The world as we know it is coming to an end. Here’s how you prepare
In a future defined by hyperconnectivity, brands must glean deep insights from emerging markets and apply them elsewhere to survive.
The world as we know it is coming to an end.
I’m not talking about an AI apocalypse or the climate catastrophe. I mean that society’s default settings are about to change. Assumptions we’ve held dear for a century will be challenged as mighty forces take a monkey wrench to the mechanics of our world and slowly untighten all the nuts.
For years, the West and its allies have been the dominant socio-economic force on the planet. Laudable values of liberalism, democracy and equality were packaged up with cultural touchpoints Coca Cola, Nike, McDonalds, Levi’s, and Hollywood and MTV.
These beacons of optimism meant that The West became its brands. Whilst rotten regimes rolled rocket-launchers across austere parade grounds, The West and its allies had an even bigger flex: the ‘soft power’ of aspiration. The contagious promise of a better life – rich, free and full of choice.
For most of the 20th Century, this was the way of things. But, despite our assumptions that the West’s successful operating model would endure, we now see the opposite may be true: that its continued existence is no longer assured.
History shows us that ‘too big to fail’ is not limited to companies like Enron and Pan Am but can apply to empires too. The Roman Empire covered 2 million square miles, with territory from York to Iraq. But Rome is no longer a force in global politics. The British Empire too, covering a quarter of the earth’s surface, shed its constituent parts to robust independence movements — the USA, India, Zimbabwe — and amicable decouplings. For many, the handing back of Hong Kong in 1997 was the coup de grace, leaving the UK a shadow of its former imperial self.
The only constant is change. And we are about to go through change again.
The rest overtakes the west
A predicted evolution is imminent and at its heart is the shifting sands of global demographics. A reordering and rebalancing of systems that will generate new centres of geopolitical gravity.
According to Our World In Data, Europe is the only region where population is expected to fall over the coming decades. Currently, its population hovers around 745 million, but by 2100 this is forecast to drop to 588 million.
In contrast, Nigeria’s population is projected to be around 400 million by 2050, with Indonesia and Pakistan catching up to the US with 350 million around the same time.
Consequently, by 2060 only 8% of the world’s population will be the ‘developed world’ as we understand it today. By 2040, 65% of the most affluent consumers will be non-Western.
Soft power, previously a skillset of the US, may become a tool for all nations, as they strive to reach cultural parity with the West.
Media is the most effective vehicle for that expression of soft power.
China, for instance, is doubling down on its expertise in space exploration to gain clout on the world stage, with this new race for space achieving expression in the emerging new genre of Chinese sci-fi.
Masterpiece novel Three Body Problem — with an adaptation due to hit Netflix this year – sees the Chinese make first contact with an alien race. Meanwhile The Wandering Earth, also on Netflix, is China’s answer to Armageddon, and centres on a taskforce of Chinese scientists and astronauts tasked with saving all mankind. This output is reputational. It embeds notions of technological prowess into planetary consciousness.
In India, Bollywood goes from strength to strength, with blockbuster “RRR” — a swashbuckling tale of anti-colonial rebellion — going viral thanks to its utterly over-the-top action sequences that resemble a hybrid of John Wick and Madagascar. RRR made nearly $200m at the box office, gained five Golden Globe nominations and won one Oscar.
Though China and India are the two biggest nations on earth by population, cultural shifts are not necessarily related to size. South Korea, a country with fewer people than the UK, has managed to bring K-Pop to the world. Now 90% of K-Pop listeners live outside of the nation of its origin, anointing megastars like Park Jin-young, now reputedly worth a quarter of a billion dollars.
This ascendancy of non-Western soft power has only happened in the last 20 years, and as of 2020, only 60% of the world’s population is online, leaving vast swathes of people underexposed to global cultural output.
Crucially then, nations and their citizens coming online for the first time over the next two decades may prefer Three Body Problem to Game Of Thrones. They may choose K-Pop over Ed Sheeran. They may use Alibaba and not Amazon. Cultural share of voice will be fiercely competitive.
The above is not intended to be some kind of jingoistic call-to-arms. After all, empires rise and empires fall. Just that our denial of reality does not protect us from that reality. Resistance to the inevitable reminds us of the legendary King Cnut, who stood on the beach commanding the tide to recede. Naturally, the sea did not heed.
There are lessons for brands in all of this.
Marketing goes truly global
The advice for brands is: respond and reshape, but don’t resist.
There are two ways to do this. First, revisit default Western tropes driving messaging. Advertising that starts life in English before being translated into other languages (often poorly) may soon start life in Mandarin, Hindi or Yoruba and Igbo, before being turned into an English equivalent.
Similarly, brands may soon need to get to grips with cultural touchpoints beyond their realm of understanding. Nascent consumer trends that formerly started life in Tribeca in NYC or Shoreditch in London may instead be birthed in the vibrant districts of Lagos, Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou.
This will mandate a shift in mindset. Though many brands already consider themselves global in that they have internationally positioned marketing departments to convert products and services into local relevance, we must ask how many are also positioned to cross-pollinate their markets with exciting new regional trends? How many are applying in Canada what they have learned in Cambodia? In short, global won’t mean just federation of markets, it will mean hyperconnectivity of markets.
Second, it means capturing best practice from those markets that have a new perspective on the mechanics of marketing. In many cases non-Western nations are setting the standards for customer service and brand interactions.
The ruthlessly efficient digital-first consumer journeys we see in apps like TikTok and Wish put many Western ecommerce platforms to shame. Similarly, those Western platforms that manage to emulate those conventions act as a disruptive force on the ‘old world’, shaking up markets traditionally dominated by lumbering legacy brands.
Brands embracing new ways of living and converting fresh perspectives into new connections will thrive in this new paradigm. Those who cling on to the past may fail.
We are not the centre of the world
Critics of beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that, at the height of his unpopularity, his refusal to resign was because he rather narcissistically could not conceive of the Tory Party without him at the helm.
Could we say the same of our cosy existence? When we may assume that our values are the world’s values, we assume we are the lead character in the film, and the story cannot go on without us. But we might be wrong: we might not be the only game in town.
Brands adopting a truly global mindset and gleaning deep insights from emerging markets for application elsewhere, may counter the West’s potentially dwindling influence.
In the new world, only the worldly will succeed.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media.