On Friday, January 26th, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that the country continued to grow at a rapid pace – GDP rose at a rate of 2.6 percent for the fourth quarter and 2.5 percent overall for 2017. In addition, consumer spending rose about 3.8 percent. While some argue these data are flawed because they don’t represent a modern, technology and service-driven economy, they still demonstrate substantial economic growth for the U.S. and for the globe.
These numbers are especially significant because they come so late in what has been a historically long period of growth, and the figures have put politicians and statisticians alike in a creative mode, as everyone tries to come up with a narrative around this elongated period of expansion. Experts are left examining policy and diplomacy in different ways to help unbundle the twin mysteries of how we got here and how we keep the momentum moving.
As a technologist and a marketer, I’m asking myself a different question as I look at these numbers – who have we become through this period of growth and how has it changed us?
From a technology perspective, looking back to the beginning for this run – which, according to the Wall Street Journal, started in 2009, we were a very different country. When the iPhone was in its early days, we were not thinking about virtual reality in a mainstream way and weren’t binge-watching on our phones; the chipsets that drive our devices were less powerful and the idea of self-driving cars was still a ways off from becoming a reality.
Our lives were also full of different brands. Yes – Twitter was approaching omnipotence, but the gig economy did not exist. Uber and Lyft didn’t exist and Tesla was a futuristic brand that had yet to prove itself. Instagram was only on the horizon and the idea that Russians could manipulate an electorate through Facebook hadn’t occurred to anyone in the mainstream.
The last nine years of growth have changed how brands relate to their audiences and navigate major issues – and also altered the lens through which we perceive reality. In my work in marketing and communications, I have noticed three major shifts in how brands build and own their narratives:
- First, the author has changed. A brand narrative ─ the story of who and what a brand is ─ is now jointly created by the target audience and the company. Sure, the company usually initiates a narrative through collateral, messaging, advertising, products and spokespeople, but increasingly, it is the dialogue between a brand and its target that shapes the story of that brand. Take Uber for example – a brand that arguably created the disintermediation or “gig” economy, has been through the discourse in the media, with governments and with Uber customers that the brand has been tarnished to the point where it lost ground to Lyft and finds itself fighting legal and image battles in several theatres.
- The target audience isn’t just the consumer. If anything, the growth of the last decade and the proliferation of technology and communications channels mean that it’s not just an end user who has an opinion on a brand or product. This is critical for how brands build their narrative because everything from the lexicon to the value proposition is created jointly through new third parties.
- The notion of responsibility has changed. This is true, especially for technology brands. The idea that a product is ethically neutral has become less and less true. When Twitter and Facebook can be used to spread “fake news” and cellphones and computers can be platforms for espionage or just cyberbullying, it is time for brands to take a stand on how their products can and should be used. This is happening slowly, but the call to action is strong, especially from the Millennial and Gen Z populations.
Regardless of the future of the current economic growth spurt, the world we live in has changed tremendously. The stories we tell about ourselves and that the brands we live with tell about us are shifting as well. Whether this growth continues on its unparalleled route or it evens out to a slower pace, the way we relate to each other, the way we navigate commerce, and even the way we see ourselves has forever been altered.