It used to be said that we lived in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. More recently, a level of additional confusion has been introduced by fake news and the role of social media in proliferating untruths. Beset by anxiety and deep scepticism, people are taking shelter within groups or communities that seem to reflect their own values. Corporate scandals have also taken their toll on the reputations of some of the biggest names, both overseas (think Volkswagen and Dieselgate) as well as in India (think of the troubles besetting brands like Jet Airways and YES Bank). Building trust in such an environment can be extremely challenging for a brand. What can be done?
It all starts with having a clear sense of who you are and what you stand for. The mission and values must be understood and reinforced across the entire organization. Employees, in particular, are the best brand ambassadors for any organization, and if they are not fully aligned, a lack of coherence gets detected that puts off many outside stakeholders. This is visible with many failing service-oriented organizations in the public sector, such as Air India and BSNL.
The tone at the top and how an organization walks the talk will be under close scrutiny. On important Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) questions, like climate change, business leaders will be expected to demonstrate genuine commitment. Platitudes and glossy reports will be rejected as “greenwashing” if concrete actions like cutting carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency do not accompany such communications. In a world where internet access is ubiquitous and stakeholders are extremely aware and informed, companies that make exaggerated claims of performance will get called out very fast with an associated loss of reputation.
If the mission and values can be established and fed into brand communication, it will enjoy a measure of authenticity. To the extent that these values resonate with those of the brand’s stakeholders including customers, the brand gains traction. Increasingly for customers, it is not just about what they buy, but what they buy into; if the brand values are believable, customers are willing to commit their loyalty. This is the reason that purpose-driven brands like Patagonia and The Body Shop have large fan followings.
Just as important as it is to establish what a brand stands for, there will also be times when a brand has to clarify what it does not stand for. Brand managers will be tested on the choices they make on issues like gender equality, immigration and LGBT rights – as were many US brands when they took a stand on the issue of racism in the aftermath of right-wing protests at Charlottesville, to the extent of even defying President Trump. Brand strategy will be about making such choices, and even though it may entail the loss of some audiences, ultimately brands will only be able to build trust if they remain true to their values.
This post was originally published in Economic Times dated March 28, 2020