A Better World begins with Better Brands

Leading brands are evolving into postmodern totems for society. Andy Stalman, CEO of TOTEM Branding, discusses how brands can become agents of change towards a better world.

Crises have a way of magnifying the essence of a brand. Excellent brands react, well, excellently in times of crisis, while mediocre brands remain mediocre. This is particularly true in the current health emergency, which has had a collateral impact on all strata of society. However, today, the word “crisis” has broader and increasingly complex dimensions: it is a health crisis, climate crisis, energy crisis, identity crisis, economic crisis, supply crisis, and leadership crisis.

Because of this, brands with a better chance of success are those that understand that we are entering a new phase of leadership, one that is more empathetic, humane, inclusive, and diverse. Those companies that nurture their employees and embrace their overall commitment and purpose are able to build a brand that generates a sense of belonging and pride. This in turn improves the impact the company has on society, and the brand thus evolves into a postmodern totem that signifies a particular quality or concept.

Some of the world’s most valuable assets are brands. They are an intangible combination of expectations, certainties, and promises that we associate with a product, an organization, a person, or even an entire country. For example, brands such as Patagonia and Lego, countries like Costa Rica, and individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo are each in their own way providing a differentiated value proposition and taking care to connect genuinely and make an impact on both a local and global level.

According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, the majority of the world’s population (52%) has more faith in companies than in governments when it comes to building a better world. So, if we can create better brands, we will have better companies that can make a more positive impact on the world. To put it simply, a better world begins with better brands. This means that brands – and the companies behind them – now have a unique opportunity to become something more than simply in the business of selling products and services. The end goal extends beyond the bottom line.

Tribes form around brands that not only have a clear purpose but take action towards real impact.

This has become particularly relevant as we approach the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. The good news is that, regardless of size, there is opportunity for every company to create a brand that can become a totem with the power of impacting the world for the better. To accomplish this, there are five cross-cutting cornerstones that companies must focus on for their brands before, during, and after the current crisis: consistency, honesty, authenticity, commitment, and trust.

Of course, there are many different types of companies and brands. The same advice cannot be applied to a toilet paper brand as to an airline. However, what works across the board is putting oneself in other people’s shoes (employees, customers, consumers, citizens) and working to become more sensitive, empathetic, and emotionally accessible. These days, consumers expect brands to be more engaged in improving society and the environment. Companies must actually be committed, not just talk about commitment.

Tribes form around brands that not only have a clear purpose but take action towards real impact. Today, tribes are made up of customers, employees, and citizens who strongly identify with a particular brand and who share values with that brand. These tribes don’t just follow their favorite brands, they do not simply buy the products; they are champions of that brand and it becomes a part of their own identity and daily life. This is when the brand becomes a totem, something that we gather around to experience, share, recommend, learn from, and rely on to defend a cause, our cause. This is why it is so important for brands to be consistent with their beliefs and how they interact with the rest of the world. Otherwise, when a brand’s actions do not match their stated values, cognitive dissonance occurs, trust is lost and the tribe disperses.

While the concept of branding is nothing new (in fact, it goes way, way back), it was not until the end of the 20th century that large companies truly began to focus more on the brand than on the product. By concentrating on customers’ needs rather than the stock they wanted to sell them, products were transformed into services, services into stories, and stories into community. This leads us to today, to an era in which businesses cannot be understood apart from their brands – and success (or failure) is contingent on proper brand management.

This management is intensified thanks to voracious consumer demands, the endless flow of virtual information available to them, and the breakneck changes occurring in nearly every industry. The most disruptive, admired, and beloved brands – the totems – are able to respond to this new reality by embracing their role as agents of change and enlisting their community as brand advocates who fight for their shared cause.

The health crisis has also accelerated the understanding that ESG reporting and management is just as useful and profitable a branding tool – if not more so – than traditional methods, because the environmental, social, and governance criteria enhance the inherent quality of the business and its financials. According to Accenture, sustainable businesses, particularly those that embrace technology, are simply more profitable and thus investors naturally gravitate to companies that have more predictable cash flows and increasingly sustainable business models.

It is undeniable that sustainability influences consumer behavior. For example, a Capgemini report found that 53% of overall consumers and 57% of 18-24 year-olds have switched to lesser-known yet more sustainable brands, and 64% of all sustainable product customers state that making such purchases makes them feel happy. Indeed, customer loyalty increases with a business’s sustainability. In the same survey, more than half of consumers state that they have an emotional connection to products or companies they perceive as sustainable.

Now that we are, hopefully, turning a corner in the crisis, we find ourselves – companies and individuals alike – entering a new era in which we are more mindful. This includes brands, which are themselves undergoing an irreversible process of change and transformation because of the way consumers have embraced the idea of living with purpose and improving their communities and society at large. The brands that understand this and are able to not only reflect but embody the ideas of their most fervent believers will become the totems of today, symbolizing a specific purpose and set of values while (and this is, of course, important for the business) remaining profitable.

In the future, the real wealth of a nation will not be underground; it will not be oil, gas, gold, or lithium. Real wealth lies in the creative minds of a nation’s people and their ability to invent and innovate. The same goes for companies – it is not just the products and services they sell but the vision, and their wealth is not found only in the bottom line but in the creative minds and hearts of the employees and consumers. Brands are potent in today’s modern world because every individual in society is represented by one of them, and in many cases, are defined by the brands they choose.

How can companies create a brand that is so meaningful to someone that they can’t imagine a world without it? A few things for business leaders and brand managers to keep in mind:

  • A brand increases in value over time. It is perhaps the only company asset to do so. Thus, it’s essential to consider the big picture and work to ensure both the short-term survival of the company and the long-term building of the brand.
  • It’s not just about developing an effective marketing strategy, but about implementing that strategy and continuing to invest in ways that perpetuate the brand message.
  • Innovation, creativity, culture, talent, engagement, and branding are not departments or positions. They involve everyone in the company, from the most recent hire to the CEO.
  • It’s important to promote a company-wide standard of commitment, responsibility, empathy, and agility. Also generosity. No company has ever become poor by giving and these attributes create the loyalty and a sense of purpose that is essential to any brand.
  • Much of branding is about how other people feel about the company and it is through action – more than words – that a company’s values and purpose become tangible and felt by consumers and citizens.

Yes, how people feel and what they remember about a brand is key in creating one that lasts. We tend to hold those brands close that have given us a gratifying sensory experience, something that goes beyond the satisfaction of making a purchase or enjoying a service. Brands are the five senses. This is why the brands that have invested the most in connecting with the (positive) senses are those that are growing the most.

Brands stopped being visual a long time ago. They have since come to embody our hopes and our dreams. If companies are brave enough to pick up the responsibility, brands can apply the influence that comes from the trust that consumers and citizens have placed in them to help shape a better future for all of us.

 

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