Elevated Brands Wanted

A new brand and business order—consumer-focused and meeting a higher standard.

It’s time for a new brand order with consumers seeking elevated brands. While the world around them goes through dramatic change and trust in institutions and business declines, there is an opportunity for businesses and brands to step up and fill the void that is being created. Consumers are looking for steadying, and they want to see that businesses care about people and society beyond just their shareholders.

For example, a Harvard University survey found that over 50 percent of Americans 18-29 years of age don’t support the system of capitalism. Some believe it’s the system of capitalism itself, as articulated in this Fast Company article by Dr. Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk. But one could say that it’s more about how the system is currently functioning and how it isn’t serving the people and society’s needs anymore.

What are brands to do? Here are 5 actions to reorient your brand proposition to what consumers are seeking in today’s world:

1. Stand for and do more, getting beyond the bottom line.

Consumers want companies and brands to stand for and do more. Yes, it’s about purpose and meaning, but not in the fluffy sense some may take those words. Consumers want real, tangible actions that demonstrate that brands understand there is greater responsibility when playing a role in consumers’ lives.

This means a brand’s business objectives need to be broadened. It’s too easy to claim it’s all about the bottom line. While that barometer might simplify decision-making, it can cause businesses to ignore both opportunities and threats. Even BlackRock, the $6 trillion investment firm, recognizes that consumers have increased their expectations of businesses. It was just announced that the founder and CEO, Laurence D. Fink, plans to raise the company’s expectations, as well, demanding that businesses contribute to society.

From this The New York Times article:

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose…. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

Some companies have been willing to embed more “bottom lines” and stakeholders into their governance becoming B Corporations, even a few owned by publicly traded companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s owned by Unilever and Plum Organics owned by Campbell’s. This has not always been consumer-driven, but rather determined by the companies themselves based on their ethos.

Other companies recognize and take responsibility for the role they play in society and communities, such as Starbucks and Apple.

In Angela Ahrendts’ recent LinkedIn post, she articulated as much with regard to Apple Retail. She explains that given the impacts— positive and negative—of technological innovation, the company is taking responsibility to help people connect, learn and get retrained, and express creativity through initiatives being implemented at Apple stores.

Other companies may recognize that their products can have a significant, negative impact on our societies, such as Facebook. Is it any wonder that at the start of 2017 Mark Zuckerburg announced a new Facebook mission centered around Community? Some might ask if the company’s doing enough still.

2. Build trust through human-centricity and transparency in product design and development.

Demonstrate empathy and understanding for consumer problems, needs, and aspirations by building solutions that are human-centric, not simply focused on interesting technology or the bottom line. Consider, for example, FMCG food brands that are losing relevancy to fresh, start-up brands managed with higher principles such as KIND and Plum Organics. Or, think about the company Learners Guild, which is investing in talent by training and teaching people to code and supporting them in getting employment. People don’t pay for the service until they get a job that pays at least $50,000 per year.

Consumers will also reward transparency. Everlane has gained traction and continues to grow with its Radical Transparency retail model, while brands like The Gap and Banana Republic struggle to maintain differentiation and relevancy, still operating and engaging with consumers primarily on a functional level and having to play the deep discount promotional game.

Brands can also build transparency directly into their business model and product proposition. As reported in Monocle, Alexander Stutterheim founded John Sterner, a Swedish knitwear company. When launching his brand, Stutterheim started by buying a sheep farm, because he wanted to control from where the wool would come for his products. To further this understanding into the products, Stutterheim is building an app that for consumers to learn all the details about where and how the textile material and final products were created. He was quoted as having said:

“I don’t think you can start a company today without thinking how the world is turning in the wrong direction when it comes to environmental stuff; knowing where something comes from is important.”

3. Deliver more responsible communications focused on motivations vs. expectations.

What do businesses sell to consumers? Simply stuff? Or, are they selling solutions to problems or alignment to a self-goal or self-concept, such as aligning to attitudes, beliefs, core motivations, and emotions? What’s more successful and responsible is to meet the consumer where they are, rather than set an expectation for them to meet.

It’s time for brands to start to operate from a more positive, responsible position and align their marketing communications to consumers’ motivations and goals, not external expectations. It’s a more respectful and helpful way to interact with consumers. Do you want them to reach societal or business goals or meet their own? This marketing approach can be similar to behavioral economics where people design processes to elicit positive behaviors that benefit the individuals themselves.

We’ve written about some such examples in the past. Consider also this latest announcement from CVS stating that the company will no longer edit beauty images used in its marketing. It’s a purpose-driven and responsible act focused on reducing expectation-setting influences. Helena Foulkes, president of CVS Pharmacy and EVP, CVS Health said:

“As a woman, mother and president of a retail business whose customers predominantly are women, I realize we have a responsibility to think about the messages we send to the customers we reach each day. The connection between the propagation of unrealistic body images and negative health effects, especially in girls and young women, has been established. As a purpose-led company, we strive to do our best to assure all of the messages we are sending to our customers reflect our purpose of helping people on their path to better health.”

Two advertising agency creatives (and moms) developed the fictitious “Just Kids” campaign to make a similar point to the company H&M. They took H&M clothes and developed the type of children’s photography they’d want to see in advertisements—one that supports gender neutrality. Read more at Adweek >

4. Ensure a fair exchange between consumers and companies through richer experiences.

Consumers have often unwittingly given up their personal data and privacy rights to technology companies. And yet, one wonders if the free use of services has been an equal exchange for what they’ve provided. Moreover, companies often ask for data as they engage with an app or website, and oftentimes the product experience doesn’t deliver a quality one worthy of the data exchange.

Given all the recent security breaches while companies still desire more consumer, the value exchange needs to be taken more seriously and be more equal. What might this look like? Read some examples in our Marketing Forecast, “Elevated customer experiences required.”

5. Act with an authentic brand character—have a sense of self and execute with integrity.

Given consumers’ lack of trust in organizations, it’s important to operate with authenticity and character. These are two distinct principles. Authenticity represents a brand’s purpose and the responsibility it takes on, communicated directly with no hidden agenda. Character is demonstrated through actions—decisions and activity—that are consistent with your brand identity and belief structure, earning a good reputation.

Patagonia is a prime example of a brand that acts with authentic brand character. Here’s a little bit about how the company speaks about itself and its mission:

Mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.

REI, another outdoor company, also has a strong sense of identity that has guided its brand activity. Its oft mentioned #OptOutside campaign is just one example that demonstrated its ethos and connection to the outdoors. Another is their 2017 “Force of Nature” campaign focused on encouraging women to get outdoors with a component about changing how women were represented in outdoor industry marketing. Read more in this article on Forbes >

The company also provides in-depth content on outdoor topics, providing valuable information to further consumers’ experience and enjoyment of the outdoors.

It’s time to elevate brands. A brand leader could either see this as an inconvenient threat or as a significant opportunity to ensure relevancy and vibrancy. Best do it before your competitors get ahead of you.

The Brand Forecast: Help me reorient my brand to a new, elevated brand standard, one focused on the right stakeholder—the consumer—to build sustaining brand value and avoid not seeing threats by focusing solely on the bottom line.



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