Walk the talk or prepare to be found out

By Josh Sharland, VI360

Shallow campaigns that don’t reflect the reality of a company’s culture and ethics, are easily picked up by consumers and can leave your brand looking tarnished. Social media has given consumers the power to pore over a company’s information, and scrutinise any activity, claim or marketing campaign. To avoid serious backlash from customers, any successful brand needs to ensure that its identity is authentic and lives up to the company’s values it presents to its customers.

Being able to relate to your customers and sharing their values in the most meaningful and authentic way is essential to stand above the rest. The COVID-19 pandemic could’ve given consumers bigger problems to worry about, but if anything, as people have sat at home locked to their laptops, the relationship between brand and customer has intensified. Those brands which have actively ‘helped out’ in fighting COVID-19, by translating their values and promises into actions, will reap benefits in terms of customer loyalty for years to come. Whether it’s Zara manufacturing hospital scrubs in Spain, Amazon delivering home testing kits in the US, or BrewDog manufacturing hand sanitisers in the UK; companies who can demonstrate that they are willing to ‘put back’ into society will reap bottom-line benefits.

Campaigns and promotions that don’t reflect the reality of a company’s ethics and work practices are easily picked apart by consumers. Look at Ben and Jerry’s mistaken Twitter spat with Home Secretary Priti Patel over migrant boats; a move that seems to fit well with their brand of hippie, counterculture ice cream. It didn’t take long for it to backfire as consumers began to pick up on the accusations of workers’ rights abuses by parent brand Unilever, leading some consumers to boycott Ben and Jerry’s product. The event tarnished the brand’s reputation and drew attention to an ethical double standard between big corporates and consumers. Certainly, lessons can be learnt from Ben and Jerry’s misstep; principally that hoodwinking your customers is unlikely to pay off in the digital age. The accusations aimed at Unilever, undermined the authenticity of the Ben and Jerry’s brand, making their tweets to Priti Patel seem completely ingenuine.

Companies incorporating a social purpose as an integral part of their brand isn’t all that new. In 1976 Anita Rodick founded the Body Shop and fundamental to its brand was the idea that business should be a “force for good” in society. As they say in their brand manifesto, “We exist to fight for a fairer, more beautiful world”, a bold statement for a company whose products could be considered a luxury at best and entirely superfluous at worst. Nevertheless, the Body Shop was an early cultivator of ‘social purpose’ branding. They understood the power of incorporating ethics and values with their brand identity, something which, thanks to social media and the internet, has become fundamental to the success of any brand today.

Social media has allowed influencers to have a key role in shaping perceptions, so it is not surprising that authenticity and social purpose are integral to building a successful brand. It’s not uncommon for influencers to refuse to work with brands that don’t have a clear social purpose. Take Klarna, a company that offers consumers ‘buy now pay later’ services for example. Influencer @SincerleyOghasa gained national attention when she decided not to continue promoting the company because their product often led to people ending up in-debt. She realised that working with Klarna could have tarnished her personal brand authenticity. Decisions like this one are becoming increasingly common, making social purpose a necessity for a brand, rather than a nice to have.

What can we learn from this? Authenticity can grab national headlines, can turn a bad story into positive one and plays an important role in long term brand loyalty. It allows a company to stand out, builds up trust and empathy with customers, and encourages long term brand loyalty. Being a part of the conversation, being clear about what your brand stands for, taking a stand on social issues and applying these values at every level of your company is what it takes to stay relevant and make your brand work for the social media empowered consumers of today.

Authenticity and credibility are at the core of building a strong brand identity. Ensuring the external image you present of your company matches the internal reality is the key to shaping perceptions and ultimately building brand loyalty. Looking forward, many consumer brands would do well to learn the lessons from Unilever and Ben and Jerry’s mistakes. Companies that don’t practice what they preach should expect more of these damaging headlines, as post-COVID customers will have little or no tolerance for brands they think are not walking the talk.