What helps in times of huge uncertainty? Credible brands!

Why has populism become such a successful “brand” in both Europe and the USA? And what can we do to halt it? In his keynote at the Best Brands event this February, Giovanni di Lorenzo, editor-in-chief of ZEIT, made it very clear: credible brands are a ray of hope for democracy.

The 53rd Munich Security Conference took place this February at the city’s Bayerischer Hof hotel. At these gatherings of the world’s most powerful people, a lot is said and done that later hits the headlines: Joschka Fischer, who at the height of the Iraq crisis, said to Donald Rumsfeld “I’m not convinced”, or Joachim Gauck, who called for Germany to increase its international military involvement. But what really tested my credulity was the sensation at this year’s Security Conference: the fact that a major global news bulletin reported that there would be no further disruptive action by the Americans against NATO, the EU, the media or the whole of mankind –Trump followers excluded, of course!

I’m an optimistic person by nature, but in that moment even I was plagued by nagging questions. With our tried-and-tested instruments, will we still be able to compete with the currently prevailing mood? Who will win? Will we experience the return of the authoritarian, dictatorial reign in the Western world, the restriction of freedom of opinion and all the other fundamental rights we have become accustomed to? If Best Brands were to award a prize for the politically most successful brand of the present day, there’s no getting around the fact we would have to announce the populists as the winner. After all, these self-declared sole representatives of the people, from the right, but also from the left, are gaining ground worldwide.

The connecting element of these demagogic nationalists is a common concept of the enemy: Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and Petry, but even Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza movement in Greece are casting doubt on the efficacy of the powerful, the elite, the establishment. The populists and their supporters are pretty much questioning everything that we previously took for granted: open markets, a liberal society, international institutions and treaties – the fabric of democracy itself.

As far as Trumpism is concerned, I have a theory about where this phenomenon actually comes from. It’s not easy for me to say this because it concerns a country that I come from – or at least half of me does: but it seems to me as if Italy has once again become a role model for social and political developments that we should take very seriously. The fascists took power in Italy in 1922, at a time when Hitler had just been sentenced to three months in prison for breach of the peace. The Italian communists showed us what happens when communism is opened up to Western values – that’s not something we have to fear. But it was the famous Mani pulite investigation into political corruption that led to the demise of the party state in Italy in the 1990s, and then – as a supposed wind of change – along came Berlusconi and his movement. And there were so many parallels to what we’re observing now: an outsider who, it was said, would surely be good for the country as he was a successful entrepreneur; a politician who wouldn’t need to steal from his people because he was already rich. His distasteful attitude to women was similar, the power that came from his TV popularity, his contempt for justice, the friend-foe scheme and, time and time again, his “If I don’t like the sound of something, then my opponent must have made it up” attitude. One of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest confidantes once said: “You have no idea how powerful the man is.” And when asked why, he responded: “He can buy reality, you can’t!” Trump is a 1:10 scale model of Berlusconi. Or 1:100? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

But let’s get back to the current success of the populists: the worst thing is that their rise is accompanied by fundamental doubts about the credibility of politicians, institutions and the media – and these doubts are even plaguing circles who don’t want to vote for Le Pen or the AfD. A survey by communications agency Edelman in 28 countries showed that the majority of people surveyed no longer believes the system in their country is working. In Germany, only 38 percent of the population still trust the government. A mere 28 percent think CEOs are credible people. Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern, whom I interviewed last October, summed this mood up perfectly: the populists and their supporters “want to see the system and the elite on their knees,” basically meaning that they want them to be brought down. Who exactly the system and the elite consist of is left open. “Elite” and “establishment” have long since become vague but incendiary terms. Not everyone who uses them seems to have clearly defined the meaning for themselves – or even for outsiders. But let’s not deceive ourselves: for most people who use them, it’s not just the politicians and editors-in-chief who belong to this establishment, but also CEOs, for example.

I will admit that I am sceptical about the German government’s refugee policy and, as much as I understand and respect the humane, moral impetus behind it, right from the beginning I was critical of the decision the Chancellor made on 4/5 September 2015 to open the borders to refugees. And I no longer view the political correctness of the last few years as welcome protection from insults and degradation, but often as an authoritarian, moral gag that has obscured a part of our reality. And I was critical of the role of many media outlets, especially at the beginning of the refugee crisis, because I thought that they were becoming protagonists in their own reporting, instead of remaining impartial observers. And I’ve done all that as someone who firmly believes that problems and grievances don’t get worse when you address them, but when you keep silent about them. But, with this in mind, I have to confess that I’m sick of hearing the populists ranting and raving! Ms Merkel was absolutely right when, on the day she announced she would be standing for a fourth term of office, she said on Anne Will’s talk show: “I cannot and will not accept that only those who say “no” and are critical are suddenly the people, and all the others who go to work every day and solve problems and try to contribute something and don’t criticise so much – or criticise AND offer solutions – that they are suddenly no longer the people and that somewhere between them is where the elite begins.”

She isn’t likely to repeat this wonderful, genuinely convoluted and, for Merkel, extremely emotional sentence in a hurry, but she is right. I can no longer tolerate this lamenting either and believe it’s high time to do something about it – but what?

Why is the populism brand striking such a chord with so many people? People are simply longing for simple answers in complex times. They want to be taken seriously in their everyday worries and needs. And no doubt they are also angry at us – at the alleged elite – who they feel no longer understand, let alone represent them in any way because we have abandoned them to the left – or to the right. Let me share a few thoughts with you from a letter recently sent to me by a reader of ZEIT. At the end of last year, a qualified horticultural engineer from the district of Verden in Lower Saxony wrote the following: “I often find myself speechless and appalled at how little the politicians understand their own population, let alone take them seriously. We’d have enough reasons to bang our fists on the table…” And he went on: “I’m fearful of the future, not for me, I’m old enough, but for the next generations. If we don’t change anything, this country will blow up in our faces. And I think a lot of other people would agree with me.” So as you can see: although it’s a truism, the most important finding from the present-day rise of populism is that in uncertain times, people increasingly seek solid anchors and guidance. They ask themselves: what can I still hold onto, who can I trust?

From shutting down all mosques to banning the Koran in Holland, down to the entry ban into the USA: a lot of the alleged promises of salvation offered up by the populists are enough to make the hairs on our neck stand on end. But despite all the wrong answers, we have to give the populists one thing: some of the questions they are raising are correct and justified. They are legitimate questions that have sometimes also fallen victim to political correctness. The populists can gain ground wherever the elite, institutions and parties have revealed weaknesses. So we should also be self-critically asking ourselves the question: “What helps in times of huge uncertainty?” My answer is: credible brands. This could be the brands of individual media, the big people’s parties or certain companies. Towards the end of her study, the Germany CEO of the aforementioned Edelman agency said: “Company CEOs who believe they can promote themselves and their company on the strength of their image need to rethink things radically and, as a working assumption, assume that nobody believes them anyway. That’s a much more realistic way of looking at things.” Corporations, advertising agencies, media – we should all ask ourselves how we should deal with the increasing fragmentation of society. What does it mean for our work, for our products? And, of course, also what does our work, what do our products mean for them? Are we ourselves perhaps partly to blame for the deep division of society all around the world?

To mention the elephant in the room: yes, the whole point of advertising is to sell something, to persuade people, which is why it never tells the full truth. Just like in politics, it’s not just the populists seeking simple answers to complex questions. But it would be reprehensible if we were to take people for fools or dispute their intelligence. No matter how sophisticated the methods, people are aware of what’s going on. And I don’t think it’s the task of agencies to sell cars and their diesel emission rates with slogans like “the world’s cleanest diesel technology” when everyone involved clearly knew that the connection between actual exhaust emissions and those claimed was tenuous at best. So there’s not only fake news, but also fake ads – i.e. deliberately misleading advertising that has very little to do with verifiable facts. Both are, in my eyes, equally as dangerous for the social climate.

The very least we can do is not negligently promote the divisions in our society any further by losing our confidence. This includes, in my industry for example, ensuring that everything that is advertising is also identified as such. It includes ensuring that incidents like the one that happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016 don’t just make it into the news four days after they happened. And it means that politics shouldn’t rise above the fears of voters who are worried about Europe’s open borders.

A week ago, I was sitting on a panel at an event with the CEO of Birkenstock, Oliver Reichert. He let the whole world know that, in his opinion, the “century of quality” has begun. And I asked him how a company can double their production in three years – which is what happened at Birkenstock – without the quality suffering. His answer was very honest: “In a globalised world with globalised retail, it’s very, very difficult to verify where the goods are actually coming from and under which conditions they were produced – anyone who claims any different is either a dreamer or a blatant liar.” Even in his company, he said, it’s not always possible, despite your best efforts, to make the raw material chain totally transparent.

Apart from, of course, credible, sustainable and – as far as possible – fair production, well-known companies and brands can clearly do even more. Almost a hundred companies from the American tech industry, above all Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, supported the lawsuits against Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Starbucks declared that it aims to employ 10,000 refugees worldwide at its branches in the coming years. Department store chain Nordstrom removed Ivanka Trump’s shoe collection from its shelves – and was criticised by the US President in a tweet that was read a million times. Other companies are going even further: by using advertising as political statements in polarised times. This was plain to see during the Superbowl, which has the most expensive television advertising slots in the world. Coca-Cola and Budweiser’s commercials depicted America as a country of immigration – also a reaction to the Muslim ban.

But how political can it get? That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question that big brands are asking themselves today. There is certainly nothing to be said against companies making it clear which values they have an affinity with – and refusing to use advertising to pay those who jeopardise such values – like in the case of Breitbart media. The New York Times, one of Trump’s favourite targets during his morning Twitter tantrums, is another good example: while the President mocks the “failing” and “dishonest” Times, their number of digital subscriptions is skyrocketing. And the online portals in Germany are also achieving new records, ZEIT Online included. So in times like these, product brands can offer a sense of orientation. There’s a reason why Apple – the world’s most valuable brand – has gained more trust among many US citizens than the American government. We should think ourselves lucky that we are far removed from such a state of affairs here in Germany. And the scandalous mudslinging we saw during the election campaign between Trump and Clinton is hard to imagine here (at least for now). Even taking into consideration the shocking scandals that seem to blow up here in Germany for no reason. But despite all these excesses, trials and tribulations, our political debating culture is far too level-headed, too balanced and stable to end up like that of the USA. And it’s important we hold onto that because here in Germany we often tend to talk ourselves down.

Along with the whole propaganda and so-called alternative facts, I believe that precisely this fake news is increasing our need for reliable information, classification and analyses. More than ever, the media should be answering the elementary question of “What’s really going on?” In these times of polarisation, we can expect our readers to respond in very different ways. But at the same time, we must be careful not to play to their indignation as this is a method that quickly wears thin. That’s also why I’m also firmly opposed to accepting Donald Trump’s declaration of war on the media. Describing exactly what’s going on is more than sufficient! Allowing him or other populists to pigeonhole us all into one mass or one party is exactly what they want. In my opinion, the New York Times did exactly the right thing by responding to Trump’s declaration of war with an advertising slogan: “We arm you with facts so you can see through the fiction.” Here at ZEIT we have a similarly eloquent way of putting it and the words are perhaps more significant today than ever before. They were written by Marion Gräfin von Dönhoff, our deceased editor-in-chief, publisher and – still for many – a leading figure: “We don’t want to indoctrinate our readers, but give them the tools to form their own opinions.”

We’re currently all asking ourselves what we should do. Not that I’m megalomaniac, or a know-it-all, or a missionary either. But our challenge now is to renew, stabilise and strengthen our brands, the political ones, the social ones and the commercial ones. Perhaps it also comes down to authenticity, which is underestimated by a lot of people. We can no longer make it just about short-term successes, profits, about gains at any price. It’s all comes down to our most crucial values, integrity, credibility, tolerance, democracy, and therefore everything that makes our society worth living in. And despite all my worries, I am deeply convinced: the battle is not lost, we just need to finally start fighting it!

Photos: Best Brands

Giovanni di Lorenzo

Editor-in-Chief of Die ZEIT

Since 2004, the Italian-German journalist has been Editor-in-Chief of weekly German newspaper Die Zeit – with huge success. Before that he was Editor-in-Chief of the Berlin Tagesspiegel, which he still works for as co-publisher. German TV viewers will know Di Lorenzo as the host of talk show “III nach 9”. As an author, he has written countless bestsellers including “Vom Aufstieg und anderen Niederlagen” (On Progress and Other Defeats) in 2014, and “Auf eine Zigarette mit Helmut Schmidt” (A Cigarette with Helmut Schmidt) in 2009. In 2011 he caused a sensation with his book about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. The passionate journalist has received a number of awards for his work, including the Bambi in 1992, the Theodor Wolff Prize in 1993, the Goldene Feder (Golden Quill) in 2001, the Media Award for Language Culture in 2006 and the honorary prize from the jury of the Julius Hirsch Award in 2009. As the Editor-in-Chief of Zeit, it is important not to lose touch with his readers: “The general belief used to be that the less a publication revealed about itself, the better its myth could be preserved – but that hasn’t been the case for a while now.” Di Lorenzo has a daughter and commutes between Berlin and Hamburg.

With his keynote “What helps in times of huge uncertainty? Credible brands!” at the 2017 Best Brands gala at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Giovanni di Lorenzo made a passionate case for the importance of strong (media) brands.

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