Are Brands the Fifth Estate?

Fifth Estate logo by Ron Wong.

Fifth Estate logo by Ron Wong.

The 1990s have made a full-blown comeback. From plaid shirts to fanny packs, scrunchies to jelly shoes, Doc Martens to chokers, the twentieth century’s last shout is all the rage, but with decidedly less rage — against the machine, at least. Where once anti-globalization protests paralyzed entire cities, now the debut of a designer shoe can do the same. Where once bands like Black Flag and (of course) Rage Against the Machine shouted down corporate greed, now Billboard charts of all genres are filled with brand names and a$piration. Not that we can hate on that — and that’s precisely the point. 

It’s not that protest culture’s gone. New Yorkers successfully turned back an Amazon HQ last year, and there are still demonstrations for women’s choice, equal rights, environmental sustainability, and against the general erosion of American democracy, thank goodness. But railing against abstract corporate greed seems archaic — or at least imprecise — because corporations these days aren’t a nebulous yet omnipresent enemy. Many are actual allies who use their resources and reach to further positive change. Some critics see this as the commodification of activism. That may be true in some cases, but the general trend of corporations becoming advocates also speaks to the difference between a corporation and a brand - and suggests that brands may be the Fifth Estate.

Companies today are more “woke” than ever in history. They’re more aware of the problems in the world and are more inclined to use their influence to address them. In addition to increased charitable donations — corporate giving rose to $21 billion in 2017, up 8% from 2016 —, many corporate entities today are actively involved in social, political and eco issues: Nike stands against racial injustice; Walmart and Dick’s are practicing their own gun reform of sorts; Patagonia donated its $10 million tax cut to environmental charities; Airbnb and Heineken use ads to fight prejudice; and Nestle, UPS, adidas, and dozens of others are enacting more sustainable manufacturing and production processes for the good of the planet. And that’s what makes them brands, rather than old school corporations.

While a brand can and often is a corporation, it transcends this category in a few ways. Primarily, a brand has a unique and relatable identity. It’s anthropomorphized with personality and character traits, just like a person. And, just like a person, well-rounded brands have beliefs— things they stand for and things they oppose. This set of identity traits and beliefs, coupled with logos and other design elements, helps sets them apart from their in-category peers and makes brands more appealing to consumers. And persuasive, too: Sprout Social found that 36% of consumers – over a quarter! - said a brand’s social stance compelled them to do more research on an issue and take action themselves. That’s incredible: brand example is encouraging over a quarter of consumers to get involved in causes in real life. 

Now, this isn’t to say all brand activism is good — Chick-fil-A donates to anti-gay initiatives, for example — but it does illustrate the incredible influence brands have over our world. And that leads us to the titular question: Are brands the Fifth Estate?

As a refresher, the original “three estates” refer to the social classes of pre-Revolution France, when the monarchy still reigned. The First Estate was comprised of the clergy; the Second was where you’d find the wealthy nobility — oo-la-la! —; then, last and definitely least, were the peasantry and lower bourgeoisie of the Third Estate. While these estates were technically rendered obsolete after King Louis XVI’s 1789 ouster, they still served as convenient short-hand for deeply ingrained slices of civil society. To that point: it wasn’t until the 1800s, well after Louis fell, that the increasingly influential news media came to be called the “fourth estate.” 

Classically speaking, business interests would fall within the Second Estate, alongside the nobility who controlled them. But contemporary brands have vastly more influence over vastly more people and sectors of society than seventeenth century corporations — or even twentieth century versions.  Sure, the French West India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and other early modern corporations wielded economic and political power, but they didn’t shape peoples’ everyday lives in quite the same way companies do today. (The kidnapping and enslavement of millions of people aside.) Older, more traditional companies didn’t have the endless consumer touchpoints with which to influence public opinion and action — nor did they have the inclination. And it’s that combination — influence and inclination — that may make brands the Fifth Estate.

But this begs another question: Why do brands have this inclination in the first place? There are many possibilities: Some are of course authentically altruistic – i.e.: they legitimately want to protect the environment or to reduce gun violence, etc. —; others too probably know belief-driven organizations have better internal morale — NYU found that employees stay with purpose-driven companies for 20% longer than at apathetic corporations. But brands also fight for causes because of us, the belief-driven consumer. 

Brands know we expect them to support and oppose issues. In fact, Sprout Social found that the majority of consumers, 2/3, believe a brand should stake out a position on social and political issues. And They also know we embrace them when they do so, both emotionally and economically: A Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose report found that 77% of consumers feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven brands than apathetic competitors; Edelman Communications discovered last year that 67% of consumers bought a product for the first time because the manufacturer took a position on a pressing issue, and that same Cone/Porter report found that about a similar number of belief-driven buyers, 66%, would switch from their usual brand to one that stands for something. Brands understand this, and they buy into this - because while most brands truly care about their causes, they still have bottom lines. And that means that the most influential player in all this is us, the consumer.

Just as brands today have dozens of touchpoints with which to reach consumers, so do consumers have touchpoints to reach brands, too, including public-facing platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and other online media. It’s in these spaces that we as consumers can and should hold corporations accountable, shaming bad actors and amplifying good ones. So, while brands have massive amounts of power to change the word, and indeed could be called the Fifth Estate for their social clout — good and ill alike — consumers must always remember that we the people, the once-measly third estate, have more power today than in any other era. We must use it wisely.