call to arms to for the old guard, venerable brands to start acting more purposefully. These businesses cannot wait to be defined by what they’re not, and instead they must quickly find how to stand up for what they believe.
Written by Daryl McCullough, Chief Executive Officer & Global Chairman, Citizen Relations