These are the times that try brands’ souls. Talk to brand managers and CMOs, and they’ll tell you the power balance between brands and consumers really is shifting. And fast.
Radical transparency and vocal consumers—powered by social media—are rewriting the rules of marketing every day. Brands are being forced to be more agile, with marketers scrambling to keep up with highly connected, fully participatory and increasingly demanding consumers. It’s a relentless pace that Target’s VP of PR, Dustee Tucker Jenkins, recently described as, “Hours are like days, days are like weeks, weeks are like months.” If this acceleration makes you dizzy, you’re not alone.
Examples abound of organizations getting tangled up in values-driven, social media maelstroms—and experiencing negative impact on brand equity, reputation and license to operate. A few highlights: In September, Bank of America triggered a social media-fueled outburst by introducing a $5 monthly debit fee during the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The company took a month to retreat, giving its brand a black eye from which smaller community banks are still benefitting. In contrast, Verizon took just one day to bow to outrage from introduction of a $2 bill-paying fee. Concerned about damage to the brand, the company quickly reversed course, citing “customer feedback.”
Aftershocks from Susan G. Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood are still reverberating; even though the organization rapidly reversed course, Komen events, fundraising and corporate partnerships continue to be affected. Next: pink slime. Within weeks after a whistleblower propelled this issue into the national spotlight, a backlash led fast-food chains and retailers to nix the ingredient and forced pink slime’s largest manufacturer to shut three of its four plants. Recently, even corporate social responsibility-standout Starbucks became a target when the company was attacked for using a (common) food coloring made from ground-up insects. Vocal vegans rose up, triggering a groundswell. As it rapidly moved to reformulate products, a contrite Starbucks said, “We fell short of your expectations.”
The key takeaway here? Get used to it. For decades, marketers have had it too easy, following a rote formula: define your brand’s equity, communicate consistent messaging, deliver reasonable product performance, wrap everything in enough emotion to get people to feel something and pray that your competition does something different. No more. Welcome to a brave new world for brands and the people who build them. Expect this whipsaw cycle to become the norm: 1) Brands inevitably fail expectations of stakeholders (often a small minority group); 2) This stirs up populist outrage propelled by new and traditional media; 3) Which forces companies to change direction to make it all go away.
Concurrently, brands are being impacted by another powerful force: rising expectations of brands as change agents. Our research shows consumers around the world agree that companies have a responsibility to make the world better, with 94% declaring companies exist to do more than just make money. As Marc Pritchard, CMO of P&G, puts it, “People want to know who is the company behind the brands. What are the values? Are they interested in more than making money? What is its purpose?”
What should business leaders do? Head for higher ground. And stay there. Follow the lead of forward-thinking brands like Patagonia and Target that have deeply embraced cause and a commitment to positive societal impact to navigate today’s complex, values-driven environment. What these brands know is that when it comes to societal impact, there is no standing on the sidelines.
Companies need to give time-worn brand management tool kits a heart transplant—putting purpose and a commitment to cause at the center of everything brands do:
Welcome to the latest battle for the hearts and minds of consumers. The convergence of radical transparency and ever-higher expectations about how companies and brands should act is, quite simply, transforming the business landscape. Brands—corporate and nonprofit alike—that don’t embrace this revolution risk irrelevance to the consumers of today and tomorrow.