Brand integrity is a nuanced, important topic for any company. How consumers perceive a company through its products, image, and reputation has a huge impact on the ultimate value of their brand. When a brand loses integrity, its meaning and value to consumers is diminished. And, while every consumer experience may not live up to the highest order promises from the brand, it’s essential for marketers to protect the integrity of their brands in order to retain the ability to connect with and win the hearts of consumers.
Protecting a brand’s integrity starts with knowing what a brand stands for, and recent decisions by two well-known companies tell us a lot about how marketers continuously refine their approach. Nestlé and CVS had vision to define a new “best self” with high standards that required bold change. Their recent actions are changing the customer experience and defining a new brand reality — with integrity at the heart of their decisions.
In the case of Nestlé, their decision in February to remove artificial flavors and certified colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5 from more than 250 products, including Butterfinger, Crunch, and Baby Ruth, has resounded throughout the candy world. When the revamped products debut on store shelves before year-end, the tagline, “No artificial flavors or colors,” will be emblazoned on all packaging, prominently displaying Nestlé’s new stance on its products.
While it’s fairly common for manufacturers to spin off all-natural product lines in addition to their staple brands, Nestlé is fundamentally altering the makeup of its flagship products. This is a radical move. Even though the company has maintained that flavor will not be compromised, consumer bias can be difficult to overcome. In my experience testing CPG products, consumers were skeptical of product changes as “improvements” and preferred to stick with the tried and true. A snack with added whole grains was perceived as more healthful but also less delicious by shoppers, even when blind taste testing proved that flavor remained unchanged.
So why take the risk? According to a recent Nielsen study, “60% of Americans say no artificial colors or flavors is important to their food purchase decisions.” This marks a big turning point in consumer sentiment and Nestlé is smart to get in front of it. But is Nestlé’s announcement a clever marketing strategy or a real act of brand integrity? Perhaps it’s a little of both. Media response has certainly been positive. CNN published an opinion column in support of the decision, and many other media outlets have also applauded the move.
Through a very different approach, CVS also made a radical shift to its business in October 2014 by announcing it would remove all tobacco products from its 7,600 retail stores. CVS felt that supplying consumers with harmful tobacco products was inconsistent with its goal of being a trusted health provider.
Although eliminating tobacco products from its store shelves will cost the company $2 billion in sales annually, according to Forbes, chief executive officer Larry Merlo has described the move as “one of those intangibles” that would create new business for the company to recoup lost sales from tobacco products. Completely removing tobacco products, even in the face of losing profits, was a bold, consistent statement indeed.
Under the headline “It’s the Right Thing to Do,” the company states on its website, “By removing tobacco products from our retail shelves, we will better serve our patients, clients and health care providers while positioning CVS Caremark for future growth as a health care company.” The company, now rebranded as CVS Health, released surprising statistics a year later, showing that its tobacco-free position was proving helpful and healthful for its valued consumers. Prescriptions for smoking cessation medications increased 63% every month from September through December 2014, while customers picked up 2.3 million “quit smoking” brochures at CVS pharmacies and the Smokers Cessation Hub on cvs.com hit almost one million views.
What other companies and brands can learn from Nestlé and CVS Health’s major transitions is that actions that reinforce a brand’s core values speak much louder than words. Marketers talk a lot about brand integrity, and I think the moves by CVS Health and Nestlé are good examples of taking big risks — even financial ones — and drawing a clear line about what the company stands for and what they want to provide consumers. While consumers today can make their own choices about whether they want to eat artificial ingredients or smoke a pack a day, Nestlé and CVS are betting that their investments in brand integrity will strike a chord with consumers that will pay off down the road.