Brands Need To Be Good Guys

Can brands back away from engaging in dialog about the social and political issues of the day? Should they? In this article, David Pring-Mill suggested that the stakes might be just too high for smaller businesses experiencing limited ROI, in any case, from social media exposure.

In Boston this month, at two conferences — Hypergrowth and Inbound — I witnessed a quite different trend: marketing and sales professionals eager to hear ways to put the human touch back into what they do. And that means nothing less than dealing with feelings, with diversity, and with a lot of topics which once went on the back-burner when business was being discussed. Drift’s Hypergrowth was more like a motivational speaker convention than a standard marketing conference: Olympian Aly Raisman; former Navy Seal Jock Willink (“Dominate Your Battlefield”); boxer George Foreman III (“Everybody Fight”); Paul English of Lola (“Leading from the Heart”). Okay, it wasn’t all inspirational.

But it was one afternoon during Inbound, sitting in the audience listening to Mo Gawdat talk, not about his work for Google X, but about happiness, and his book Solve for Happy, that it dawned on me that a change is really underway. Brand voice is less about being transactional, more about feeling good.

“I think we’ve seen a sea-change in the market,” agreed Kevin Cochrane of SAP Customer Experience when we stopped to chat at Inbound. “We call it the third wave, and the catalyst for it was the consumer backlash when they realized that in this world of ever present data and machine learning that things were getting really creepy. Cambridge Analytica taught us that what we thought was super-private was actually building a massive psychographic profile. This was being sold so that, surreptitiously, ads would appear that were slowly changing our opinions about things. We were being psychologically manipulated.”

That did result, as Pring-Mill discussed, in a resurgent trend of consumers abandoning social media. Equally important, for Cochrane, is a trend towards reducing engagement with brands. “From a brand perspective, we want to have relationships with brands which help us live our life easily and conveniently. There’s this concept of the peak app phenomenon on your mobile phone; regardless of ethnicity, geography, or age, you don’t have more than 28 or 30 apps on your phone.” Which, in turn, relates to: “The maximum number of brand relationships you need in order to live a happy, healthy life.”

In a way, this is self-evident. Nobody wants to engage with every brand trying to attract their attention, even when the messaging is relevant: “I don’t want to be in the loyalty rewards program for seven different airlines,” said Cochrane. “I used to be. I dropped them all except two, my primary and secondary. I travel a lot for work, so an airline is one of the brands I have to be associated with. Same with hotels. With United and Starwood, I want them to recognize me, because I spend so much time boarding their planes or going to their hotels. I want them to know about me, because they’re part of my life.”

Cochrane predicts what he calls “a flight to quality.” Consumers don’t want to share their data with hundreds of companies. “Consumers also want to know that the brands they’re spending their money with are aiding and abetting a better society. There’s an economic incentive for businesses now to do this, because there’s an opportunity to become one of the thirty brands that define a consumer’s lifestyle.” And this increasingly means being associated with a higher and better purpose than just providing material goods and services.

This provides a compelling rationale for brands — especially high profile brands — to come down on the right side of the kinds of issues which once they might have been well-advised to avoid. From Nike to Dick’s Sporting Goods, from Uber to Starbucks; and whether it’s a matter of taking an initiative or repairing damage; brands are increasingly facing up to hard choices. The best of them are finding their voice, and winning praise from customers.

In Cochrane’s terms, this can only help key brands to become one of the thirty in the life of a consumer. But he also adds:”Being good guys is the right thing for so many reasons.”

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