“And they may only win some creative award for trying," says Ahmad Abu Zannad, Regional Strategy Director at Leo Burnett MEA.
As we are going through the Covid-19 pandemic, we see brands tempted to play a more impactful role. Yet, at times, audiences are suspicious about the intentions behind these actions. For instance, when an airline sent a note to a customer telling him “We’re in this together,” his response was a reminder of the time they overcharged him for extra luggage. That customer’s cynical reaction was due to his knowledge that the airline brand is not doing this good deed for the sake of being good. He realizes that regardless of how human the brand is acting, there is no way it is doing this so that one day, it goes to heaven. Which begs the question: How can a brand do good deeds without getting that cynical reaction? Well, it starts by acknowledging that your brand is indeed never going to heaven. So, it shouldn’t be doing good for the sake of it, but rather for another good reason. Let’s start where all this began.
It started with an 1886 case in front of the US Supreme Court, where a statement by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite led to corporations becoming legally considered as “persons,” having the same rights as human beings. The major consequence of which is the unfortunate reality that, even if these corporations are treated as persons legally, they are still never going to hell – meaning that they can conduct their business with a clear conscious as far as they are legally covered.
Now, even though they are legally protected as “persons,” corporations can only succeed if they manage to get customers (who do not know anything about them) to somehow trust them and pay the full price for what they have on offer. And this can only been achieved by, once again, convincing audiences to see and connect with them as persons, this time not from a legal perspective but from a connection one. This personification of the corporation allows it to build a deeper human connection with people. That personification is what we call “The Brand.”
With time audiences became more empowered, which gave rise to the entitled consumer with a growing set of expectations from brands. Consumers started expecting these brands to go beyond introducing products and transactional relationships and take on an active, meaningful role in their lives. In comes the Brand Purpose. For brands to thrive in today’s increasingly busy world, with preoccupied consumers impulsively choosing to opt-out of their relationships with them, they need to justify their existence in people’s lives. A brand purpose is built on a specific point of view about the world we live in. It has beliefs, attitudes and, most importantly, a mission. It identifies a real source of tension affecting people’s behavior and is committed to resolving it. Research from Accenture Strategy shows that 63% of modern consumers prefer to do business with brands that share their personal values and beliefs.
However, this relatively recent concept about brand building has also been immensely misunderstood. We see businesses and scholars confusing it with the idea of brands being selfless and charitable with their communities. First and foremost, a brand purpose is set to help the business by helping its communities and its audiences. Brands need to realize the difference between CSR activities and/or brand building activities and charity. CSR and brand building should always make business sense. As per Michal Porter’s framework on “CSR as Strategy,” they should be within the intersection of the inside-out (how the business is affecting the society and/or people) and the outside-in (how the society/people are affecting the business). It should be a win-win situation for all parties – good for business, good for the community, and good for people. So, hypothetically speaking, if you are a telecom operator in a country with an agenda to nationalize the workforce (the outside-in) and your brand purpose is about helping people realize their dreams (the inside-out), then it only makes sense that your brand building activities be around upskilling the local workforce, helping them work from home, incubating them and/or offering them platforms to connect with other professionals, regardless of how tempting it may be to initiate an effort to help people lose weight while they are under quarantine and how many awards such an act may help you win.
If we go back to the pandemic that we are unfortunately going through, we first realize that not every business model is a natural fit to directly support people. Some businesses may not be able to directly help through their operations. However, they may still be able to do something if they clearly understand their purpose, their values, and how they can authentically be helpful. Of course, one cannot mention the topic of purpose without mentioning the top purposeful brands: Apple’s purpose has always been around creativity, which is why they showed how “creativity goes on” during this pandemic. Nike is about unleashing the athlete in you and they activated this through their messaging. Ikea’s purpose is around a better everyday life and has therefore been helping people reconnect with their homes.
Again, brands do not go to heaven. They help uninformed consumers see the human side of a business and help the business build a human relationship with its consumers.
My point is not to preach against brands doing good deeds. It is to preach for brands to stay true to their essence and purposefully cater to the needs of their audiences. In the same manner that CSR needs to make sense from an ROI perspective, brand building activities need to make sense from an equity building perspective. A brand’s human purpose and the initiatives to bring it to life are a long-term commitment that needs to be sustainable in order to lead to actual positive change. It can neither be a gimmick for the brand to pretentiously be part of a conversation popular at a given moment; nor a chance for the brand to win some creative award. If an executive is tempted to help a human cause that happens to be irrelevant to the brand’s human purpose, well, spending shareholders’ money on it will neither help the executive go to heaven, nor help the business grow. And since brands do not go to heaven, it is not helping the brand. Yes, it is tempting for brands to do something during these times. Yet, spending money haphazardly is not the solution. There is always a way for that act to be good for people, the community, and the business/brand.
Opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.