“We’re all in this together” was the refrain heard in the first phase of the Coronavirus pandemic as people were trying to figure out how to manage social isolation and survive the economic fallout. Digital efforts towards connection and government stimulus programs to combat financial hardship aimed to ease the pain but many are still struggling. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and many other Black men and women, the global movement to fight racial injustice intensified. Activism and allyship grew as powerful forces for positive change. If you weren’t actively with Black Lives Matter, then you were against it, and that became a problem. Desire for togetherness highlighted division as an unintended consequence if solutions aren’t holistic. The dichotomy of cohesion vs. separation is the prevailing trend playing out in powerful ways in the global cultural conversation. This conversation drives the context in which all brands operate, but it’s even more significant for tech brands given the massive role they play in all facets of our lives. Perhaps the most pertinent question right now is “are tech brands bringing us together or driving us apart?”.
Products to platforms
The tech brand trends of 2019 have been transformed by the latest macro forces of unity and equity, or lack thereof, identifying fresh formulas for brand success in our new reality in 2020. Tech companies who have been shifting from individual products to branded platforms are increasingly also being judged by the quality of the experiences they deliver in the multi-brand, integrated eco-systems that consumers demand. Privacy and utility were viewed as a trade-off consumers had to make, whereas now companies are embracing ethics & purpose to make proactive choices to benefit a broadening set of stakeholders. “Cult becomes culture” described the moves iconic tech brand founders were making as they stepped aside and worked to preserve their legacies by codifying their visions with their brands and successors; the new paradigm is that employee actions, even activism, can drive company culture and results. An additional new force towards integration is the rapid shift to remote work as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Work and home used to be separate worlds but they now occupy the same space, not just physically but also mentally, and tech brands have been quickly leading the way in how we adapt.
As tech brands deliver more seamless experiences to keep customers in their worlds, the evolution from products to platforms continues. Office 365 products were rebranded Microsoft 365, G Suite has now officially been rebranded to Google Workspace, and Apple’s services can now be accessed through the Apple One bundled offering.
It’s good to keep current customers happy, but major innovation and growth comes with the big moves that happen where brand eco-systems overlap. Microsoft, a proponent of an open approach under the leadership of Satya Nadella, made a big bet with the introduction of the Microsoft Surface Duo, their first device to run on Android. In contrast, Apple’s more closed ecosystem faced another high profile challenge from Epic Games.
The new battlegrounds
Epic combined the addition of a direct pay option outside the App Store with a legal assault and brand storytelling casting Apple as the Big Brother they sought to disrupt in their legendary “1984” Mac ad. The other tech titans were pulled into the fray, with Google booting Fortnite out of the Play store while Microsoft rallied behind Epic. With app stores acting as one of the critical intersections between brand platforms, and also sitting at the heart of one of the major revenue models for the tech industry, it’s no wonder this is such a high profile battle, now playing out across multiple industries. The vintage “green vs blue bubble” iMessage kerfuffle between Apple and Android seems trite compared to the multi-billion dollar platform war now waging across gaming, streaming entertainment, music, smart homes and beyond.
Whether they compete with an open or closed eco-system there are still objections, as four major tech brands (swap out Microsoft for Facebook) were lumped together to be interrogated by US Congress, who argued tech’s power is limiting choice for customers. The irony of US Congress grilling tech companies for their perceived anti-trust behavior, while also increasingly relying on their size and scale to help solve major health, economic and cultural crises is a vivid portrait of our times.
Pivoting in some ways from forcing consumers to make the simple tradeoff of privacy for utility, tech companies are stepping up by making proactive choices to lead with ethics and purpose, often solving problems with, or even instead of government. Microsoft, Amazon and IBM were part of a coalition of companies who refused to sell facial recognition technology to police until there are stronger US federal regulations in place to govern its use. As governments struggled to figure out how to manage Coronavirus tracking, Apple and Google announced a global partnership to enable contact tracing in a way that maintained privacy. Satya Nadella has described Microsoft employees as “digital first-responders.” Tech brands are making these moves with increasingly empowered dedicated ethics teams and greater transparency for more accountability and faster positive impact. Will ethical initiatives coming from tech brands themselves be enough or will additional oversight be required?
In the situations where company ethics are controversial, employees are increasingly rising up to take a stand for what they believe is right. CEO influence is being counterbalanced by employee activism. Workers are having a bigger impact on not just the culture, but also the strategic choices and perceptions of these companies. Amazon faced several challenges from workers on topics ranging from long term climate change plans to immediate decisions on staff safety in response to COVID-19. Whether it was due to employee pressure or not, Jeff Bezos made a powerful statement in Amazon’s Q2 earnings call, telling investors to “take a seat” and focus on the long term as he sacrificed short term profits to make immediate investments in employee safety. The rise of stakeholder capitalism continues to ensure a broader set of goals are considered and met. Employee activism again played a role in raising the pressure on accuracy and ethics in social media. Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to remove posts from President Trump that some viewed as glorifying violence led to Facebook employee protests, resignations and a virtual strike. Employee actions fueled the “Stop Hate for Profit” movement, which saw brands boycott advertising on Facebook networks with the goal of forcing change through financial impact. As Facebook shifted its policy and began labelling violating posts, some said employees had won the battle. Twitter, on the other hand, as a result of ongoing debates and planning among employees and leaders, moved more swiftly to label or remove posts that violated its code of conduct. Twitter’s leadership also defined new norms in how we coped with the remote work transition as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. As tech brands announced medium term phased plans, Jack Dorsey declared employees could work from home “forever”. Remote worker satisfaction has been surprisingly high, with technology often cited as the single biggest drawback. Tech brands have turbo-charged innovation to meet the evolution in user needs and the rapid increase in demand.
Connection and equity
Zoom has seen the highs and lows that come with astronomical growth as it moved from a bit player to a critical service provider. From a maximum of ten million meeting participants in December 2019 to over two hundred million users 3 months later, it evolved into more than just a work solution as “Zoom happy hours” became a way to connect with friends. Zoom suffered early on from “Zoom bombing” attacks disrupting private calls and their network was tested again as they struggled to support the incremental demand as students went back to school. Zoom’s simple and open experience drove rapid adoption but also contributed to its security weakness. Twitter was not immune to challenges either, as they suffered from a hack that targeted employees through a phone spear phishing scheme and then accessed celebrity accounts. Data security will remain a top priority as companies and individuals continue to outfit homes with the tech needed to stay connected across work and personal lives. In this fractured world, tech brands are working to overcome division and are finding ways to bring unity.
Since integrated ecosystems are a given, brands that create positive experiences at the intersections will retain and grow engagement and loyalty. With the shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, brands will increasingly be judged not just by earnings, but also by ethics. Historically, CEO sound bites and carefully crafted brand storytelling have driven the narrative; brands may now also enhance perception by encouraging employee dialogue and amplifying their voices. As professional and personal lives continue to blend, tech brands will define the new culture of work but their impact is so much more. Their decisions can shape the global cultural conversation and their solutions can help solve the social and economic crises we’re facing. Ultimately, humans crave connection, and tech brands all deliver that in one way or another. Connection conquers isolation and can start healing the divisions of racial injustice and economic inequality that we’re suffering from. Brands are built to solve more than simple tasks or rational needs. Brands are created to inspire us, and what could be more inspiring than bringing connection to every human on this planet? That’s what these brands have the power to do. The tech brands who embrace the equitable promise of connection can truly make a difference, providing an opportunity for prosperity for all. Tech brands can bring us together, and those who do it best will earn our love and our dollars.