A relatively new language evolving around brands includes health, safety, purpose, responsibility, sustainability and community. Each of these is distinct, and influence one another. This line of thinking has critics and supporters. Arguments are made that “doing good is good for business” while others assert that people want their FMCG’s to offer good value and stay in their lane. The big picture is that brand value must acknowledge the “soft” aspects along with the bottom line. These peripheral qualities have moved towards the core. Our view is that supporting or disparaging the change is not as important as acknowledging and preparing for it. The landscape has changed, and in order to thrive a business must too. This re-evaluation of business along vectors other than profit is being driven by consumers empowered by the internet. To understand what we mean, we’re gonna look at the new criteria the public expects brands to hold up to, how these interplay, and why the influence of public sentiment has increased.
Let’s dive in.
THE NEW BOTTOM LINES
Businesses are a part of society and the social contract stipulates it must therefore contribute to the collective wellbeing. Purpose means being accountable to more than just shareholders. This purpose needs to be intrinsic. If it’s transactional it runs the risk of doing damage. A manufacturer’s claims to care for the environment are questionable in the face of harmful production processes.
Your reputation is an investment worth safeguarding. This includes avoiding guilt by association with other entities holding differing or opposing views to yours, which might be seen as an endorsement of their points of view. You may not support their opinions but affiliation can be damning. It invites questions about your authenticity. Providing a livelihood for your consumers’ antagonists by way of your marketing budget, puts you on shaky ground. The friend of my enemy is my enemy, sort of thing. Consumer activism could result in a media backlash and boycotts. A reputation is easy to hurt and hard to heal. Brands must have a comprehensive understanding of the companies and individuals they associate with, along with their purposes and beliefs. “We didn’t know” won’t get you out of hot water. The flip side of this is that you have leverage at your disposal to achieve your purpose, through something as fundamental as where you spend your media budget. And that’s only one example.
This is something of a Pandora’s Box and touches on Cancel Culture, free speech, de-platforming and other discussions but let’s leave that radioactive rabbit hole for another time.
The social contract mentioned earlier is the duty of any member of a community to have a net-positive impact on the whole. Brand responsibility is the process of acknowledging company actions, their consequences, the decisions that lead to them and the choices we’re making as a result. If a brand were a person, we’d probably talk about self-awareness. This is taking accountability, and helps brands stay on course and committed. Revenue and profitability are impacted, and success must be defined in more than rands and cents.
WHAT’S IT MEAN ABOUT THE FUTURE OF BRANDING?
THE EMERGENCE OF CONSUMER INFLUENCE
The public is waking up to their buying power and shifting the balance between business and consumer, as the latter seek to change their world through their spending. Ultimately the choice to buy, or not, is amplified by the decision to talk about why. Consumers act in their own interest, and when the interests of millions conform, they are formidable. Look no further than /wallstreetbets for confirmation.
THE DEMOCRATISATION OF INFLUENCE (ALL HAIL THE INTERNET)
The internet sits at the centre of this. More and more people are gaining access to an ever growing soap box. It’s misleading to call it a “movement”, with an agenda, spearheaded by leaders. This is decentralised and chaotic. Action coalesces around sentiment, like grains of intent producing pearls of action. The revolution is decentralised.
A NEW VIEW OF BRANDS
Adjustments must be made.
Marketers need to loosen their grips on the reins of brand building, acknowledging the power and influence of the consumer, and looking for ways to gauge, analyse and then work with consumer sentiment. This puts greater emphasis on agility. The ability to assess and adjust gains prominence. Long term thinking paired with short term flexibility is the name of the game. If purpose isn’t baked into the business, the ROI is gonna suck, at best, and the insincerity will trigger a tsunami of negativity you can’t manage, at worst.
What hasn’t changed are the goals.
Marketers are still responsible for the consumer’s perception of the brand. Their perception is informed by the information they absorb. There’s just a whole lot more of it! The narrative cannot be controlled, but it can be co-written. Imagine everything from ad placement and endorsements to supply chains and human resources processes is now in the public eye. That’s the wave you must ride. Learn to surf or drown. Lastly, and most importantly, this means how business is done is now influenced by why the business exists, which creates a difficult challenge if the rest of the company doesn’t buy in. The final challenge for marketers is aligning the rest of the business on the role marketing plays and the ways in which it connects with other departments.
Simply put, in a world where everything can affect perception, everything is marketing.