Offline is the new fear

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An article by Hans-Christian Schwingen, Chief Brand Officer at Deutsche Telekom.

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Hans-Christian Schwingen, Chief Brand Officer at Deutsche Telekom.

Right now, everyone is talking about the current Nike advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernik, a highly controversial figure in the United States. Two years ago, the professional football player started the contentious "Take a knee" protest movement against racial discrimination and police violence. Since then, he has been unable to find a team that will take him. In light of this, a communications expert for whom I have great respect recently published an article lamenting the fact that as far as he is aware, there has not yet been a brand in Germany that has communicated its convictions so proactively. He wondered in the article, "Why has no German brand made a major public announcement on the topic, and why aren't we seeing major German manifesto films on our timelines or on our TV screens celebrating diversity as a fundamental element of a German company?" 

This brings us to two questions: Should, or indeed must, commercial enterprises openly play a part and take a stance in social debate? If yes, what does this stance consist of, and what is it primarily about?

In terms of the first question, it could be argued that companies doing this would be skating on thin ice, as they would risk alienating and dividing their customer base. This is exactly what happened to Nike: customers publicly set fire to their Nike shoes in protest, with widespread coverage on social media. That's the stuff of nightmares from an image perspective, not just for every CMO. But what is often ignored is the opportunity that this provides for equally strong "pro" movements, because that is exactly what customers are waiting for from companies: a strong public voice. 

According to a study by Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, the question of meaning plays a major role for 84 percent of millennials in both their personal and professional lives. Simply wanting to sell, and keeping quiet apart from that, isn't an option any more. Business mandates and social responsibility are inextricably linked. A company that can't explain what it stands for doesn't stand for anything in the eyes of its customers. Incidentally, according to MarketWatch.com, Nike's online sales apparently increased 31 percent on the first weekend after the campaign was launched!

It's worth looking across the pond to answer the second question, too. Obviously Nike's marketing gurus are seasoned professionals who don't leave anything to chance, and the role of the rebellious underdog has always been part of Nike's brand image.  We just need to look at Tiger Woods or Serena Williams, two Nike icons who, as people of color, were considered outsiders in sports that had previously been dominated by white players, but who fought their way to the top. Couple that with the slogan "Just do it," and it's pretty clear what Nike stands for. 

Credibility is the key to success

So Nike has stayed true to its roots in its latest marketing coup, demonstrating absolute consistency in its convictions. Credibility that springs from an explicit basic philosophy is the key to success here. Customers notice when a company cloaks itself in an image that simply exploits a fleeting Zeitgeist.

What about Deutsche Telekom? What does the company have to offer? What socially relevant topics might apply? According to a study commissioned by the D21 Initiative, one in three people in Germany, regardless of political opinion, gender, background or religious affiliation, feel overwhelmed by the progress of the digital revolution. About one in five people are even entirely offline. 

Being "offline" in the truest sense of the word, so cut off from society and excluded from political and economic participation, is the new, all-pervasive fear. This is fear of an automated future that brings with it more bad than good and that, in extreme cases, can give rise to frustration, and ultimately rage and aggression, that pose a threat to the basic values of freedom and democracy, and therefore to social cohesion. 

But confidence and trust in oneself can only grow out of a faith in not being left behind by technological progress, with access from an early age to the universal opportunities offered by the digital world. This is precisely why Deutsche Telekom is investing billions in the nationwide build-out of its networks. Every single line counts: in rural areas as much as in cities, and in schools as much as in business parks. This is what makes "Life is for sharing" stand for optimism instead of isolationism, for closeness instead of distance, for equal digital opportunities for the many, not for the few. 

Our CEO, Tim Höttges, takes every opportunity to make this conviction known; for example very recently at DMEXCO, the leading conference for the digital economy in Cologne, where he called for more courage and less rage. The public appreciates this sort of commitment, but in conjunction with the comments by the communications expert that I mentioned above, the question remains of whether that alone is enough. It is true that we do not yet fully exploit the wide-reaching channels offered by marketing to communicate Deutsche Telekom's commitments to the public as a whole.  Maybe we simply haven't yet realized that convictions and products are not an either/or question. A brand only begins to play a relevant role in a customer's life when there is synergy between both components, and where the context is right. One example of how this might look would be the campaign by Telekom's Greek subsidiary Cosmote, with its country-specific interpretation of the "privilege walk." 

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Online is the new hope

Incidentally, Deutsche Telekom's "Game for Good" initiative has recently highlighted yet again the importance of participation in society. Game for Good is the first mobile game in the world that makes an important contribution to global dementia research simply by being played, and that has been downloaded more than four million times since its launch two years ago. 

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After several months spent analyzing the data generated by the game, a baseline study on spatial orientation has been published in the journal "Current Biology," coinciding with today's World Alzheimer's Day.  In the article, the scientific community effectively gives formal recognition to the fact that this digital crowdsourcing approach represents a new method for researching new medicines and therapies in the fight against dementia.  In harmony with the slogan "Life is for sharing," the aim is to help patients to be able to share their experiences and memories with family and friends for as long as possible. Because online is the new hope.

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