In today’s climate of intense customer activism, powered by nimble mobile and social technologies, brands must now define and lead with their social purpose in ways that inspire customer trust, loyalty, and sales.
As the drivers of brand reputation expand beyond marketing to include supply chain, employee wellness and engagement, and the impact on both local communities and the planet at large, companies are on the hook to reframe their brand stories in terms of global stewardship for positive social change.
With 55 percent saying they’ve boycotted a brand in the past 12 months, and those companies on the Meaningful Brands Index outperforming the stock markets by 120 percent, Edelman’s key learning from its annual Trust Barometer Report sums up this opportunity well: “Business must lead the debate for change.”
Capitalizing on these cultural behaviors is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more brands come to market with a message of purpose. It’s not enough to simply put a ribbon on a package or talk about sustainability in broad-sweeping terms. Rather, brands must commit to authenticity and expert storytelling to connect with consumers.
In order to be positioned well ahead of competitors and at the heart of what the consumer-driven marketplace will reward, brands must take on the following four challenges:
1. Unite the CMO, CSO, and head of CSR: Too many brands waste their marketing budgets through fractured messaging that creates separation among their different customer communities and dilutes brand awareness and affinity. The result is confused customers who are not equipped to share the brand’s story using their own voice and social media channels. As long as marketing, sustainability, and CSR efforts remain siloed on the basis of outdated organizational, budget, and marketing practices, these brands continue to run the risk of failing to meet business and societal demands that are key to their survival. Instead, you must define your brand in a way that integrates your sustainability and social impact commitments, frame that story in terms of the benefit to your customers, and tell that story simply and authentically. For a large brand such as Unilever, for example, this means first creating a brand position—“Sustainable Living”—and then pointing their various product brands in that one direction through initiatives like Project Sunlight.
2. Lead a cultural conversation: In a marketplace of parity technology and “me-too” marketing, the safest place for a brand is to take a strong point of view on business and social issues and drive the conversation, rather than reacting to consumer pushback. Any alternative leaves your brand lost in the noise and facing a customer community that questions the authenticity of your stated commitments and values. With this in mind, companies must articulate a distinct, purposeful point of view that is proprietary and authentically aligned to their brands, start tough conversations others wouldn’t, hold the brand to a higher standard, and operate with transparency by volunteering areas of improvement. Great examples include the #CVSQuits initiative, Chipotle’s videos and apps around its mission for “Food Integrity,” Target’s new Sustainable Product Standard, and Tesla’s groundbreaking announcement to open source its technology.
3. Make the customer the hero: While it’s tempting for brands to want to talk about themselves, especially when they are doing something good, these efforts become meaningful to consumers only when they are communicated in ways that are relevant to their lives. Too often, brands presume that consumers will rush to support or celebrate their purpose-driven efforts simply because they are doing good, leaving many companies wondering why costly marketing around even more costly sustainability commitments fail to build awareness, engagement, or goodwill. Instead, the posture of a brand when engaging consumers around its purposeful efforts must be one of servant leadership with a commitment to real and measurable social impact, rather than self-promotion. For some examples, check out Coca-Cola’s approach to its #5by20 initiative, which empowers 5 million women entrepreneurs and the Colectivo initiative in Latin America; or charity: water’s My charity: water platform, which allows people to create fundraising campaigns linked to personal events, such as marathons, holidays, or birthdays.
4. Activate employees: The most innovative brands already have figured out that internal storytelling and employee activation are just as important as traditional external consumer-focused efforts. More than a paycheck, employees want a sense of purpose, pride, and impact, so it’s key that a company’s mission statement be brought to life and not left to die in the employee handbook. Unfortunately, 54 percent say their companies’ purpose is not clearly conveyed to all employees, so those companies that clearly articulate their stories internally, offer employees different ways to participate, gamify the experience, and demonstrate tangible impact can create dedicated employee advocates. Companies to emulate include Target, which encourages its employees to speak on behalf of the brand and personally express what their contribution means to them; and the Nuts About Southwest blog which is mostly the result of employees writing about their lives at the airline, issues, and people.
The values of today's socially conscious buyers are very different to those of past generations. But if your company takes the time to define its higher purpose, view citizens and customers as partners in change, and leverage technology to tell an inspirational and shareable brand story, you can tap into some of the most powerful business drivers that will determine which companies lead the future.