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Loyalty Isn’t Earned from the Sidelines

Loyalty Isn’t Earned from the Sidelines

Chris Foster

President, North America

BCW (Burson, Cohn & Wolfe)

Chris.Foster@bcw-global.com

The last five years have seen a rapid change in the role US consumers expect brands to play in our society. They see the state of our current political and social environment and expect all sectors of our society to take action. They expect business leaders to shape and drive solutions for the problems that are plaguing society, including everything from literacy and sustainability to human rights, immigration, trade relations, gun control, and gender pay equity. They even insist that companies intertwine shared values and social action with their products and services, expecting significantly more from brands than ever before in exchange for their loyalty.

The investment is worth it:

  • 52 percent of customers said that knowing a brand shares their values and stands for something beyond profits is a key reason they would buy from one brand over another.
  • 62 percent of consumers want companies to stand up for the issues they are passionate about.
  • Nearly 70 percent of consumers actively consider company values when making a purchase.

Failing to meet these expectations can be costly. Since the end of 2016, the public has dragged major tech industry giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube into the spotlight over perceived failures to use their platforms to protect democracy and promote social good.

Cosmetic brands Tarte and BeautyBlender faced backlash for releasing product lines that failed to reflect diverse skin tones. Companies from every industry have felt the wrath of public opinion over their carbon footprints. When 21 percent of consumers are willing to permanently walk away from a brand based on conflicting beliefs, that can have a major impact on the bottom line.

Companies can no longer treat corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environment, social, and governance (ESG) as separate entities from their business strategies. Brands that stand on the sidelines risk public rebukes and negative impacts on their profits. But those willing to actively invest in making social issues a part of their corporate story have an opportunity to win the long-term loyalty of today’s consumers for years to come.  

How can brands make this shift?

Take a stand on issues authentic to your brand and expertise

Today’s consumers are looking for brands that are willing to lead on big issues. Leadership requires more than a one-off press release or donation—it requires expertise, a sustained focus, and a strategy to meaningfully address the issue.  

 

Tackling issues that leverage your existing products and expertise is a good way to make a meaningful impact—and remember, an issue doesn’t have to be controversial for your work to be meaningful.

Let’s use Microsoft—BrandZ’s 4th most valuable brand in the world—as an example. For decades, the company has invested millions of dollars to address issues like cybersecurity, education, and software and service access for nonprofits and developing communities—and its expertise has made a measurable, meaningful impact.  In the past few years, Microsoft has also taken a public stand on the immigration debate, one of the most contentious issues in our society. The brand has drawn on its experience as a major employer of immigrants to advocate for reforms and offer legal aid and guidance to its employees.

Whatever issue you choose, make sure it is consistent with the heart of your brand and business—and can integrate across your business functions. In an age where information is easily accessible, if your internal culture, supply chain, or public affairs contradict your values, your customers will know.

Consider your employees

So, you’ve established your values and taken a stand now what? Your employees can be your biggest advocates, but also your biggest detractors. Be open and honest with them, and ready to explain why and how this issue fits with the company’s future goals. Not every single one of your employees will be on board with your decisions. However, providing an outlet to engage and even disagree with the C-suite sets a tone of respect that can help win over doubters or limit the number of detractors.  

In a contentious and divided political and social environment, it can be easy for businesses to want to remain silent and stay on the sidelines. While this might seem like the safest option in the short term, it forfeits the long-term benefits of winning the customer loyalty of today’s consumers. Smart brands that want to set themselves up for future success should use their existing expertise and investments to develop real, meaningful solutions to the problems in our society.