What consumers want most from a brand is a good product or service. Nobody wants to do business with the devil, though, so values are important. And people pay attention. But the bottom-line is product-first. Other things come into play, but those are not what bring people to a brand. People want specific things for which they have specific needs. If a brand fails to deliver on those things, then all the value of a brand is lost. Nobody is going to buy bad-tasting food or drive a lemon because it is affiliated with certain social causes. We all know this, of course. But sometimes we take the product for granted and put our all our weight behind values. To the detriment of putting the product first. When consumers feel that the benefits from a product have been compromised, the brand pays the price. So, whatever else we do, first and foremost, we must be mission-central.
Don’t Pick Fights. Even when values are in sync with mission, they should not be used as a battle flag. Being combative may work in politics, but not for brands. Aggressive campaigns run a high likelihood of alienating core customers. This happens when the long-standing image of a brand is not aligned or is incongruous with contemporary beliefs and values. The old may need to change but disparaging the old image in some way, even if slightly, will often do nothing but pick a fight. There have been a couple of instances recently in which doing so has hurt brands. Consumers want brands to be clear on values, but they don’t want brands getting distracted by social advocacy. This is not to say that brands should feel free to ignore values or social issues. That’s important, too. It’s just to say that brands must be mission-central and that’s hard to do while picking a fight.
My Brand. The real challenge facing brands, though, is not neglecting the product but upending the branding itself. Core customers, even noncustomers, have an understanding of what a brand represents—intangibly, emotionally, symbolically, stylistically. These are the symbols and messages that tie people to a brand’s identity. Flipping these abruptly, especially with a message saying the old identity was flawed or corrupt, is disorienting to consumers, especially those most committed to the brand. Consumers want companies to be clear about the values they stand for, but there is no clarity at all in sudden turns of positioning and messaging. Obviously, values have to change sometimes—the brand changes, society changes, consumers change. But change should be approached as a progression, as an improvement—not as a repudiation of the old branding and thus, by extension, of consumers themselves.
Human Values. What I am saying is not new. I think all marketers would nod in agreement, and even wonder why I’m stating the obvious. But it’s clear in recent years that striking the right balance between mission and values, between product and purpose, is hard to do. And not just in going overboard with values, but also in doing too little about values out of fear of doing too much. In the fractious political climate of today, a lot of marketers feel they can’t win for losing. But such resignation tends to come from a misperception that this is all about aligning or not aligning with political values. That kind of thinking will always lead to trouble. The issue at hand is about aligning brands with human values—core values true for all people, not left or right values. And the secret to clarity about a commitment to human values is to be mission-central in solving universal human needs. Then people know you truly care.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education
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