The refrain’s all too familiar. We live in a time of radical transparency and thanks to the rise of social media, brands are now co-owned. Look no further than the recent twitstorms engulfing Kenneth Cole (spring collection causes Cairo uprising?), Bank of America ($5 monthly debit fee, anyone?) and Netflix (Nutqwakflikster?). It’s only going to get more challenging as technologies empower consumers to "purchase with a purpose" and the paradigm shift becomes more pronounced.
Legacy brands—namely large, multinational companies obsessed with protecting market share and corporate reputation—will have a tough time navigating the age of co-creativity unless they borrow a few lessons from their more authentic peers who are less risk averse and more confident asserting their values. Based on our experience with pioneering brands like Clif Bar, Seventh Generation and Earthbound Farm, here are seven universal truths for ensuring brand relevance today.
Consumers don’t expect brands to be perfect; they just want brands to be honest, and they value relationships beyond mere transactions. Patagonia’s ongoing Buy Less campaign boldly encourages putting the brakes on mass consumption levels. To provide an alternative, the company has teamed with eBay and Common Threads to make it easy for consumers to buy and sell used Patagonia apparel. Sure, it sounds counterintuitive; but it’s actually a brilliant long-term strategy aimed at the brand’s core audience: shoppers who are concerned about the environment, and hate feeling they’re being "marketed to" 24 hours a day.
As branders, we’re always keen to know what "one word" we’re owning in the minds of our audiences (like Volvo owns "safety"). But winning brands move beyond clear attributes and safely fence-lined CSR initiatives to bring a real point of view. Who are you? What drives you? What do you stand for? Why should I care? The Body Shop has done this exceptionally well for more than three decades, with crystal-clear stances on progressive yet tricky causes from animal testing to sex trafficking. Chevron, however, has rightly been criticized for its bland "We Agree" campaign that can’t seem to close a real authenticity gap.
Stick-on cause marketing is so 2009. Leading companies are working to embody the cause. Take Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker or Chipotle, whose Food With Integrity platform touches every aspect of its operations, from its workforce and sourcing (including investing in naturally raised pig farming co-ops) to provocative marketing pushes like its "Back to the Start" video. The old maxim is true: actions speaker louder than words.
Once you know where you stand and how you want to show up, it’s easy to go beyond cheerleading for social change through likes and tweets, and to instead start your own movement and create ways for like-minded consumers to join in. In the same vein as Dove’s "Campaign for Real Beauty" or Jamie Oliver’s "Food Revolution," KEEN Footwear is taking on the sedentary with its Recess Revolution campaign, which uses communications tools and social-media platforms to encourage people to go outside and play together.
Consumers may need stuff, but what they really want is to connect: to each other and to the brands that are part of their lives. The forward-thinking folks at New Belgium Brewing Company know this, and they prove it by building a sense of community and way-of-life mentality into everything they do. Their beloved Tour de Fat festival, for example, travels the country each year, encouraging people to trade in pollutant-spewing cars for bicycles, and making the experience fun and interactive with in-person events and social-media contests.
True co-creativity is no gimmick; it’s a powerful approach that holds space for innovating with consumers around a shared sense of purpose. To wit: Zipcar’s highly successful One Crazy Day campaign was created entirely by the company’s users, who got together on Facebook to brainstorm more than 1,000 ideas for tasks to be completed by a popular comedian in one day using a Zipcar.
It’s easy to give lip-service to your "most valuable asset." But it’s hard to engage them in helping your organization truly own these universal principles. Several of the most admired workplaces point the way. Google’s now-famous "Do No Evil" motto originated with employees themselves, and it’s manifested internally with policies like free on-site medical care and an 80/20 culture that dedicates 20% of each employee’s time for a project of their choosing. Beyond payoffs like increased productivity and lower turnover, Google’s employee engagement programs have garnered glowing praise from traditional and social-media outlets alike.
You don’t have to be a classic "socially good" brand to successfully deliver on these seven truths. But you can learn a lot from companies that have been built on a foundation of transparency, collaboration and larger social good. All brands can learn a thing (or seven) from the Patagonias of the world—and maybe even make the world a better place through better brand embodiment.