Marketing and the power of storytelling for a better world

Futurist Dr Richard Hames outlines the existential crises facing society and the power and responsibility of marketing to develop new narratives during ADMA Data Week 2020

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It’s critical enterprises have a higher-level purpose which can be translated by the individual employees into their work to aid productivity and engagement, according to the founder and executive director of the Centre for the Future, Dr Richard Hames. 

The futurist was speaking at this week’s ADMA Data Week 2020 event on the challenges of the current COVID-19 crisis, the larger forces affecting capitalism and the modern world, and the integral role data plays. Dr Hames also spoke of the challenge and the opportunity for marketing, through the power of storytelling and data, to develop new narratives which speak to the crises facing people and the planet.

CMO spoke with Hames ahead of his presentation, where he expanded on some of the predicted events and challenges we will face and the unprecedented levels of disruption. Marketing, advertising, coders and those who control the algorithms will be key.

“The single thing we can be sure of going forward is the importance of data in all of this. And the responsibility of those who work with data,” he told CMO.

Richard HamesCredit: Richard Hames
Richard Hames

“Marketing is a critical industry in the next decade - a decade of disruption as we deal with other pandemics, geopolitical tensions and need to integrate radically new technologies into our lives and work. And it’s data and those who work with data who will control the narrative,” Hames said.

Democracy, energy production, climate change, civil disobedience are just some of the big picture issues Hames and the team at the Centre for the Future are focused on understanding and which are creating another new normal. However Dr Hames suggested it’s more profound than even that.

“You can't call it a new normal, but, instead, how we will change our lifestyles, our relationships to each other, to the environment and to work,” he said.

For Dr Hames, key forces of change blowing across the world include social media dominance, gender bias and propaganda as well as new technology like 5G networks, quantum computing and augmented reality. Cutting-edge technology like biometrics, nanotechnology and machine intelligence as well as blockchain and decentralised apps will affect everything from how to communicate and shop to how we study and work. 

From a marketing perspective, he predicted conversational marketing will take off as people turn to alternative sources for truth in the face of a loss of faith in institutions, judiciary, even democracy itself.

“People, particularly young people, are turning away from social media as the source of truth which means authenticity will matter a great deal," he commented.

This will help see distributed apps challenge the monopoly power of the big tech companies like Google and Facebook, and presented fresh challenges around audience fragmentation. “The levels of uncertainty, volatility, complexity and ambiguity will increase which will mean authenticity and truth will matter and become absolutely critical,” Dr Hames said.

As for the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Hames believed it has amplified and accelerated the cracks and shifts already apparent in society around the nature of work, education and ways of living through the industrial age. It's also highlighting the breakdown of systems.

“All those things being disrupted and changing, this pandemic has affected, and even the solutions to address those things will be affected,” he said.

On a more fundamental level, Dr Hames saw society heading into the decade of disruption, an almost perfect story of technology, health, social media and geopolitical tensions, which will alter almost every facet of our lives. “There is no going back, to the future we expected, no returning what was. Normal has gone. There is no new normal. We need to understand how we need to evolve for the future,” he said.

 Deep patterns and trends will emerge, impacting on the human condition, Dr Hames continued. One of these goes to the very organising principle of capitalism and that is the reshaping of the purpose of economies.

“We’ve discovered over the last 30 years, it’s not working for most people. We need to reform capitalism and shift to a better balance to wealth and health and well-being,” he said.

The challenge is moving away from the guiding principle of persuading people to buy more, which is creating a crisis in behaviours that has, in turn, put stress on life critical systems, such as energy sources, food production and ecological systems, which are failing. This leads to a culture of conflict and blame for the problems and lead to a sense of despair and a crisis of consciousness through loneliness, anxiety, depression and fear.

These four civilisational crises - behaviours, systems, cultures and consciousness - creates a cycle of consumption and despair, Dr Hames said. 

“This is a huge problem,” he said. But for marketers, who are responsible for the narrative in society, it poses a fundamental challenge and opportunity, to change that narrative that consumption is the key to happiness.

“You control the narrative in society and are capable of changing that narrative. And embedding more of what is needed in the narrative of today. Those who program and code the algorithms and write and tell the narrative we should believe and trust, are the masters of the world.”

The marketing message

According to Dr Hames, marketers are at a fulcrum point in their profession because marketing needs to start to develop narratives that help make a better world and not just continue to encourage further consumption in the false belief it leads to happiness.

“The paradox is no longer using marketing and advertising to manipulate behaviours and emotions as it has in the past. It needs to tell the truth and it needs to shine a light on what really matters," he said. "How can marketers disrupt that cycle of desire and consumption? We need to weave a new moral code for humanity.”

Hames said three fundamental questions need to be posed by the industry when it comes to campaigns and messaging and products: Is it good for children? Is it good for the planet? Is it good for us?

“You have control and responsibility over the narratives. You can help change the world,” he said.

And this is why Dr Hames said marketers and advertisers, the data experts and the storytellers, will become integral to how society manages the challenges and crises of the next 10 to 25 years.

“People who have control of the narrative going into the future will be absolutely critical. And whether we flourish or become extinct, to a great extent, is beholden on that narrative,” he added.

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