While Americans have spent the summer seeking new remedies for their financial ailments, attending noisy town-hall meetings on health-care reform and trying to find something to occupy their time besides the travails of Jon and Kate, it was pleasing to read that these issues have not had a completely negative effect on what the rest of the planet thinks of us.
This was made known in a recent New York Times op-ed in which the author noted that, over the last several months, the United States' brand has been seen more positively in the eyes of the world. This bit of news was reassuring to me and got me thinking about how the very idea of "good brand, bad brand" has taken on new meaning in this age of renewed thriftiness, environmental consciousness, corporate responsibility (or, flagrant lack thereof) and, most of all, consumer vigilantism arising from our all-digital-all-the-time marketplace.
While the terms "good brand" or "bad brand" used to denote whether a consumer liked or disliked a product or service, today these phrases also imply how much people like, trust and respect the companies behind a product or service. As Mark Addicks, senior VP-chief marketing officer of General Mills said in a recent article, "The next frontier of brand identity is how brands are going to continue to grow in the world of consumer engagement. Many younger people expect that the brands they identify with and talk about must have some sort of cause, or social profile."
I'd like to take this premise a bit further. First of all, in addition to the fact that these "younger people" are going to get older, the older people I know adhere to the same ideology. Second, I believe that consumers in general want a better world, and they'll become increasingly motivated to choose brands that improve lives beyond their own. I'm not referring to brands whose corporate overseers see social responsibility as a tangential, philanthropic exercise -- although this helps in its own way. I'm talking about companies that have made a strategic commitment to make "goodness" part of their brand's equity. They link responsible brand citizenry into what the brand essentially represents to consumers.
I received a round of support for this idea in a conversation I had recently with Marc Pritchard, global marketing officer and global brand-building officer for Procter & Gamble. "People are definitely embracing brands that are purpose-inspired and benefit-driven," he told me. "As such, over the course of the last few years ... we've looked at how to make the social benefit of a brand congruent with its core equity."
By way of example, Marc told me about the Pampers UNICEF Program, which focuses on eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus in developing countries. "The benefits of the Pampers product are fitness, dryness, comfort," Marc said. "This makes for happier, healthier babies. It makes their lives better, and it makes moms' lives better. With our Pampers UNICEF Program, for every package of Pampers a parent buys, P&G will donate the cost of one tetanus vaccine to save the life of a child. What's important to take away from this is that we aligned the core benefit of the brand -- healthy babies -- with the societal benefit of the program. If you can't tie the benefit of your actions to the essential DNA of the brand, it doesn't help your revenue or the brand's equity with the consumer."
Marc's last point is vital to success. If consumers don't get the intrinsic link between brand benefit and social purpose, they won't buy it, literally or figuratively. To be believable and sustainable, your efforts must be fundamental to both the brand promise and the business strategy. They must be built into the brand's identity and part of a long-term business model. To say they must also give your brand a competitive advantage is a given.
Case in point, take Subway. There are very few consumers who don't associate this brand with healthier eating. The company's healthy bottom line reflects this fact. Health is fundamental to what this brand stands for in the minds of consumers. It's not perceived as a separate endeavor. Similarly, the Timberland brand of outdoor clothing designs its products for recyclability and provides a work environment that is fair and safe. "What does it mean to 'make it better?'" is not just a statement of cause-related marketing, but Timberland's well-known operating strategy, making it one of the leading brands in the category.
Consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions based on how good a brand is relative to its impact on society, because they see it as an opportunity to have a positive impact on the world, even if only in small ways. And the transparency of digital technology makes it easy for them to see which brands are doing the best job at being socially responsible.
In turn, companies are becoming increasingly mindful of the fact that being good brand citizens helps them further differentiate their offerings on a meaningful dimension. As such, they understand the need to combine a product's benefit with its purpose-inspired intent. They know that to be successful they must approach these initiatives strategically and deliberately. As for whether the United States will continue to be seen as a good brand in the eyes of the world, I have limited influence. Now, if the brands we produce have anything to do with it, that's a different story.