New power for old brands

Power is changing, from concentrated and controlled old power to fluid and unconstrained new power. Think Harvey Weinstein to #MeToo. Can established brands keep up?

A new book by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans comes highly recommended by everyone from Richard Branson and Russell Brand to Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. New Power argues that in the 21st century the world is shifting away from the centralised, closed, jealously guarded ‘old power’ held by the few, towards the distributed, open ‘new power’ shared by the many.

Donald Trump looks like old power personified – but he was elected by a new power movement called Make America Great Again reflecting a grassroots frustration with the established order. Waves of populism and the rejection of previously accepted power structures, enabled by social networks and democratised technology, are sweeping the world.

The authors of New Power do not claim that one form of power is good or that one is bad, simply arguing that they are different – although using Harvey Weinstein versus #MeToo as their leading example in the book might suggest a certain leaning, one that is shared by much of the current climate of opinion against established, male-dominated power structures.

Some brands (including banks, who might be thought of as old power) are using new power techniques to create impact in both the social and communication senses. Examples of how activism beats advertising include State Street’s ‘Fearless Girl’, Sberbank’s data-driven small-business loans in Russia and Santander’s sponsored sci-fi in Spain.

That is perhaps an indication of new power at work – no one has made people work on these projects; they have chosen to. Consciously or not, brands are seeing that inclusion, adaptation and flexibility are better for business than the old power of ‘push’ media; big-budget TV or poster ads that seek to tell audiences what to think are losing out to social media-driven ‘pull’ campaigns that audiences choose to be part of.

Of course, there are risks. Data can be manipulated, messages are far harder to verify, and targeting can be abused. More oversight is essential to avoid the abuse of this new power – and the regulation that worked for old power is not up to the job, so it needs to change too.

But there are potentially immense benefits for those brands that embrace new power. Leaving aside the savings on big-budget media, imagine the effectiveness of having your customers or clients doing your marketing for you. Word of mouth and peer endorsement has always beaten advertising hands down; and that’s exactly what a new power campaign offers.

So, how is it done? According to the book, you first find your ‘connected connectors’; design your brand; remove barriers between the brand and participants; build participation, not consumption; and harness the strength of ‘storms’ – by creating, chasing or embracing a social movement (as State Street did). Campaigns need to drive action, build connections and make it easy for audiences to extend by themselves. The Trump campaign, IS recruitment and #MeToo are all good examples.

It’s harder to point to big new power businesses, perhaps because corporate structures tend toward rigidity and concentration rather than fluidity and openness; compare early and late Apple, Uber or many a FinTech. Successful examples do exist, though – John Lewis in some ways, local telco GiffGaff, or Brewdog, where beer drinkers help to fund the company.

A new power organisation will look more like a co-operative and behave more like a social movement – quite hard to imagine and much harder to change the existing regulatory castles of old power. But it might just be the organisation of the future.


Written by AML’s CEO, Ian Henderson.

Published by Chartered Banker