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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Your Brand As A Moral Decision Filter

"Why are we here? TO WORSHIP ME." -comedienne Judy Tenuta (photo via her website)
Every other year, the National Science Foundation does the General Social Survey to discover how Americans are thinking and feeling. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods easily makes this survey "the gold standard" of sociological research in America, as Tobin Grant puts it. And the NSF is carefully attuned to the methodology it uses.
The 2014 interview panels alone included 30 randomly selected national samples totaling 59,599 respondents and 5,900 variables.
A 2015 research paper by Michael Hout (New York University and the social science research center NORC) and Tom W. Smith (NORC) analyzed trends in religious belief, drawing on the most recent NSS dataset.
For the past 20 years or so, the relative percentage of believers hasn't changed much.(Normally a change of 10 percentage points is considered statistically significant.) A majority, 58%, believe definitively that a Creator exists, down only 6% from 1991. See screenshot of table from their study.
At the same time, there is a significant rise in the percentage of Americans claiming "no religious preference" Between 1972-2014, that figure more than quadrupled, from 5% to 21%.
In the last two years alone (2012-2014), according to an NSS analysis by Tobin Grant, 7.5 million Americans "left religion" altogether.
It seems that people are willing to believe in G-d, but they are increasingly disenchanted with religion.
Obviously, religion involves people, and where there are people there is disagreement.
A classic Jewish joke (here, slightly abridged; via Wikipedia) illustrates this well:
A man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. He is interviewed by reporters. "How did you survive? How did you keep sane?" 
"I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come." He shows them a synagogue he's built. "This took me five years."
"Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?"
He shows them another synagogue, on the other side of the island. "This one took me twelve years."
"Why did you build two temples?"
"This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn't set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!"  
I've never met a person who wants to be bad.
So perhaps where religion has failed, brand can succeed.
Think about it: your brand is a kind of moral decision filter.
The mid-1900s sociologist Erving Goffman built an entire framework of thinking about social interaction around the idea of dramaturgy -- more specifically "front stage/backstage" --the idea that we act one way in public and another in private because we care about what others will say about us.
In a sense, he argued, we we use the judgments of other people as a means of stopping ourselves from "sinning," at least as we each individually understand that concept. Because we don't want to be shamed (or worse).
More than half a century later it's getting hard to find any personal space at all. With the multiple invasions of social media into our personal space, the plethora of Big Data tools to track our buying behaviors, the growth of corresponding data analytics capabilities, and the explosion of the surveillance state, you are pretty much a known quantity if you are located anywhere on the grid.
The result is we're all living in the equivalent of glass houses. And behavior that was formerly hidden from view is more than ever likely to become public. 
Goffman's theory has become impossible.
In this kind of situation, it is inevitable that you'll be asked to justify your personal choices on more than one occasion that would have been totally unthinkable before.
To give just one simple example, I read a recent Facebook interchange between a religious rights activist and a civil rights activist. The civil rights activist was outraged because the religious rights activist had ignored the Charleston shooting altogether.
While from a certain perspective it seems crazy to question what someone posts on Facebook, from another it makes perfect sense: it's about brand.
People think about you, your company, and most organizations from the perspective of the messages you send every day. If you consistently talk about human rights from any point of view, you'll be attacked for failing to uphold that standard.
In a way this kind of environment is heavy and oppressive. But from another point of view, it is actually very liberating.
We are all free to choose our brand affiliation. We can buy what we want, work where we want, love who we want, and believe what we want as well.
When it comes to morality, more than ever the choice is your own.
The key to being credible is to stick with it.
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All opinions my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr.