Illustration for a blog post on how to build an empowering brand

Shifting from “power-over” to “power-to”: Why your brand should start empowering

For a long time, powerful brands (just like people) have thrived on disempowering their audiences.

  • Instead of perpetuating facts to create compassion and cooperation, they have used a false sense of certainty to elicit conformity. The beauty and fashion industry has been built on this foundation, showing one, idealized form of beauty.
  • Instead of prioritizing diversity inside their businesses, they have created brands that are one-dimensional, with rules and statements that stifle expression, creativity and putting the brand above all else.
  • Instead of building new ways to connect with their audiences, the brand giants have built monuments to their own world dominance with university-like campuses.

Now, as cultural forces begin to shift, thanks to hard work of so many, it is forcing brands to make a decision – change your power structure or risk becoming irrelevant.

A shift in priorities

Somewhere along the line, people stopped being happy with just buying products. A toothpaste that kept our teeth clean or a car that got us to the grocery store wasn’t enough.

Instead, they started to want brands that reflected their values. They wanted brands that offered values and vision about the world. While trust in banks, government and media is at an all-time low, business is thriving. Research by Havas Worldwide shows consumers agree. Some 65% believe that businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving social change. The potential value unlocked by companies taking a long-term approach could be worth nearly £2.4 trillion ($3 trillion, €2.9 trillion) by 2025, according to McKinsey. (LSN Global, 2017)

Some brands have responded with a series of purposeful decisions about what they want their brand to be – a way of bringing their organization closer to the people they seek to reach.

Method, the household cleaning brand has been a pioneer in this space “proudly doing business with a purpose”. They have used it as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors and align with their consumers. “We believe in using business to solve social and environmental problems, and as we grow, our goal is to magnify the benefit we bring to people and planet even further. Sure, traditional businesses are motivated by profit and shareholders. but we’ve never been known for being traditional. instead, our purpose drives our business.” As it is a brand-led business strategy, it is not just the way they create their products, but it affects their whole business ecosystem.

Others have burrowed deeper within existing power structures. On the face of it, some companies look and sound progressive. Aesop, the Australian natural personal care brand that has landed in Canada asks their employees (“Aesopians”) to decant their food brought from home into their own branded containers. The stationary used is carefully controlled and there are unspoken rules about a muted colour palette dress code, while in their corporate offices and stores alike. While this may seem trivial, these restrictions are exerting control and continue to build into the same existing “power-over” structures.

The difference in the two approaches come down to a familiar theme: Power.

Moving on from “power over”

The psychologist, PhD., podcaster and speaker Brené Brown provides a useful description of the various forms of power at work in 2021.

The first is “power over”: using fear, a false sense of certainty and blame to elicit conformity.

The second is “power to/with/within”. This form of power uses facts, transparency in times of uncertainty, and compassion in order to elicit cooperation and compassion.

Want a recent and polarizing examples of this? Look at how different countries have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Former United States President Donald Trump, on January 22, 2020 stated “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” Conversely, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand’s leadership throughout the pandemic has paired empathy and science. “COVID-19 highlights how truly interdependent we all are. How reliant we are on cooperation, communication, and compassion to successfully combat the virus. It highlights how important it is that we work together for a sustainable recovery that delivers for our economies and our planet.” She ended each speech with “Be Strong. Be Kind”.

Now brands are starting to see where they fall on the scale between “power over” and “power to”.

Becoming a “power to” brand

There are some brands that are leading the way.

Prioritizing creativity over control

I recently spoke to Andreea Magdalina, founder of shesaid.so, the largest network of women in music, about her own brand. “I don’t have this really sexy template, every social post is different, we are representing diverse points of view, we work with people that are experimenting with their own creativity, and we are allowing for that experimentation to happen, I encourage it. Once we hit 10,000 followers on Instagram, it started to get a whole lot easier and this visual diversity is now becoming an advantage. It goes against the brand principles of consistency, but maybe this is the new way of branding.”

Prioritizing connection over conformity

Brands like Glossier, the beauty brand taking the world by storm, have ditched the power-over conformity tactics, calling themselves a people powered beauty ecosystem.

Prioritizing diversity

Shopify understands that diversity can have benefits all parts of their business. “Diversity is essential for building great products, and necessary for building a vibrant and inclusive culture. When we appreciate all perspectives, and remove roadblocks for one another, we maximize our collective impact.”

Breaking the old rules

And with the rise of unlikely brand partnerships, between fashion and fast food or luxury and budget, brands are allowing creativity to guide, relinquishing the tight reigns of brand guidelines and conformity. If their success is any indication, it may just be the way forward.

Conclusion

The prospect of changing your brand’s ethos can seem overwhelming. How do you take an entire organization from “power-from” to “power-to”?

There is one thing you can do to get started: Think about your brand as a person and the decisions that happen throughout the business being reflections of that person. Base your brand on core values that you can feel most proud of, rather than a set of rules that may be stifling your success.

It won’t happen immediately. But, after all, changing the world has always started with a single step.

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