Notes on how brands can help solve Wicked Problems

Brand activism is on customers’ minds. They want to buy from companies and interact with nonprofits that share core values and care about issues affecting the world.

But unpacking complex topics like the Coronavirus pandemic, reproductive rights, or climate change can be difficult. When it comes to these issues, most organizations find themselves caught in a weird no-man’s land: either with disparate strands of communications and projects; or running on the spot with no sign of motion.

Leaders often ask questions like:
- What are the best ways to talk about these topics?
- Which actions can - and should - we take?
- How do we make what we’re doing interesting and engaging?
- How do we know our efforts are worthwhile?
- … and how do we even get started?!

It’s not surprising. These topics are what Horst Rittel termed ‘Wicked Problems’. As Wikipedia puts it:

‟...a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and "wicked" denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil”

Wicked Problems are becoming ever more central to what companies are doing in the world. These problems affect their employees, their supply chain, their partners, customers, and communities.

We’ve learned a lot from our collaborations with companies to address Wicked Problems. Here are a few tips to set you up for success:

Atomize the topic

These problems are tough for a reason. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when decided which problem to tackle or to overestimate what you can achieve in a short period of time. Rather than something as vast as ‘climate’, to start pick a more specific topic for the brand to gather around

The issue is not always the place to start

It’s often more effective (and easier to get started) for a brand to embed in education rather than the issue itself - offering learning opportunities around the space, not just the specific issue at hand

Mix your formats for accessibility and reach

Convince your audience that they’re capable of understanding your topic. Break down barriers communicate ideas in multiple mediums to offer as much accessibility as possible. Remix video into text; white papers into workshops.

What’s a brand’s role here, anyway?

Trying to be the expert probably won’t work. It’s actually empowering and freeing for a brand to feel they have don’t to be the expert. Instead they’re best playing to their strengths - as a convener and connector, helping point the audience in the direction of what’s going on.

90% of success is showing up

Perhaps you know the old Woody Allen riff “If 90% of success in life is showing up, the other 10% depends on what you’re showing up for.”. When it comes to Wicked Problems, choosing your topic is core. But that doesn't mean you can avoid showing up. People can see through one-and-done campaigns. A commitment needs to be real, and woven into other activities the company are involved in. You have to show up - and keep showing up over the long term. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

Follow through

Communications matter, but a comms push isn’t enough. What’s the action that goes beyond words?

Create spaces

Wicked Problems can be difficult to talk about, so it’s easy to take a step back and keep communications one-way. Instead, aim to create spaces for audiences to engage around what you’re doing. Community input is also a great way to source ideas for new cause-driven initiatives, and to ensure the tone and approach hit the mark.

Games beyond the game

People love games. Even a relatively simple project can include some subtle game mechanics to encourage audiences to explore further and tell the others.

Storytelling matters even more you think

Many of the less successful attempts to tackle Wicked Problems fall down on poor storytelling and communication. Flawed logic, unimaginative characters, and an unclear connection to the cause’s mission are a recipe for bad storytelling. (yup, logic is a key part of telling a compelling story...)

Spark Your Creativity

Two starter ideas to jump start your imagination:

- What are the hidden stories behind complex or challenging topics? Who are the remarkable people you can shine a light upon?

- Which games could you create for your audience to play? Perhaps it’s a game they may not be fully aware of...

header image: Lora CBR

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