How technology and brand purpose intersect in today's ever-changing world

James Mueller
Although technology acts as a catalyst when it comes to industry reinvention, its disruptive and innovative nature is only one part of the story. Top technology brands are using purpose, honesty, and bravery to both guide their businesses and play an integral part in sustaining today's society.

In 2008, Apple released the iPhone 3G, capable of blazing-fast wireless speeds of up to 0.2 megabits per second. Back then, Google was a search engine with a pretty good email service, Amazon was a novel alternative to Borders Books, and Microsoft was king of operating systems and office software. For the most part, that was the extent of people’s relationships with these companies. People watched shows and news on TV, they went to the store if they needed to buy something, and they talked to each other on the phone or face-to-face.

The world has changed in the ten years since then. Today, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are four of the five most valuable brands in the world, and the companies behind them have an outsized influence on the everyday lives of billions of people and on the businesses underpinning the global economy. Not only have our phones become hundreds of times faster and more deeply integrated into every facet of our lives, but the tech vanguard has erupted into adjacent categories, like content creation (Amazon) and autonomous vehicles (Google), and invented entirely new categories, like cloud computing and artificial intelligence, that are revolutionizing other industries. They’ve forced every company on earth to ask: If tech companies have started doing what we do, do we need to start doing what tech companies do? In ten years, or next year, what business will we be in?

These existential questions aren’t just lofty exercises of academic idealism—they’re practical necessities in the modern environment of chaos and change. When it seems that practically anything is possible, these companies rely on their brands to help them find clarity on what course of action is right for them, and what’s not. Knowing how they’re perceived in the world gives them the ability to grow into areas that are new but natural, allowing a company like Amazon to pinpoint both cloud computing and grocery as services people would seek from them. And for technology companies, this is just as much a question of innovation (What can we make?) as ethics (What should we make, and how could what we make be misused?). Having clarity on the role they want to play in the world—and having the bravery to commit to what it takes to play that role—helps companies avoid going down paths that are straightforward but stagnant or that may provide lucrative opportunities in the short term but are ultimately wrong for the company or for the world.

For example, this year, Google employees learned that their company was working with the US military on a drone-targeting program, code named Project Maven. Employees bravely spoke out, telling leadership that this project conflicted with the values that make Google what it is, and ultimately, Google decided to drop the program. It meant giving up a lucrative deal and a promising relationship, but it was the right thing for the company to do—it transformed a precarious PR situation into one of the year’s biggest stories of a company acting on its conscience. Google decided that it didn’t want to be in the arms business, and their commitment to their brand values played a critical role in that decision.

Each niche of the tech sector faces similar challenges. Communications giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have become the modern spheres of public discourse: they have to decide, day by day, what sort of discourse they should allow, grappling with the balance of freedom of speech, civility, and justice. As the opioid crisis ravages the US, regulators and customers are also asking about addiction to technology: about the effect that video games, incessant notifications, and omnipresent screens can have on children and families and the fabric of society. They’re asking what can be done to remedy and mitigate negative effects without sacrificing the benefits that make technology so appealing and useful in the first place.

Technology companies experience these questions more acutely than most, but as their innovations reshape other categories, the leaders in those spaces face similar questions, for similar reasons. Does a company like Visa want to have more in common with the banks that issue its credit cards or companies like Square that provide technology suites to keep retail businesses running? Does Ford have a vision around building cars or the broader promise of mobility that stems from urban development and ride sharing? Is Verizon solely in the business of telecommunications, or can it influence the myriad connections that its network facilitates? As these companies contend with fundamental questions of identity, they’re guided both by the technological possibilities of what they could be and by commitments to their brands’ visions and values that define who they’ve been and want to be.

We’re privileged to live in a society that’s in many ways freer and more equitable than any that have come before it. Technology has played an integral role in making that possible, but its disruptive and inventive potential is only part of the story. True progress requires vision, honesty, and bravery on the part of those who shape society. This summer, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, pointed out the “need to ask ourselves not only what computers can do, but what computers should do,” and has taken it so far as to enshrine the idea of ‘ethical leadership’ into Microsoft’s brand, a guiding principle of everything they say and do. When these world-shaping companies use their vision and values to guide their businesses, they not only further strengthen their brands but also play their part in building a better tomorrow.

Associate Director, Strategy