When it comes to branding, social issues make a lasting impression.
What makes a brand a brand? How is it that we’ve all become so savvy at recognizing a Nike, Levis, Apple ad minutes before the commercial spot finishes? Brand strategy was the first topic of discussion in our Digital Marketing class, and it turns out that most of us are more expert on the subject of branding than we realize.
An expression of a company’s values, reputation, a consistent experience, social class, a lifestyle, a promise, were our class’s response to the question, “what makes a brand”. Developing a strong brand means that your product will stand above the rest of the competition and perhaps keep the price point in a crowded market with similar products. What’s the image of someone who chooses Coca Cola over Pepsi? If you prefer Coke to Pepsi, perhaps you’re someone who’s choosing “the real thing”, the original recipe, as opposed to Pepsi, which just isn’t the original soda drink experience.
The most striking discussion came in our analysis of instances where brands did something unexpected and veered from their reputations. For almost all the brands we examined, corporate social responsibility issues were given as the primary examples of when brands went off course from their promise to customers.
For instance, Nike’s numerous philanthropic partnerships such as The Girl Effect were mentioned alongside child labour issues; a question which is still attached to the brand’s reputation. Another example raised was Starbuck’s recent attempt at starting conversations about race relations, #racetogether. While it was considered a well-intentioned effort, as the campaign played out in the public, the initiative ultimately became an awkward strategy to address important societal concerns.
A couple of observations come from this discussion about brands. First, with more brands launching philanthropic programs or campaigns that use ideas from 1960’s counter-culture (think Apple), it’s clear that market researchers understand that the public is yearning for a different way of doing things. If a brand’s reputation remains associated with child labour, environmental degradation, violations against workers, it’s because the public does believe in children’s rights and the rights of workers.
Second, it shows that the public is yearning for ideas and leadership that will transform how our societies function, how business is conducted, how products are made and how we treat workers. No matter where we work, whether in the private sector with big brands, or those of us in Non-Profits or social enterprises, we should take heart and take heed: the environment, workers’ rights, diversity and equality remain crucial concerns for the public, and all of us are looking for bold, transformative ideas. We’re all still looking for, “the real thing”.
– Grace Wu