So, I watched Emily in Paris… I know, I know. Look, it topped the Netflix charts, and I wanted to keep up. Save your time, it’s too empty even to be a comfort-watch.

One moment stayed with me though.

The relentlessly perky Emily brought her Chicago office “Corporate Commandments” into her Parisian workplace. “Thou shalt always maintain a positive attitude”, was the first.

It made me wince because it’s not only employees who are encouraged to be relentlessly positive. It’s brands themselves and their take on the world. Positivity in marketing is inextricably bound up with concepts of speed, value, and approach. It has its place, of course, but our focus on relentless positivity is not only one-dimensional, it’s not empathetic to the world as experienced by so many. It makes our processes one-dimensional and unempathetic, too.

Brands need a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in their employees, agencies, and partners. That’s a priority, that we need to act on better, faster, and wider.

Yet our industry has neither recognized nor dealt with how ‘white and western’ our very processes, the way we go about the building of brands, are. Our meetings, our brainstorms, our agile workflows are all part of our ‘how’. While we sometimes whinge about them, we don’t change them, but just as a brand’s ‘how’ is becoming increasingly important, so is our own.

What happens when we take the processes and frameworks we rely on and consider another perspective? Can we change or strengthen them – for stronger brands – when we put them through a culture clash?

Here are three parts of the process that we’d all agree are ripe for a rethink. As I’m writing, in Australia, it’s 2020 NAIDOC Week, so I’ve focused on Indigenous Australian cultures and practices to help reimagine them.

1. The meeting

I’ve written before about ways to direct attention as meetings start. Beyond the start, meetings have a very particular construct that is so ingrained, we all fall back on it. Looking at the Australian indigenous concept of the yarn gives some clues as to how meetings might be approached differently.

A yarn isn’t just a chat. Yarning has a vibrancy to it, it’s a way of distributing governance and making decisions, that is both alive and respectful. It’s founded on more active listening than corporate meetings. Instead of waiting for the pause to jump in and say your piece, the first rule of yarning is to build on what the other person has said. The aim isn’t hierarchical, falling in behind one dominant view – because whose truth is that? – but rather a looser consensus that is based on the strength of respect and connection. That builds psychological safety and can lead to faster decisions because the participants believe in the consensus.

2. The customer journey and journey mapping

The indigenous peoples of Australia are part of some of the oldest cultures in the world, and they’re certainly some of the first mappers of the world. This is revealed through some indigenous languages, particularly in the Cape York area, that use cardinal points to describe directions, putting nature at the center of their world instead of themselves.

Learning from this helps create journey maps in new ways. Concepts of time and space tend to be closely bound in Australian indigenous culture. Instead of an incessant march of progress from ‘right now’ to a bigger and brighter future, it’s interesting to conceive of experiences as entwining the past, present, and future that make up the whole self. Even reimagining journey maps starting in the past and taking ‘now’ as a mid-point gives a different slant on them – and might help to make use of what NPS scores tell us about past usage effects.

3. The material craft of brand-building

In Lemon, Orlando Wood exhorts us to remember that “creative development is a craft, not a profession, and it requires you to put something of yourself into it.” The strongest brands touch hearts, guts, memories, not just the intellectual surface of the mind – and those must be our inputs, not just happy outcomes. Our industry has been focused on book-learning – well, let’s face it, on Google-learning. That’s no bad thing as part of a craft, but what about our material culture?

Again, indigenous Australian ways of learning, of memorizing, of treating depth of experience as a cultural artefact, have a lot to show us. Industry-wide, focus has rightly shifted recently from over-focus on the visual to other senses in brand-building, particularly the power of audio. In Central Australian indigenous cultures, hearing has been described as “the center of intelligence” (Watson, 2003). A physical artefact gives weight to experience and embeds it in memory – yet even our word ‘scrapbook’ devalues this crafting and remembering of everyday experience. Yet, when a team or a discipline keeps a scrapbook (for example, Alex Morris’ Strategy Scrapbook), it can be viscerally powerful.

Future strength will come from brands branching out

The brands of the future should be meeting, mapping, listening, exploring beyond ingrained processes to the cues that birds, the sun, nature, other cultures, music, and different creations are giving us. Except, maybe, Emily in Paris.

Cover image source: Sharon McCutcheon