What happens when your brand has no social, ethical or environmental foundations? Do brands that are simply economic or perhaps more superficial enjoy long term success? Answer: yes. At least they did.
Focus on real values
As marketing, brand building and public relations become more sophisticated there are always opportunities to promote style over content, gloss over the cracks, avoid awkward conversations about value and worth. Some organisations may see this as legitimate tactical marketing. But, some have always had strong social, ethical or environmental presence: charities, co-operatives, building societies….. Fortunately, many great brands are again focusing on real values, things that matter, a higher purpose. Insurance companies helping rebuild national infrastructure, FMCG companies focusing on sustainability, even banks providing support for the digitally challenged to name a few.
There’s a sort of rush to be seen as socially responsible, environmentally friendly, ethical. A race to be less ‘corporate’ or institutional, and go beyond the pallid ‘corporate social responsibility’ charters or recent times. But, the acid test remains whether organisations can ‘live the brand’, whether social, ethical and environmental foundations are strong, real enough for consumers and fully integrated into the shared values of the organisation.
Today, many organisations core values are being tested, brand values openly challenged in the media, on social networks, propositions treated with suspicion by socially and technologically enabled consumers. In fact it’s difficult to imagine a major corporate brand or institution that is not experiencing some kind of social, ethical or environmental challenge. Why?
The pubic, customers have become disenchanted with corporate and institutional behaviour, less tolerant or marketing rhetoric. Recent economic catastrophes could easily be the catalyst, but not the reason. Maybe we as marketers got lost in the message, the pursuit or sales and profit, margin over customer needs and value. Perhaps it’s that ‘what we do’ became more important than ‘how we do it’ or why. Perhaps we just became too esoteric, insulated, removed from core principles and shared values. Whatever the reason, there are for many organisations still real discontinuities between brands, brand messages and what’s actually going on. It’s a challenge to ensure that brands communicating laudable values actually live up to them, it’s also a leadership imperative that they do.
Anchored in the truth
Consumers expect a fair and equitable commercial exchange for products and services, but that’s not all. Value, worth and fairness extend beyond cost and price, go beyond the story to the truth. More and more organisations are transitioning to ‘customer focused’ or ‘customer centric’ strategies. As they do, they find brand and actuality are not aligned, and the customer knows it, they feel it, they talk about it. Brands need to be anchored in the truth, messages substantiated and aligned, but most importantly there needs to be an integrity to the brand, a sense of trust based on organisational accountability and transparency. Sooner or later brands that don’t become commoditised, less valuable, unsustainable.
As customers become more sophisticated, socially enabled, as media becomes more advanced, more invasive and pervasive, as legislative and regulatory bias shifts in favour of customers organisations will have to become more transparent. Demands on brands to justify their social, environmental and ethical credentials will increase. This is likely to go far beyond brand messaging, PR and marketing to test the very soul of the organisation, it’s essence, it’s core. Brand history will not be exempt from analysis by concerned consumers fed by increasingly voracious and tenacious media. Failing these constant inspections will have significant commercial consequences. New and innovative brand building strategies are needed to regain consumer confidence, build trust and and properly engage people once again.
Effective brands are built deep within organisations, they’re focused on customer needs now and in the future, they exude values that stand the test of time. If organisations can’t deliver their promises, if they’re found wanting, their values compromised or there are unwelcome surprises in the ‘way things get done’ the costs can be significant. It’s hard to value trust and integrity until it’s lost, when it is there’s often a direct, immediate and measurable impact on sales. More importantly the road to brand recovery is long and costly, just ask a bank or a politician. Perhaps now is the time to regain customer focus and build brands on solid foundations, real shared value, openness, transparency. Now is the ‘Age of brand authenticity’, something customers value, they associate with longer term, something they care about, they can trust and admire.