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GLOBAL 2016: Behavior is key to building high value, profitable, distinctive brands

Actions speak louder than core values

by James Whatley
Digital Director
Ogilvy & Mather
In today’s more ever-connected world, creating and upholding a core brand identity is paramount to maintaining value, profitability, and longevity.
The 30-slide deck of brand guidelines is no longer the be all and end all. Over the past few years, the landscape of how brands live and breathe in culture has changed. With the advent of globally accessible online conversations, the idea of brand “ownership” has shifted. It is no longer in the hands of the traditional owners (the businesses behind them); instead it finds itself under the stewardship of the consumer - where it will remain for some time,
To quote Marc Shillum, author of “Brands as Patterns” – “We all know that brands are increasingly accessed digitally, but a less considered consequence is that the interface through which a brand is accessed has become a primary identity element. This requires that a brand’s ‘identity’ should not only be defined statically or dynamically, but also iteratively through successive release and behaviorally through interactions.
“Through this iterative interaction, the brand becomes a constantly shifting relationship between the company and its customers. Through the interface the customer assumes the right to some control, ownership, and authorship of the brand…”
Platforms reveal behavior
As consumers, both old and young, have flocked to social media platforms, brands have followed suit. “Fish where the fish are” – so they say. However what perhaps only the smartest brands worked out from the start was that these platforms would reveal more about day-to-day business behaviors (everything from marketing and advertising through to customer service interactions) than had ever been seen before. Whether they liked it or not.  
Consumers demanded transparency. Brands responded, mostly. And the rise – and current trend – of authenticity was upon us.
Look around. You see it everywhere.
Now, as a result, consumers expect brands to behave a certain way. If they don’t, those very same consumers not only vote with their wallets, but also their Twitter accounts.
And this is where brand distinction is today.
Before, a brand could say it has “core values” and then, if it so wished, obfuscate whether or not it actually delivered against them. Today, such a feat is virtually impossible. What a brand does is as important, if not more important, as what it says; actions speak louder than words.
Even the most valuable and respected brands can struggle to get it right.
Getting it right eventually
In 2013, in the UK, Amazon, Google, and Starbucks were revealed to be among many global brands that successfully limited corporation tax on UK sales.
However, it was Starbucks, with its near high street omnipresence and its commitment to being a “part of the community,’’ that took most of the flack. When your barista knows your name, it’s hard not to take it personally when you believe their employer has a better deal than you do. Consumers switched. Baristas rebelled (one UK location was reported to have a sign stating “Please do not abuse our staff, it’s not their fault,” mounted in the store window).
The global behavior of the Starbucks brand had a direct effect on the local interpretation of its core brand values.
Under consumer pressure, all three brands named above reviewed their UK tax policies. Fast forward to 2015 and Starbucks reportedly paid more corporation tax than it had in the 14 years previous combined; an incredible turnaround.
Getting it right the first time
Perhaps a better story can be told if we take a look at budget supermarket brand, Lidl.
Traditionally seen as a low-price supermarket solution, its communications and use of authentic storytelling, has had a transformational effect on its business. Recently, via its advertising, Lidl has handed over its brand voice to its own consumers. “#LidlSurprises,” as the campaign is known, features customers expressing their surprise at the quality of the supermarket’s own products. Sticking to its brand values of “high quality” and “low price,” Lidl is successfully taking on the traditional “big guns” and winning.
So far, so on trend. But what about how the brand behaves elsewhere?
In July 2015, the government announced its plans for a National Living Wage to be implemented by April 2016. 
A full six months before that deadline, Lidl raised the minimum wage of its staff above that of the government recommendation.
By supporting those who perhaps have no choice but to shop at the low-price supermarket, Lidl demonstrated its ‘we care’ commitment that consumers had come to expect, to the people that matter most – its staff.
Building distinctive brands
Brand behavior builds distinctive brands - nothing more, nothing less.
From Mark Zuckerberg using his opening keynote at the 2016 F8 Facebook developer conference to call out his “Build bridges, not walls” philosophy (a clear remark of disagreement to comments made in the political landscape at that time); to Apple’s recent privacy battle with the FBI over unlocking a potential terrorist’s iPhone – brand values must be clear in actions, not just words.
The way a brand behaves is the most important underlying factor in creating and building ongoing brand strength, value, and ultimately, long-term profitability.
Consumers can and will call out poor brand behavior when they see it. They have the means, the tools, and the power of a united voice.
Defy consumer expectation and you’ll lose their trust in an instant.  Lose their trust, and you risk losing your consumer forever.