Making your brand stand for something, not everything

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Stage at Web Summit

Branding experts from all over the world gathered at Web Summit 2021 to discuss what a business’ brand values mean – and what they shouldn’t.

In the past it was enough for brands to say ‘no comment’ when major social and political events unfolded. But today’s brands need to be so much more; their customers demand it.

New data from Sprout Social showed that 70 percent of consumers believe it’s crucial for brands to take a public stand on issues in society. Jacob Benbunan, founder of Saffron Brand Consultants, noted that a brand is “always meant to be about purpose, standing for something.”

But with so much going on in the modern world, is it possible – or advisable – for brands to tie their colours to the mast with every new social trend or emerging news story?

Treading the line with your brand values

Virtue signalling. Woke washing. These are just some of the accusations leveled against the world’s biggest brands in recent years as companies try to build a connection with a more socially and environmentally conscious audience.

Andreas Markdalen, global chief creative officer at Frog Design, noted that there is an intuition involved in associating your brand with the big issues of the day, “it’s not about being reactive in the moment… it’s about building empathy with your customer base.”

Drum’s CEO Luke Southern picked up on this, using the Black Lives Matter protests to demonstrate how an ill-timed or inauthentic response to an event can be even more damaging than no response at all, “Last year [during the Black Lives Matter movement] many brands jumped on the bandwagon. I’m not saying all of it was inauthentic, but some of it did feel it.”

There is an ideal medium associated with supporting causes, with that point different for every business and dependent on industry goings-on and your brand values. If you have a sports brand, for example, wellness and community may be key to your brand presence, and so commenting on issues related to these values is important. That would make it unwise to have your say on an oil spill or environmental disaster as this is unconnected to what you stand for.

Jacob noted that silence on certain social or political issues is completely acceptable for businesses as long as it remains true to a brand’s raison d’etre, “truth and transparency is the most important thing that you can have as a brand.”

Catherine Keogh speaking at Web Summit 2021Catherine Keogh, Kerry Group’s chief corporate affairs and brand officer. Image: Sam Barnes/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Catherine Keogh, chief corporate affairs and brand officer of Kerry Group, also noted “it’s important to listen” when it comes to knowing whether to respond to a news story or not as an in-depth understanding of what your customer base is looking for will inform your decision.

Sticking to your beliefs in times of strife

Within this discussion of finding your specific brand standpoint comes the question of adapting your brand. Do you need to change your brand in response to changing social or political times?

“Your brand only changes when your identity and purpose are no longer relevant,” said Jacob. Surprising advice, perhaps, when you consider the PR issues that have plagued organisations in the past. However, the panel at Web Summit determined that brand is nurtured over time, and to change it frequently is to undermine its values.

Jacob Benbunan at Web SummitJacob Benbunan, founder of Saffron Brand Consultants, at Web Summit 2017. Image: Sam Barnes/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

A prominent case study discussed was the Exxon oil spill of 1989. 11 million gallons of crude oil covered 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of animals. The PR backlash was massive, and while Exxon apologised, the brand didn’t change in the following years despite their association with the spill lingering on.

Andreas noted that while oil companies are now trying to diversify their business model to include a range of energy resources, this isn’t coming at the expense of the work they have put into building their brand to date, for better PR or for worse.

“If they [oil companies] are able to continuously reiterate and redefine their own purpose… then the brand equity that already exists might still be useful when entering a new space.”

The panel also noted the example of the Germanwings crash in 2015. While an awful incident, parent company Lufthansa didn’t shy away from acknowledging it, or try to rebrand Germanwings to rid themselves of the tragedy. They stuck it out and leveraged the best of their company values to build empathy and understanding with their customers.

And so brand isn’t about being all things to all people. It’s about authenticity, believing in your values and embodying them at all times. Or, as Luke put it, “it’s not just about going about your daily business; it’s about leaving something tangible behind for your consumers.”

Main image: Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

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