How To Navigate An Increasingly Polarized World

Mònica Casabayó is an Associate Professor at Esade’s Marketing Department. AFP via Getty Images A few years ago, explaining that someone could book a flight on a low-cost airline and then sleep in a five-star hotel was not a problem. From a consumer behavior perspective, we could also understand that […]

Mònica Casabayó is an Associate Professor at Esade’s Marketing Department.

A few years ago, explaining that someone could book a flight on a low-cost airline and then sleep in a five-star hotel was not a problem. From a consumer behavior perspective, we could also understand that someone working for a petrochemical company would recycle plastic at home. Today, however, the conjunction of two disparate behaviors seems increasingly at odds.

The world has become increasingly polarized. In their book, Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue warn that the root cause of this polarization is social injustice. Similarly, belonging to a specific urban tribe or a religious group isn’t perceived today as part of a rich and complementary amalgam of ideologies. Rather, it is a source of fundamental differences that reject and exclude those who do not think or feel the same way. Besides, technology and social media, though not the cause of these divisions, can in fact aggravate them. The health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19 has only amplified these phenomena.

Infoxication, volatility, immediacy, hyper-connectivity, insecurity, fear… Studies have shown that these have a decisive impact on people, intensifying our short-sighted, materialistic, automatic, and deterministic behaviors. They also impact companies. Do we live in a world without alternatives to extremes? Leonidas Donskis and Zygmunt Bauman declare in their book, Liquid Evil, that we live in a world that favors a single reality and characterizes those that believe there is an alternative for everything as either crazy, at worst, or as eccentric, at best. In addition, in the current era, fear has not only come out winning; it has convinced us: “Fear is good for business”. Uncertainty and fright of the unknown often lead us to adopt positions with little reflection, binding us to imaginary states of security. This has led to what María Zambrano refers to as the “deification of some” (idolatry) and the “alienation of others” (sacrifice). Extremism is tremendously tantalizing. Based on simplification, it sweetens reality and stretches the reach and scope of fake news, creating a parallel reality and fomenting a bespoke truth.

Marketing constantly evolves. Currently, the number of companies that are transforming their client-centric marketing strategies into multistakeholder-based ones (focusing now not only on customers/consumers but also on their workers, shareholders, and society at large) is also growing. However, not all companies or industries are changing at the same pace.

So, what should companies that want to adopt a multistakeholder focus take into account? They should observe and interpret the market’s duality. “Duality” refers to the existence of two different phenomena or traits within a single person or state of affairs. Our day-to-day routines and our society are full of dualities: immediacy versus timelessness; individualism versus community; self-care versus self-indulgence; contact versus contactless; extremism versus moderation, etc. Observing, interpreting, and managing these dualities from a dual humanistic and analytical perspective is key when it comes to making decisions.

Companies have to define a clear purpose, one that is shared and can be tracked using a measurement system. If all the companies’ employees do not identify with that purpose or if there are no indicators and metrics coherent with that aim, it will be difficult for the different, increasingly skeptical stakeholders to believe in that purpose.

It is also important for companies to bear in mind that, today, a brand’s purpose can also have a ricochet effect. For example, Nike by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement has also had to deal with the secondary effects of that support as a brand, with new disaffected customers rallying behind hashtags such as #boycottNike, on one side, or #istandforourflag, on the other. Companies need to find a sense of balance between their products, what their customers value, their ‘brand activism’, and their genuine involvement in a cause.

At the same time, companies have to take a proactive stance in terms of their brands. Service is the new differentiating factor and requires empathy. They say that empathy is putting yourself in others’ shoes, but, for that to occur, you have to take off your own shoes first. Listening is the first step in convincing customers and generating brand trust. Customers will not trust a brand that says it wants to reduce the use of plastics if that same company is incapable of resolving its customers’ basic complaints and problems.

Lastly, companies should see “moderation” as a value and as a brand purpose. Stemming from the Latin, moderatio, moderation refers to a way of acting with both restraint and temperance, avoiding excesses, and favoring good judgment. Moderation implies staying calm and striving for wellbeing. As Aristotle indicated, virtue can be found in the golden mean or middle way. Moderation is a virtue which implies making efforts to maintain balance; consequently, it is a strength. There is resilience and flexibility in moderation. If you push or pull any structure too hard or too far, you upset that balance.

Opting to take a moderate position is deciding to carry out a brave and honest exercise, committing to constantly revise, think critically, and learn. In times of uncertainty, moderation is, paradoxically, the only lifeline. It implies continually moving, an essential short-term survival tactic, and a long-term aspiration. Companies have to revise their strategies. They need to be flexible to be able to accept change. The more rigid their positions, the more difficult it will be for them to react.

Moderation implies working with nuances and grey areas; it also implies managing dualities, the dualities that make up the whole. To define marketing strategies focused on creating value for companies, society, and the planet, we need tolerance, diversity, complementariness, balance, coexistence, and co-responsibility, not polarization. As Josep Maria Esquirol has pointed out, adapting to the future is not building upon each person’s individual responsibilities. Rather, adapting to today’s world, though uncertain and polarized, implies assuming an active role. In so doing, responsibility becomes ever more critical.

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