What role do brands play in recovery?

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped in July—the first time since April 2008—from 9.5 percent to 9.4 percent, according to numbers out today. This is the latest in a string of promising signs, from a stock market rally to improved company earnings to real estate markets rising modestly. Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist with the Economic Outlook Group, told The Washington Post last week that “The economy is transitioning from recession to recovery.” And Newsweek’s cover proclaimed “The Recession Is Over,” though it added the cheeky footnote, “Good luck with the recovery.”

This begs the question for marketers: What role should brands play in what’s likely to be a “pokey, painful” recovery, in the words of Newsweek’s Daniel Gross?

American Express seems to be taking an inspirational role in the latest campaign for its OPEN small business platform. An anthem spot features several small-business owners and tells us that entrepreneurs like these “are the most powerful force in the economy. They drive change. And they’ll relentlessly push their businesses to innovate and connect.” The spot is nice enough, but what’s truly powerful is the brand’s new OPEN Forum, an online resource and social networking site for small businesses that features a virtual Rolodex of credentialed businesses, marketing tool kits and an idea hub, among other things.

While commercials may be able to inspire change, practical tools can help actually drive that change. And that’s real value. Brands that can provide people with such tools can form allegiances that go deeper than their product or service. While this is a good rule of thumb always (think Nike+), it’s even more relevant as the U.S. economy limps toward recovery.

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