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Can brands provide the leadership that Americans desire?

by Jon Berry , 19.07.2016

What do Americans want in a leader? What are their hopes and dreams for the country? What are the deeply held values that will resonate with them? Over the next two weeks, the Republican and Democratic parties will be addressing those questions in their national conventions. But what the parties say may be more reflective of their bases and establishment than what people are feeling.

Research by GfK Consumer Life suggests that Americans increasingly are yearning for a kind of society that their divided, divisive political system may not be capable of giving them. Don’t be surprised if Americans turn more to you – the stewards of businesses and brands they love – to manifest what’s in their hearts and minds.

Character-based leadership

Ironically, as the parties are poised to nominate two presidential candidates who are widely distrusted, Americans increasingly want leaders they can believe in. When asked which of 14 qualities are important to them in leaders, the three most cited are:

  1. “Accountable – is responsible, admits and learns from mistakes”
  2. “Honest – always tells the truth”
  3. “Integrity – is the same person in all settings”

And this focus on character has strengthened over the past decade.  In contrast, “strong – always sticks to his/her guns, never backs down, never wavers” and “experienced – has been through a lot and draws on the past,” two qualities that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have largely positioned their campaigns on, rank dead last.

Much more important are to be “knowledgeable,” “a good listener,” and “flexible,” ranked 4th-6th on the list.

Ambitious but socially conscious

For more than a year, we have seen the country and world in the midst of the most marked-values shift in almost a decade. The independent-minded, go-it-alone individuality that America is known for has, in fact, faded to the background. We’re becoming more a nation of strivers – hungering for prosperity – but also a nation more focused on being smart and socially conscious.

This blend is reflected in the personal values rising most among Americans. Ambition, knowledge, and open-mindedness are up most. Equality, self-interest, simplicity, and social responsibility are also up markedly.

This mix of values is echoed when Americans are asked what describes their ideal society. Desired most: A society “where anyone can rise to the top, solely on their ability”, that “actively encourages” work-life balance, with “strong local communities where people, support and take care of each other”, where “anyone can be elected to public office regardless of how much money they have”, where “people are accepted and treated as equal regardless of their sexual/gender identity, and the society is committed to sustainable living and preserving the environment”. Solid majorities across political affiliations, generations and gender agree.

The two strands of achieving and social consciousness can produce tension. One way to look at the current tensions in America is as a reflection of these forces. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And we see this in the research. For example, most “Achievers,” the GfK Values Type embodying principles like ambition, self-interest, wealth and status also put a high value on open-mindedness, equality, and tolerance.

Brands and the role of social stewardship

You can already see this new blended vision in the marketplace. It’s in the growing appreciation of social stewardship – and not just for corporate social responsibility (CSR) darlings like Toms shoes or Warby Parker. A good current example is "Mini USA Takes the States,” the carmaker’s biennial owners’ rally. Each rally links to a social cause. This year, in partnership with Feeding America, it’s fighting hunger. The Wall Street Journal ad campaign for the effort is also a model for storytelling combining video, text and graphics.

Leadership can also be putting forth a vision – as the Ad Council did in its recent release of John Cena riffing on what America means. Or just saying you can reach your dreams no matter where you began, as Nike did in its recent Ronaldo ad, the most-watched spot on YouTube in June.

In a year when people are looking for something to believe in, brands may be the answer. Character-based leadership, ambition, and social consciousness – the qualities people want in leaders – can also be the growth path for business.

Jon Berry is a vice president and consultant for GfK Consumer Life. Email jon.berry@gfk.com to share your thoughts.