Nikita Walia is a brand leader, investor, advisor, and the founder and CEO of BLANK, a studio focused on strategy, design, and ideas.
Her methodology focuses on putting brands in dialogue with culture; creating brand, social, digital and design strategies that are inspired by critical media theory; cultural movements; art, and history. This work has landed 3 of her clients on Interbrand's Breakthrough Brands list, helped position others as one of Fast Company's World Changing Ideas, and even appeared on Time’s 100 best inventions list.
To look forward, we need to first begin by looking back — we must carefully evaluate the current cultural context and climate. This is not about people wanting sustainable, purposeful brands: it’s about recognizing that the future is an entity, a medium that we actively shape, manifest, and create.
At the risk of sounding like an accelerationist, the past two decades — and in particular 2020 — marked an era of complete meltdown. Our media environment, our systems of governance, and our climate are (and were) at a point of what felt like no return.
Operating elegantly within this set of unique circumstances is crucial: after all, 74% of consumers state that a brand’s impact on society is a reason that brand trust has become more important.
Across our three key systems, we saw the following:
1. MEDIA ENVIRONMENT:
A study of 30 media outlets by Pew Research Center showed that none of the 30 sources is trusted by 50% of American adults.
The survey generally found that Republicans have a smaller media universe, whereas liberal, Democrat, or generally left-leaning people perhaps engage with whatever news comes down their timeline first.
Only 24% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (22%). For context, when the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. What we consider to be true can fall among party lines, too — we are one nation divided by different information diets, fashioning different realities.
Simply put, we’re at a major tipping point. The year 2020 was Earth’s second hottest, following only 2016. The first twenty years of this century have seen a staggering rise in climate disasters — there were 7,348 recorded climate disasters worldwide during the last two decades.
“Everything needs to fall apart before it can come together again, or a theory for your consideration”
Approximately 1.23 million people have died as the result of a climate disaster, with more than four billion affected in total; with poorer nations experiencing death rates more than four times higher than richer nations.
“We’ve run out of time to build new things in old ways,” Rob Jackson, Global Carbon Project.
So where does all of this data leave us? It dares us to envision a new world — with new ways of working, being, and existing. It pushes us to make decisions for a more equitable future, a time for possibility — and a way to level the playing field. The problems standing between us and a better future can be solved with design, innovation, and drive.
This realm of possibilities to create a new normal is the Era of Imagination.
WHAT IS THE ERA OF IMAGINATION?
The Era of Imagination is the advent of people-powered brand and global ecosystems. No longer at the behest of big business, workers and individuals rise to fashion a new tomorrow that isn’t reliant on mass inequity to be sustainable. We need to expand our understanding of sustainability to look past conservation-focused narratives: true sustainability is a delicate balance of doing better by people and the planet. A brand cannot be sustainable if only a singular element of it is – its internal operating system must be good to employees, while its external output must do better by the planet.
The Era of Imagination is a fluid state where those that engage communally survive — who move past individual good and profit and think of the future of the collective. The Era of Imagination is collaborative and constructive, not instructive.
The Era of Imagination is not marked by hollow representation: it’s developed through creative collective action and through embracing its values thoroughly. What if we all came together in the service of care, of mutual aid, of a better future for one another and the planet instead of building the American Dream? What might that look like?
It’s not enough to simply recognize that there are problems: we must to collaborate on solutions, pushing the Overton window of possibility towards systemic, radical change. Imperfect solutions are preferable to the status quo.
These values form the New Cultural Operating System.
THE NEW CULTURAL OPERATING SYSTEM
There are four key tenets that drive the future of culture, and that come together to form the New Cultural Operating System. Brands that embrace one or all of these values succeed in shaping culture and building cultural currency.
1. PURPOSE, TRANSPARENCY, and CIRCULARITY:
These values go beyond putting a brand purpose on a page or developing a CSR program [Corporate Social Responsibility]. As a company, you must embrace your values inside and out, doing for your team what you do for celebrity partners.
You can’t simply retrofit a sense of purpose into your brand; you have to create a purpose and a sense of intentionality that feels genuine, and translating it across your ecosystem. Be transparent where you fall short, for it is better to have tried than to not have done anything at all. And, if you sell a physical product, see how you can give it a longer life.
2. OPEN-SOURCE KNOWLEDGE AND CO-CREATION:
The new brand is fashioned in collaboration with the consumer. To what extent can you bring your community into the brand? How can you provide your customers value either by putting them in the driver’s seat, or by educating them?
To what extent can you create and share a body of knowledge for the benefit of all? Can your community help you build in the direction of a better tomorrow?
3. EMPATHY AND INCLUSIVITY:
Move beyond empty representational politics — to what extent are you actually meeting people where they are in their lives or in their day? Do you inspire them? Do you make their lives easier? Does your brand amplify voices that need to be heard, or does it speak over them? And more importantly, do you enable a system of caring inwardly and outwardly?
4. FLUIDITY AND EPHERMERALITY:
The speed at which the internet moves seems to go faster day by day — are you agile and forward-thinking enough to embrace this, daring to meaningfully push brand expressions into new forms?
These values, when embraced individually, create a better life and more mindful people. But when applied broadly and embraced thoroughly, they create possibilities for all.