It’s never been easier for large corporations to kill their brands quickly. Emboldened by examples as far ranging as Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks – and armed with connective technology that allows them to communicate and organize themselves in unprecedented ways – customers now demand greater transparency, authenticity and accountability from brands in return for their purchases.
Recent examples include the global protests against Monsanto over genetically modified organisms, pushback against insensitive remarks about plus sizes by the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch and outcry against apparel companies associated with the factory collapse – and related deaths – in Bangladesh.
This dynamic is rapidly becoming the mainstay of consumer engagement and its management by brands. Three big social trends are driving this change: the accelerating pace of social and mobile technologies, which has large and costly implications for how corporations structure and market themselves; a daunting cocktail of global social crises – climate change, obesity and loss of biodiversity, to name a few – that individually threaten companies’ ability to thrive and together invite ever-increasing scrutiny from civil society, government and customers; and the rising tide of customer activism from well-informed and media-savvy customers.
At the intersection of these three forces, corporations are being forced – perhaps for the very first time – to articulate what they stand for and demonstrate an authentic commitment to real action that measurably improve the lives of employees, customers and the global community. When you consider that only 70% of the companies on the Fortune 1000 in 2003 remained on the list in 2013, it’s easy to understand the urgency to shift with the times, whether it’s production methods, organizational structures, brand marketing or all of the above.
How to Respond
The world’s smartest marketers are taking three steps, in this order, to respond to these social shifts:
1) Actively sharing their brands’ purpose, core values and mission: They’re not just marketing, but also aligning their sourcing, manufacturing and distribution – as well as their treatment of employees – with their mission.
2) Moving sustainability marketing to corporate communications: No longer relegated to cause marketing or corporate foundations, sustainability marketing – for the most effective companies – is being handled by central corporate communications, which is charged with telling the story of the good work companies are doing in ways that build their business.
3) Reframing the message: The most successful companies are positioning themselves as the celebrant – rather than the celebrity – of their customer community, working with customers to fulfill the brand’s mission. Nike’s Better World, Starbucks’ Shared Planet, Coca-Cola’s Open Happiness and IBM’s Smarter Planet are well-known examples of global brands framing their messaging in terms of the benefit to customers. All of these brands profoundly understand that the future of profit is purpose, authentically executed.
A Double Edged-sword
Not surprisingly, such efforts come with some risks. By turning a spotlight on the good work a company does, you invite increased scrutiny, which has already been growing in the wake of the WikiLeaks, Anonymous and NSA controversies. For example, consumer activists are holding fast food and soda companies accountable for issues as intractable and far ranging as obesity, access to clean water and health care costs.
The considerations that shape a brand’s reputation have now expanded to include their supply chain, employee treatment, customer engagement and any social crises that come up, as well as marketing. Whether it’s framed as risk mitigation by the chief financial officer or reputation management by the chief marketing officer, demonstrating greater authenticity, transparency and accountability have now become core business practices.
However, it’s not all bad news either. Purposeful storytelling can measurably and positively impact the bottom line. Sustainability reports from brands such as Unilever, Nike and Marks and Spencer show increasingly sophisticated sustainability practices and measurement that has already translated into substantive bottom line savings, including better employee retention, satisfaction and productivity.
Corporate integrity – its values and how it aligns those values with how it makes its products, treats its employees, and improves lives – will ultimately decide which companies thrive in the future. As social crises scale and compound, the conversation between brands and consumers will become increasingly supportive or oppositional depending on whether a corporation is perceived to be part of the problem or solution.
No amount of strategic repositioning, cause washing or marketing window dressing can compete with an authentic alignment of a brand’s mission, values and practices. In fact, the road to sustained prosperity for corporations is less about marketing and more about finding its purpose in our context of a mutually dependent and intimately connected world.
The iconic brands of the future will be those that make the greatest positive social impact. The sooner corporations embrace this challenge, the faster they will ensure their place in this future.
This article was originally posted by The Guardian