Is 2017 the dawn of belief-based branding?

Call me the eternal optimist. I’ve espoused the idea, for many years now, that corporations and brands had an unprecedented opportunity to serve more than just their business interests, to play an active role in society. We’ve all watched trust in institutions on a trajectory of decline for years – this year it’s at an all-time low. Many marketers and strategists – including me – are passionate about brands with purpose, brands that actively give back. Many consumers, particularly younger generations, not only encourage but expect brands to be an active “improver” of societal issues, from everything from fair trade to environmental stewardship to gender equality.

Yet, why, now, in the face of brands actively taking a stand on political issues, do I feel this creeping sense of discomfort?

I think it perhaps comes down to the difference between purpose and belief. Purpose to me is clear – it’s a manifesto, it’s what the brand exists to do – to help girls keep their confidence as they reach puberty, to prevent childhood disease in developing nations through teaching hand washing (name the brands, anyone?).

However, brands standing up for their beliefs seem to be on a roll in the last couple of weeks, peaking during the Oscars. These declarations, because they are exactly that, range from manifesto-style jumbotron-worthy films, from Nike’s “Equality”, Cadillac’s “Carry” from the Oscars, Audi’s “Daughter” spot, to taking decisive action, like Airbnb’s sheltering of those affected by the travel ban.

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That’s a wide range of issues, motives and methods. But what’s so interesting is that the lines are getting blurred between the personal and corporate. We’ve been operating under the long-held philosophy – beautifully elucidated in the seminal documentary The Corporation - that corporations are set up to operate in self-interest alone. They’re not supposed to take sides…are they?

One has to ask the question: are brands simply riding the wave of sentiment for their own benefit? If we’re honest, probably partially, but what fascinates me is that someone somewhere decided taking a stance was the Right Thing to Do – for the brand/corporation and for their consumers. That takes courage, because not all customers may agree.

And it may not always be the right decision, and it may be open to completely different interpretation. Case in point, Nordstrom dropping the Ivanka Trump line is commonly perceived as a political act – whether it was truly driven by a drop in sales, or pressure from #Grabyourwallet, or a helpful tweet from President Trump. Whatever the truth of the matter is, perception is reality in the era of fake news. It may be inevitable that circumstances may require nearly all brands to, at some point, take sides.

So if brands either choose to or must take a belief-based stance, how do they navigate these murky waters? Murky waters can also signal opportunity, if brands have the willingness to rewrite some of the rules. If the lines are already blurring between corporate and personal, then perhaps brands have earned the right to be the best of both worlds, to lead where career politicians fail. (Disclosure: I have my Eternal Optimist hat back on).

Here’s what I think the emerging guidelines are:

1. If you stand up for it, live it.

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This is a classic lesson from purpose-driven branding, but it’s perhaps even more important for belief-based branding. If you stand up for a value or belief, everyone in your organization and all brand experiences have to live it. If you stand up for equality, then equal opportunity has to be felt in every part of your organization, down to your supply chain.

2. Be prepared to defend it when you are right. Apologize when you are wrong.

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Taking sides guarantees that not all of your customers will agree with you – and they will get vocal. You must engage in the discussion because you started it – see Vox’s analysis of 84 Lumber’s Superbowl spot for a good example of how this plays out. And you will make mistakes – whether it’s in this discussion or in the execution of daily brand experiences. The true test of trust is in our moments of failure – take the opportunity to apologize like a human being, and not as a corporation.

3. Represent your constituents.

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This is one of the most critical lessons – personal beliefs don’t always reflect the people who are actually buying their brand. If you haven't represented the wishes of the majority of your customers, you run the risk of losing business and undermining trust. However, you have a secret weapon. Think about your own customer feedback ecosystem as your permanent Town Hall. Poll them frequently and with openness.

4. Go beyond the speech.

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There is no more powerful medium than a well-told film. We all love a podium. But as any disenchanted voter will tell you, delivering on promises through real action is a rare and beautiful thing. Airbnb’s gesture to house those travellers stranded by the U.S. travel ban wasn’t a bolt out of the blue – it was an action borne out of a longer conversation around diversity and inclusion. Months earlier Airbnb asked users to agree to a non-discrimination code of conduct – which some found overstepping and dictatorial. But just a couple of months later the brand followed it up with tangible help in a time of need. The lesson here is to go beyond the spot – literally – and empower your company to act on their beliefs.

Is this going to be a comfortable time? Unlikely. Interesting? Absolutely.

One of my core beliefs is that diversity of opinion will make us all better – as people, as brands, as businesses, as societies. If brands are willing to step into that role – bravo. I might not always agree with their points of view, but if they keep us all talking about the issues, and to each other, that’s a win. Which is my nice way of saying – comment please!!

ThinkingSarah Ivey