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In the midst of existential peril, turning to larger concepts outside of our material reality is a major comfort. Looking to the stars for inspiration and hope is a human reflex as old as time. But today, it can feel as though cultural conversions around “the universe” center on colonial, capitalism-fueled ideals—Elon Musk’s race to Mars, for instance—or individualistic impulses like manifesting or TikTok’s obsession with horoscopes.
However, this is just one side of a far broader conversation with the potential to reconceptualize our approach to life, realigning our worldview away from the lens of human need. Unlike the Ancient Roman astronomer Ptolemy, we know that the universe does not revolve around us—and there’s a palpable cultural shift that offers some hope that people and brands alike can make positive steps toward a more considered way of life. This interest in a more intentional and nature-centric approach is reflected in everything from the U.K.’s steep waiting lists for city allotments and the rewilding of our homes and urban environments to the trend of Buddhist symbolism in tattoos and the unwavering appetite for immersive art and design experiences like the Mandala Room at New York’s Rubin Museum.
Where do brands come in? They’re engaging with more “spiritual” ideas in ways that range from the playful to the cerebral.
At the lighter end of things, Febreze launched a range of star sign-themed car scents, the CARstrology Collection. Other brands are using this interest in more big-picture, time-and-space themes as an aesthetic decision, such as eyewear brand Gentle Monster’s “Circle of Life” campaign. In tech, a number of apps centering on memory preservation have emerged—such as A Lasting Tale, which helps draw together loved ones’ stories near the end of their life—and neatly encapsulates products that explore (often very literally) the circularity of existence.
While a Libra-scented Chevy is all well and good, brands need to be thinking about these cultural shifts toward more universe-based, less individualistic outlooks and take them seriously. Here’s what it could mean for company processes, marketing and branding.
Brands today must wholly subscribe to the idea of humanity as bigger than the individual and use that sensibility to help reframe thinking around climate crisis, inequality and other big-picture ideas.
It’s critical commercially: Brands that don’t engage with circularity simply won’t have a long-term future. That’s thanks to both emerging legislation around ecological impact, such as the European Green Deal, the U.K.’s Plastic Packaging Tax and increasing consumer awareness. If we have the choice, we’re not going to settle for companies that remain flagrantly destructive.
Throughout our moves toward earth-centricity, brands and individuals alike must keep ideas of interconnectedness and circularity top of mind. For some brands, those concepts are intrinsically built into their product: Design company Loop’s Living Cocoon is a coffin made from mycelium, the mass of living organisms beneath mushrooms that act as nature’s recycling unit by releasing compounds that break down both manmade and natural materials into nutrients. The Living Cocoon, then, turns human death into viable organic life and squarely places dying into a circular narrative of renewal.
The planet is your key stakeholder
Brands need to move away from customer-centricity and instead see the planet itself as their key stakeholder. This isn’t a fleeting trend like Millennial pink; awakening to big ideas is a social and cultural imperative that brands must both acknowledge and elevate.
Brands should take note of the likes of Ikea, which has committed to “planet-centric,” not “consumer-centric,” design, and Patagonia’s “Earth the only stakeholder” approach, which stands out a mile in a sea of vague brand sustainability claims for its boldness. What makes their actions more meaningful than most is that they’re embodying change through their business models and practices, rather than trying to gloss over catastrophic issues with neat campaigns or snappy slogans that ultimately prove meaningless.
Facing hard facts
For a vast conglomerate like PepsiCo or Nestlé, truly reframing its thinking around the climate crisis—and subscribing to the idea of a more universal rather than human-centric approach—would mean a wholesale business shakeup. In those hypothetical examples, it would mean, for one thing, cessation of making and selling water products; without doing so, there’s no way they could make genuinely positive steps forward.
Brands shouldn’t see these moves as bitter, inconvenient pills to swallow—rather, as opportunities to demonstrate why they do and should exist. The tide is rapidly turning, and those brands who don’t align their thinking, processes, production lines and raisons d’être will suffer. We’re wising up to greenwashing, and it’s better to say nothing at all than to peddle flippant half-truths or just ignore the negatives, hoping that they’ll go away.
It’s not about messaging
Rather than striving to “surprise and delight,” brands’ end goal should be to help make that happen through rigorous self-examination around their place in a terrifyingly precarious world. Crucially, this self-examination isn’t another marketing tool to be leveraged for brands to show they’re “doing the right thing.”
These cultural shifts toward more interconnected outlooks aren’t to be seen as a trend to inform marketing campaigns or as inflections in a brand’s messaging. They’re opportunities to invest in wholesale shakeups of who they are, what they do, how they do it and why. It’s introspective, internal work—a way for brands to be accountable to themselves, and more importantly, to the world itself, investing in the future of the planet and everything that lives on it.