Brands, if you really want to make money look to your motives

Image: Kilroy's Links.

Everywhere you look these days there’s another instance of a brand being caught out for disingenuous, duplicitous or unconscionable behavior. It’s almost as if they can’t believe either a) this Internet thing is here to stay, or b) that it requires transparency. So in an effort to shunt to process forward, let’s look at two different business situations – one negative and one positive –  in which an open kimono stance is highly recommended.

1. DAMAGE CONTROL: For every social media PR disaster there are just as many happy endings (Ford, ZapposComcast and JetBlue to name a few). Yet for some reason many major brands are still reluctant to accept that they might as well come clean. For instance, BP tries to understate the amount of oil spewing in the Gulf, it doctors photographs of the affected areas and tries to shut down twitter accounts critical of the brand. Nestle tries to delete posts and squash Facebook accounts populated by Greenpeace protestors ogbecting to their harvesting of palm oil becuase of its impact of local orangutans. Honda seeding it’s own positive customer reviews of the Crosstour to counter customer criticism. The list goes on.

Such tactics reflect a fundamental ignorance of the dynamics of social media. It’s like telling a young kid not to touch something. Suddenly they have nothing better to do. Instead, brands clutch their cards closer to their chest only to invite more trouble on themselves. As difficult as it may seem, brands must embrace the notion that they owe the same duty of disclosure to their customers as they do to their shareholders. Why? Because customers are stakeholders in their business and its impact on the world. And their purchasing power is critical to corporate profits.

2. SOCIAL OUTREACH: CSR (Corporate social responsibility) is now commonplace among major brands and it contributes meaningful resources to critical areas. That said, such positive efforts often backfire on brands due to their disingenuous motives. Sponsoring a charity, getting your staff to volunteer or starting a foundation is pointless if it only serves to cover-up the ills of a corporation or to burnish its image in the public eye. Consumers are not that foolish or uninformed. Greenwashing, causewashing and its recent variation, localwashing, are all terms that should have brands on point as to why they are doing outreach in the first place. Not only is it misguided because consumers become twice as mad when they feel like they’re being played, but its also robs the brand of all the potential upside of using outreach to reinforce a brand’s authentic narrative. Here’s what I mean.

If a brand really takes the time to define and articulate what it stands for and then makes an outreach on that basis, every charitable effort will reinforce the core brand because they are congruent. That means extra bank for every marketing buck. But if they have not done that work, outreach invariably comes off as ad hoc, sanctimonious or pandering to public opinion. This doesn’t mean a brand has to be limited in what it does. It just means that any contribution should be relevant to what they do and that they should do it because they mean it. For example, as a beneficiary of the ocean, it would make sense for BP to invest in marine ecology. It’s a simple as that. So brands must work out who they and why they are doing such outreach if they want to reinforce their own brand and resonate most loudly with consumers.

It’s important to note that this phenomenon of consumer response is not some fly by night fad of well-intended activism. This is the new marketplace and this trend is in its infancy. Consumers will continue to socialize, organize and demand that their voice be heard. This is being propelled by three powerful forces over which brands have no control. The wake-up call of corporate corruption that was 2008, enhanced awareness of the multiple global crises our planet currently faces, and a renaissance of connectivity thanks to social media. The result of which is a connected, engaged and concerned consumer that my be into recycling, donating money to Haiti earthquake victims or signing an online petition to boycott BP and expecting to their brands to do the same. Consumers want brands must their share of responsibility in the well-being of all. Or as I said at the Cannes Ad Fest recently, they want a better world, not just better widgets. So in this new social ecosystem brands must really think through their motives and reach out to consumers with authenticity, transparency and accountability. Otherwise the only reason someone would buy their product is to throw it at them.

Do you feel most brands are really putting it on and pretending to care? Or do you see a genuine shift in the corporate mentiality?