We live in the era of the conscious consumer. No longer content to separate their politics from their wallets, buyers want to know that the brands they’re supporting also stand for something.
When President Trump failed to criticize white supremacists in the immediate aftermath of the Charlottesville attack, the CEOs of Merck, Intel, and Under Armour resigned from the White House’s American Manufacturing Council. While some leaders might be nervous about upsetting the president of the United States, these CEOs sent a message to their markets about where their values lie, understanding that as debates heat up around critical topics such as human rights, people are drawn to companies that take principled positions.
As the leader of a global company, I know that standing up for a controversial issue, especially in the corporate world, isn’t easy. It may even seem counterintuitive in its inherent polarization. From a branding perspective, though, it’s one of the most lucrative steps a company can take.
Humility Breeds Profitability
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and the rise of citizen journalism, consumers and brands alike are constantly learning new information and revising their opinions and positions. In other words, they’re pivoting all the time. Brands that are honest about their values and how they’ve evolved open the door to real conversations with their consumers, which is especially critical when these brands mess up.
Take the United Airlines debacle, for example. Following the forced removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight, United only exacerbated that initial incident by distributing convoluted and defensive messaging. The resulting public relations fallout highlights the fact that companies that focus exclusively on profit and fail to identify and then effectively communicate their brand’s broader mission are taking a risk. A single misstep costs them a lot of the goodwill they may have accrued among consumers. On the other hand, if businesses are constantly broadcasting their values and position, people will be more likely to believe them when they share their flaws and how they’re working to do better.
Consumers understand the volatility of the marketplace. But what remains more constant is their inner belief system, which drives them to act and be drawn into a place that is comfortable, akin to a personal haven. In a world where so much is uncertain — from terrorism to fragile economies to populist movements like Brexit — such belief systems play an even bigger role. According to the Global Strategy Group, 56% of Americans surveyed said they expect brands to take a stand on important issues, even those that seem divisive or controversial. The key point for brands, then, is real-time engagement and genuine empathy through listening to consumers and reacting with speed.
Stand Up. Stand Out.
Taking a stand doesn’t always mean courting controversy or delving into politics. REI donates almost 70% of its profits to the outdoor community and gives employees Black Friday off so that they can spend time with their families or get outside themselves. Despite being closed on the biggest shopping day of the year, REI generated $2.56 billion in revenue in 2016 alone.
By baking its community values and enjoyment of the outdoors into its corporate DNA — in a genuine and transparent way that’s accessible to consumers — REI attracts loyal shoppers and boasts enormous success. For your brand to do the same, follow these three strategies:
1. Be true to your brand. Go back to basics: What is your company all about? When your business decisions align with your core values, it’s easy to authentically communicate those values to your audience, and consumers appreciate consistency and integrity over trendy declarations or opportunistic campaigns.
A great example of this alignment is Warby Parker. Targeting young, socially conscious professionals who can’t afford expensive glasses, Warby Parker offers affordable prices and top-notch customer service. On top of this, they donate glasses to nonprofit partners that train low-income individuals in developing countries to perform standard eye exams and sell the donated glasses to their communities at a low price. This winning combination has helped the company raise $115 million from investors.
2. Create human-centric engagement strategies. Chatbots are useful for managing social traffic, but they should augment the human touch, not supplant it. Make sure you have real people responding to followers and initiating conversations on social media. If consumers suspect they’re only interacting with bots, it will be tough for your brand to build a reputation for authenticity.
When Wendy’s received negative feedback about its 'fresh, never frozen' beef on Twitter, the company responded with witty sarcasm, which garnered it positive attention and helped combat the criticism. Most importantly, though, the incident made it clear there was an actual person crafting those responses.
3. Be transparent about your mistakes. Pivot with speed and honesty when you find your brand in moments of crisis. Every company encounters setbacks, and your consumers will appreciate candor and humility. If you downplay your errors or refuse to respond to criticism, as United Airlines did, people will see your company as corporate and cold, and they’ll take their business to a more authentic vendor.
Standing for something by understanding your brand, focusing on personal engagement strategies, and authentically positioning your company allows you to develop rich conversations with your audience. And the insights from those exchanges will enable innovation — in scale and in collaboration with the audience that has defined your brand over the years. Brands are built on experience, and your consumers build every experience with you — past, present, and future — because people stand by companies that stand up for something.