Things companies should know about the Empowered Citizen

Carlota García-Abril

3 March 2017

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Internet has materialized the culture of freedom. (…) The Internet is already a second skin for the young people, while feeds the fears and fantasies of those who keep ruling a society that can barely understand”

Manuel Castells, Professor of Sociology and Urbanism at the University of California-Berkeley

There is no novelty in the assertion that the internet has increased the power of the individual, and therefore, the sum of all people. Here at Good Rebels we have posted dozens of articles around the People First concept, nearly all of them from focused on digital transformation and a business perspective: either concerning new relationships between brands and consumers, new working environments or new ways of competing and creating value, focused on the user and not on the portfolio of services.

The People-Centered Organisation: beyond social responsibility

The truth is that the consumer, the worker, the user or the citizen are only different facets of the same person, who possesses an own unique identity. Those facets are merely a response to the need to label us depending on the different environments and contexts we inhabit. At Good Rebels, we have realised that in a People First world, addressing each of these facets individually is an obsolete process. This is why we have developed an integrated approach that helps companies put people at the center, including not only users, consumers and employees, but all facets of the individual.

the citizen journey

In the business world, the first two decades of this 21st century have born a new type of organisation: the human-centered organisation. A model that, according to renowned management gurus Gary Hammel or Philip Kotler, will lead the new digital movement.

At Good Rebels, we think these types of companies make the difference by:

  • Creating products or services relevant to society, focusing on an impeccable user experience, which favours total adoption or acquisition by recommendation.
  • Facilitating work environments where employees play the main character: their contributions are relevant, generating a strong sense of commitment, meaning and belonging.
  • Generating value in the long term, acquiring social commitment and sustainability.

In this article we will focus on the last point: social commitment acquired by companies who view their audience and customers not only as consumers but as empowered inhabitants of a political, economic, social and even urban space that has been redefined by the internet.

The empowered citizen: activism and politics

Quoting Manuel Castells,

“Since power relations have always been based on the control of communication and information, (…) the proliferation of horizontal communication networks has generated a new landscape of social and political change, through a process of disintermediation of governmental and corporate controls over communications“.

This landscape of disintermediated influence and communication, in a politic-social context was especially evident in movements or initiatives as varied and recognizable as the Arab Spring or #Occupy Wall Street, Wikileaks and Anonymous’ hacker activism. None of these movements originated with traditional powers. On the contrary, they all seek the destabilisation or questioning of such powers.

On the other hand, we find initiatives of open or participatory democracy, which may arise indifferently from society (as would be the case of or or from political institutions, as we have just seen in Spain with the first popular consulting promoted by the City of Madrid, encouraging citizen participation in issues related to the city (initiatives already common in other countries).

Companies, politics and citizens

This desire for participation and commitment, which serves an empowered individual, is also present, although softened and somewhat affected, in the actions of many companies, traditionally implemented through their RSC areas. But the corporate world has usually positioned itself in political neutrality (at least in the public light and so long as it does not affect their interests). This is why the reactions of companies such as Airbnb, Ikea, Nike or Nordstrom to recent crises, such as Trump’s anti-immigration policy or Syrian refugees, are so striking.

For example, Airbnb, (like Uber, Facebook, Netflix, Intel, Microsoft, Google and other technology giants) chose to openly reject Trump’s decree, headed by its CEO, Brian Chesky, who also announced on Twitter that they would offer free accommodation to any person affected by the controversial presidential ruling. He and Airbnb have continued to generate content following that line.

brian chesky airbnb

Nor did the retail sector ignore this controversy. Nike launched Ecuality on 12th February, a spot claiming for diversity, which premiered in the Super Bowl and was also presented at the Grammys. Celebrities from sport, music and cinema took part, including Serena Williams, Lebron James and Alicia Keys. In addition to conventional media, Nike posted the video on Youtube, where it accumulated more than 4.5 million views in just three weeks.

Other companies’ reactions have probably been influenced by the pressure of the #grabyourwallet citizen movement, a boycott of Trump and his manufactured products. In a very controversial decision, Nordstrom chose to withdraw the Ivanka Trump fashion collection, something that Macy’s had already done with Trump’s own clothes, as did Sacks off 5th, Shopstyle and Sears. Many of these companies have issued statements assuring that this was a one-sided decision, not triggered by public pressure.

Behind these actions, how much authenticity and how much PR influence or pure defense of business is there? It is most likely that all of these coexist in greater or lesser extent in almost all cases. But there is a certain fact: these companies are listening to citizen’s conversations, magnified by their digital environment, and have abandoned their traditional neutrality to defend the values on which they believe the American society is based, aligning with popular views.

The Relevant Enterprise

However, these occasional stunts are insufficient in the 21st Century. One of the reasons for the success of Google, Facebook, Uber or Airbnb is that they have been able to satisfy needs that we didn’t even know we had and have become essential in a very short lapse of time. They have broken with the status quo and focused on benefitting the user. Startups like car2go or emov, promoted by Daimler-Mercedes Benz and Peugeot, are revolutionising mobility in big cities. They help reduce traffic and pollution. Although their aim is to make money and they make no attempt to hide this, they are social by definition; they attend to the principles of the sharing economy, the use and enjoyment of many instead of acquisition and waste of resources. Citizens are quick to surrender ownership: these companies make life easier for us and make us feel better, helping us to contribute to sustainability.

In the words of José Luis Rodríguez, Director at Good Rebels, in the 21st century “companies are key and necessary actors of social change. More involvement is demanded from them at the turn of the century. Citizens prefer companies that are associated with trends such as circular economy (environment), food sovereignty or democratic participation. And companies in return benefit even more from connected power and mass wisdom to accelerate their innovation processes, be emotionally relevant and build a more advanced society. Thus, we must understand companies as platforms and facilitators, not as service providers, but as organic ecosystems. Places where good things happen for society”.

Words that fully align with those of the great marketing guru Philip Kotler in his theory of marketing 3.0. Kotler argues that companies cannot simply brand their products or services, instead they need to define their personality around values ​​that mark their behaviour. This behaviour is not limited to the creation of wealth from an economic point of view and complying with normative standards, it has to go much further in its social commitment and in the transmission of its identity. This phase of marketing is characterised by multiple factors, but we can highlight three:

  • The increasing complexity and openness of the information society.
  • The power of the individual as a scribe (since other people’s experiences are naturally more credible than publicity) and their interest in expressing their own creativity, ideas and values.
  • The new standards of social exigency, related to the idea of ​​sustainability, that demand companies and brands become committed and responsible not only with their activity, but with society in general; with the environment, with the sustainable economy, with the welfare of people and, in general, with the right way of doing things for a better future.

6 facts powerd by people

Companies that fail to convey a real commitment and do not establish channels for people to participate in their differentiation will soon fall behind. People do not want to be treated exclusively as consumers but as human beings who aspire to a better world. They want the products they choose to fulfill them, not only on a functional and emotional level, but also on a spiritual level. Social networks amplify the condemnation or rejection of companies that do not follow these principles and benefit those who involve their interest groups in their ideas: “If I buy this product or service of this company I am doing something good.” For Kotler, marketing is a battle based more on information than on the power of sales.

It is not necessary to be a startup nor a technological giant or a native digital company to be aligned with this idea. Ikea, in addition to being a “love brand” for users, develops all its business activity under parameters of sustainability and social commitment. It has recently announced the generation of hundreds of jobs for Syrian refugees displaced to Jordan by means of a line of carpets that will be launched in 2019. Shortly before, through the Ikea Foundation and in collaboration with ACNUR, the company developed Better Shelter (mini bungalows for the Syrian refugees ). Timberland and Ecoalf are companies that incorporate sustainability into the core of their business (Ecoalf develops all its textiles from waste collected from the sea).

One of Rebel Thinking’s objectives is to deepen the knowledge of expectations and trends of use and consumption of the younger generations, to help companies build relevant experiences and reflect on a more people centered positioning. Those interested in getting to know the i-generation (youngsters from 16 to 24 years old), download the study here.

In future articles, we will continue to address the idea of ​​”empowered citizen” in relation to other aspects such as smart cities, education, shared resources, health, culture, etc.