Guest post by Colleen O’Day, a digital marketing manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health and K-12 education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.
Karl Lagerfeld once said that luxury bags make a woman dream, give her confidence, “and show your neighbors you’re doing well.”
That may well be true for a Lagerfeld-designed status handbag from Chanel or Fendi. But what message is a woman sending by slinging a Stella McCartney vegetarian leather bag? Eco-fashionista? Hardcore vegan? Card-carrying member of the Humane Society?
For an increasing number of today’s consumers, particularly millennials, purchasing habits have become a reflection of personal principles. The brands people wear and the businesses they patronize inspire devotion through corporate values that mesh with the consumer’s own beliefs.
That’s the lure of brands like Toms, which donates a pair of shoes or eyeglasses for every pair sold. For Toms customers, every retail transaction doubles as charitable giving.
Wider Open Wallets
Such brand alignment is worth a lot, according to a Gallup report. When companies embrace a corporate ethos that’s credible, consistent and compelling, customers reward them with loyalty and bigger spending. It’s this brand promise — not marketing or advertising — that has the greatest potential to fuel business growth.
Gone are the simple days when brands might have signaled their core values by sponsoring athletic events or slapping pink ribbons on their products for breast cancer awareness. Today’s empowered consumers are far more demanding — and hypervigilant of any signs of inauthenticity or hypocrisy.
Some companies are lucky to have clearly-defined values baked into their founding. The strength of Patagonia’s brand rests on its commitment to social responsibility, from protection for migrant workers at its suppliers’ factories to energy conservation. And it’s impossible to imagine Burt’s Bees products ever using less-than-wholesome ingredients.
But it’s all too easy to bungle the values game, even for savvy corporations. In 2015, Starbucks attempted to kick start a national dialogue on race relations after police shootings of black motorists in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. Baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on cups.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has been outspoken on social issues, and the corporate initiative seemed a natural extension of that. But the company pulled back from the campaign after less than two weeks following much derision from social media. Among other things, critics pointed to the irony of Starbucks wanting to encourage conversations about diversity when its executive ranks are overwhelmingly white.
Successful marketing campaigns need to be grounded on deep insights about what motivates customers and employees. The MSW@USC, the online masters in social work program at the University of Southern California, created a Diversity Toolkit that offers a framework for discussing race, ethnicity, gender and other markers of diversity. A more probing and candid dialogue on diversity might have prevented Starbucks from its well-intended, but facile, campaign.
The Brand-Customer Bond
Yet despite the risks, brands are expected to define themselves by their values and ethics. What’s more, customers should know what those values are, and believe them to be genuine and credible. Forrester Research, the market research firm, calls that emotional connection “the No. 1 customer loyalty driver.”
Forrester suggests three guidelines on how companies can adopt meaningful values:
- Make it relevant. Understand and focus on the topics that matter most to your customers.
- Embrace values wholeheartedly. Walk the talk. Espousing support for social causes, for example, will be dismissed as lip service unless you treat your own employees with respect.
- Be radically transparent. Track your promises. Collect proof of progress. Reveal what’s in your products.
When companies betray — or seem to betray — their core values, it can unleash deep consumer fury.
After Linda Bean, a member of the family that owns L.L. Bean, personally donated tens of thousands of dollars to Donald Trump’s campaign — and was thanked by the president via Twitter — many shoppers recoiled at the seeming incongruence of a downhome Maine retailer backing a divisive politician.
It’s also critical that a brand’s values are those that actually enhance the bottom line. Take the Green Works line of eco-friendly spray cleaners, wipes and other products. Clorox launched the brand aware that only a small fraction of consumers factored in environmentally friendly ingredients in their purchasing decisions, according to a report in the Harvard Business Review.
But “green” consumers were put off by the association with the Clorox brand, known for its bleach-based cleaners. At the same time, some mainstream consumers equated “green” with “less effective.” Result: Despite early hopes, Green Works has yet to conquer the premium cleaning-products market.
So what’s the lesson for brands? One is that virtually all social issues have both advocates and detractors. Another is that calibrating corporate values requires more than superficial understanding of diversity and the differing motivations of various consumers. But done right, displaying the right kind of conscience in marketing campaigns and in corporate messages is a sure path to consumers’ pocketbooks.