BP raises the issues of perceptions of brand responsibility

The cataclysmic environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico have stimulated much discussion and I don’t wish to add to that noise. What it does flag up however, is the changing perception of responsibility in the west. We have seen the trend in government where there is a perception that Government should somehow solve everybody’s problems. The economic issues that the government is wrestling with now are seen as somebody else’s responsibility and hence somebody else’s problem. So far as politicians are concerned perhaps they can be seen to have brought much of this themselves by suggesting: “Elect me and I will cure all your ills”. This is usually followed with a rush to legislation – followed quickly by public disappointment and anger.

In terms of corporate (and hence ‘brand’) responsibility, the same has become true. The public now have high expectations that companies and brand stewards are totally reponsible for every direct and indirect impact their business dealings have.  Of course, organizations do have corporate responsibilities and over recent decades our expectations have have been raised in areas such as product liability, anti-trust, probity and environmental responsibility.

It is interesting that this abnegation of individual responsibility in favour of ‘them’ or ‘somebody’ seems strongest in western countries. Perhaps this reflects Geert Hofstede’s Individualism index for cultures (individualism v collectivism) where the USA ranks 1, with and index of 91 and UK ranks 3, with 89. Returning briefly to the Gulf disaster, individuals want cheap and plentiful fuel, and the dealing with the issues of carbon emissions, environmental risk and potential disaster are someone else’s responsibility. Governments want security of supply and inexpensive fuel for their people and assume that corporations will take responsibility for everything else.

For brand stewards there are two issues. Firstly they must take their corporate responsibilities seriously – not just statements or rhetoric, but real behaviours. But even having done that they must realise that public expectations of them may be even higher. Often these expectations may be unreasonable, but they are a fact of the world in which we live. It will not help the brand to yell, “Unfair”. We need to prepare our brands to live in an unreasonable world.


Ten Brand New Year resolutions

What kind of a year will 2010 be for brands? Well, 2009 was quite up and down and we seemed to be rocked by events both economical and commercial, so I guess one watchword for 2010 must be to take as much control for the destinies of our brands as we can. So here are my personal thoughts on 10 Brand New Year resolutions – you will have your own I’m sure, so please feel free to share.

  1. Put brand leadership centre stage – put your brand firmly at the heart of your organisations and operations. Add the brand as an item on all meeting agendas – even your board meeting.
  2. Be sustainable – take a look at the Green Brands 2009 report that I mentioned in my last post. Sustainability will become less of a differentiator and more of a critical success factor.
  3. Don’t let operational issues become brand problems – we’ve seen some disasters in the recent past; BA, Eurostar, McClaren etc. But things will go wrong in life – that we let them become a communications disaster should not follow.  Get your ‘spill drill’ in place ready, so you won’t have to go and hide in the ‘No-Comment Hotel’.
  4. Ditch your mission statement – if you still have one. The world is changing, your corporate and brand values are too. Your vision should be shared… values come out of the organisation and are the product of the beliefs your people share, not something imposed from above.
  5. Do a values audit – talk to your people, ask them what they think are the values of your brand – then do the same with customers… it’s amazing, but if you ask people things, sometimes they will just tell you! Then compare them to your own views.
  6. Watch your competitors – not just from an aggressive (or defensive) standpoint, but look what they are doing right – what they do better than you –  admit when they do something very well and learn.
  7. Evaluate your brand – try to put a price on it. There are sophisticated models for brand valuation, if you are big enough you probably use them already – but even if you control a relatively modest brand, take a stab at what it’s worth to you. Perhaps estimate how much you have invested in your brand in advertising, marcomms and brand communications over the years? Or, if a competitor wanted to licence your brand how much would you charge?
  8. Talk to people – social media, love it or hate it, is a powerful force. People will be talking about you and your brand like never before. Get involved in those communications – stimulate and initiate discussions, but above all… listen.
  9. Be ‘arsed’ – it’s the details that make such a difference and say so much about your brand and your attitude to it and to your customers.
  10. Take a day off – when I do training or coaching sessions (usually off-site if I can) one thing clients always find most of value is just getting out of the business for a day and taking the ‘helicopter view’ of their business. So, why not have a ‘brand day’ once a month?

Okay, I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours?

Green Brands for 2010?

The Green Brands 2009 reports shows some interesting, some encouraging and a few worrying thoughts. Though this is a US Brands survey, it was conducted over seven countries. They UK generally fell in line with the US though some of the responses was more aligned with European data (France  and Germany). Worryingly, we have the smallest proportion of consumers expecting to spend more on green products or services.

But for the good news: “This year’s findings in both developed and developing countries reinforce consumers’ desires to be green by using products that are green,” says Russ Meyer, chief strategy officer of Landor Associates. “However, we’re also beginning to see a strong positive correlation between greenness and more traditional brand attributes like honesty and trustworthiness.”

It is fascinating and enlightening to look at the top 10 green brands for each of the seven countries. The most fascinating data is that there is no evidence of globally common green brands and only one or two brands even appear in more than one country’s top list. This poses an interesting question – does it mean that the high ground is there to be won by globally consolidated brands, or is a global green brand an oxymoron? Perhaps globalisation and green values are unhappy bed-fellows… phrases like ‘camel’ and ‘eye of a needle’ spring to mind.

Will people’s personal narratives change in tough times?

I have talked before about brands having narratives that are influential in our choices when we seek to use them to augment our personal narratives – like the 40 year old accountant who buys a Harley as it fits his personal narrative of being something of a rebel and maybe with a slightly ‘dangerous’ side.

But will the current economic climate drive us to change these personal narratives and thus our brand choice?  Will workers in the financial sector re-write their narratives as caring, hard working people and make choices with brands that suggest prudence and parsimony rather than overt opulence?

My only concern is that financial pressures my make us move the chapters on sustainability and eco-friendliness to the back of our narrative, slowing down the movement to brands with a sustainable narrative of their own.

There is more to sustainable brands than just being green

Sustainable brands and sustainable marketing are often seen as synonymous with ecological responsibility and being green. But there are three key pillars to a sustainable strategy; ecology, economy and culture.

The ecological dimension

This is perhaps the best known and best understood dimension, and many brands are already working hard in this area.

The economic dimension

Is the economic and financial model sustainable? What effect will this have on the other two dimensions – will the pricing model unavoidably  lead to offshore manufacture, social exploitation or long distance transportation? How will the brand’s business plan impact upon increasingly globalised markets.

The cultural/social dimension

Brands operate in human societies: everything that happens is an interaction between people and the brand. And those interactions cause impacts and changes on both. We must weigh the effects of the brand upon the societies in which it operates – its employees, suppliers, customers and the world at large.

Consideration of these dimensions is not only socially responsible, but makes sound business sense as it can be seen as a differentiator of corporate social responsibility.

Put aside the green dimension for a moment. Consider the impact of such economic and social actions as sports goods brands manufacturing in third world sweatshops or banks moving call centres emerging economies – then think of the impact that had upon the brands, their values and their reputations.

Is sustainable marketing alive and well in the US?

A while ago I was working on an event for a government body and part of the brief was that it was to be a ‘sustainable event’.  Having been involved in sustainable marketing for some time, I was well aware of the principles and techniques but as I am a keen proponent of making use of specialists, I decided we needed a sustainable events consultant on the team.  I searched the UK in vain for somebody with the right credentials so decided to turn my attention to Europe: surely we would find someone – perhaps in the green focused Scandinavian markets?

No, surprisingly the richest source of specialists was the US. Given their attitude to ecology and global warming this bemused me. Looking closely I saw that I was confusing national government issues with those of local activists. At state and city level, authorities are keenly aware of the need for sustainable dimensions. This has stimulated a vigorous sector of specialists and even spawned professional bodies.

Sometimes our generalisations blind us to the specific cases.  I feel suitably chastened and heartened and I will look more closely at individual, sustainable leadership from the US (sorry Mr Gore).

I’m pleased to say that now, just a few months after my original search, there is a lot of help available from UK sources in mounting sustainable events in the UK. There is even a government site providing help and guidance.

Green Brands – Green Values

As I was standing at the supermarket checkout with my fistful of use again carrier bags I was considering how green values have permeated our culture and how brands have followed them.

I hear a lot of cynicism, much of it justified, about companies artificially promoting their green credentials, and mounting specious eco-chumly initiatives.  But lets unpick this for a moment… brands are owned by the greater public, so their relationship with greener brands will be a reflection of their own eco-friendly values. As we respond to green values so they will be promoted.

Most brands embody green credentials I believe, and promote them to a greater or lesser degree. It’s just that we view some brands with more scepticism than others. So why do I feel cynical towards Tesco as I recycle my carrier bags and collect my Green Points? I guess they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to adopting sustainable policies.

So I would urge brand stewards to be resolute: adopt sustainanble policies for the RIGHT reasons; be sincere; ignore the cynics. Ultimately I believe honest values will come through and can only be good for the planet and your brand.

Green credentials as brand values

With global warming, sustainability and ecology high on the world agendas, it’s little wonder that green credentials are increasingly becoming a feature of organisations’ brand values.  I was delivering a training course just last week and as part of the session I was getting the delegates to clarify their corporate proposations. Out of eight companies, six included a ‘green’ dimension in their explanation.

While it really heartened me to find this close to the top of the agendas of at least these medium sized companies, it led me to question whether environmental responsibility can be considered a differentiator any more?  Increasingly (and thankfully) it may now be becoming a critical success factor – something every business must get right.