Your word is your brand. Or rather, if the words aren’t right and your consumers depend on them for vital information, your brand will quickly find itself in the crosshairs of regulators, activist groups and annoyed consumers. The recent case concerning the contents of herbal supplements is more than an argument over percentages; at its core lies a simple question that underpins consumer trust.
This thought-provoking presentation includes some interesting observations on the contrasting effects of brands on the world. On the one hand the Y&R planners point out, brands are responding to consumer expectations that they will drive social change, spending around $18 billion a year on charitable efforts and using their financial clout and influence to affect real change. On the other, some of the biggest brands now know more about us as consumers and individuals than government agencies and we have no real ways of knowing how they will use that information, and to what effect, going forward.
As marketing teams finalise plans for the year ahead, the logistics of making growth happen should be strongly influencing the targets you set. Most of us would agree there are four ways to strategise for growth: increase the share you hold in the markets you are strong in; develop new products for those markets; extend your reach by finding new markets for your current brands; and develop new products that cater to new markets.
We’re all tempted to do it at some stage: to overstate the advantages; to push the benefits of what is on offer past the point of credibility; to state that what we are doing or offering is better than what others are offering, but with no substantiation for that belief.
There are those who continue to frame the role of business in purely commercial terms. Business is hard enough, and the demands of shareholders and the markets so insistent, these people say, that companies need to avoid the ‘distractions’ of infusing a moral platform into what they do. They should just get on with making profits. That’s their purpose. After all that’s what shareholders demand and that’s typically what they’re compensated on.
Some brands and some sectors have baggage. They’re seen as bad. Or they have a reputation for behaving badly. Or they are still trying to win back confidence after a disaster. Or they’re part of a sector that people don’t like. Or a segment of the population would like them to go away. For whatever reason they can’t seem to convince their detractors that they have good intentions. Critics love to hate on them. They attack these brands for what they sell, what they support, what they don’t support, what they say or don’t say. They cast doubt on their motivations. They draw attention to their shortfalls … I have no problem with this in one sense. The right to examine and critique is a sign of a robust democracy. So is the right to dissent.
This analysis of the top 612 publicly traded companies reveals that while the conversation around responsibility is now in full flight, the words, for the most part, are well ahead of the deeds. The contrasts speak for themselves.
Marketers face this dilemma every day. They must push some boundaries past the point of pain in order to get the jump and be competitive. At the same time, they must clearly stay within constraints such as ethics and regulatory requirements in order to retain integrity, reputation and a clean record.
Enron is a huge reminder of how easy it is to assume; of how the massive confidence of some readily inspires the trust of many. A reminder too of the power of the inconvenient question – just like the one that the reporter from Fortune posed when she asked the CEO how exactly did they make money? Inconvenient questions are a bit like those sewer tests where they send smoke into the pipes – they’re how you spot where the gaps are and where they aren’t.
Some years back, Deborah Doane wrote a hard-hitting article about the “myth of CSR”. In it, she argued that CSR was a reaction rather than an action; that it was essentially a collective response to uprisings against the behaviours and morals of corporate institutions and that it had been encouraged by an historically weak NGO sector as a way to bring about change. Her concerns mirror many that I have independently raised.