Customers are increasingly expecting more from brands. Many consumers expect far more from companies than for them to increase profits. They expect organizations to “do good” in society.
A former executive director of strategy and planning and head of consulting at Interbrand, Anne Bahr Thompson, founded Onesixtyfourth, a strategic and creative consultancy, to help leaders integrate social responsibility into their brands, business strategy, and corporate culture. Her passion for challenging organizations to a more collaborative way of thinking grabbed my attention. And her new book, Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit, is not only a call to action but a blueprint to help leaders move from a Me-to-We mentality of service.
I recently spoke with Anne about her work.
What explains this incredible shift from a profits-only focus to one where we expect brands to “Do Good”?
There are a number of things underlying this shift. Overall, profound changes in technology, politics, the global economy, and the rise of social media have reshaped the landscape for business. The wired, digital world in which brands now operate has impacted the traditional pact between companies and their customers, employees, and stakeholders. As people’s expectations for their relationships with brands have shifted, businesses are finding that their success is tied to their ability to demonstrate that they are committed to doing good, helping to solve people’s bigger social and environmental concerns.
More specifically, five factors have been at play:
- On the most basic level, greater consciousness of people across the globe and social media demand that we pay attention to inequities we’ve previously been able to ignore. And, most people now acknowledge the planet does not have unlimited resources.
- Further, technology has reshaped our cultural narrative. The ability to cut and paste things together has trained us that we no longer need to choose between opposites. What follows is that the notions of making a profit while simultaneously doing good no longer seem at odds with one another.
- As many people have discussed, the power of social media and the impact of stories and images going viral have forced businesses to listen and respond in ways that are unprecedented for many of them.
- People are frustrated with partisan politics. Beginning in 2011, participants in my research were saying that business was better suited than government to step in and fix big problems.
- The economic downturn in 2008 accelerated a nascent trend that began with the digital revolution at the turn of the millennium, which emphasized a shift from shareholder to stakeholder value. Since then, big name investors such as Larry Fink of BlackRock and Jamie Dimon of JPMC have visibly promoted a shift in orientation from short-term returns to long-termism. Add in the rise of various movements beginning with Occupy Wall Street and extending to #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #GunControlNow, and it’s hard to ignore that the call for more equity and fairness in business decision making has grown stronger.
What is “Brand Citizenship”?
Brand Citizenship is an ethos that aligns purpose and profit. It’s a five-step model that emerged from the grassroots up, over three years of qualitative and quantitative research, deconstructing brand leadership from good corporate citizenship and favorite brands, which is a proxy for brand loyalty. Beginning with a meaningful purpose, Brand Citizenship simultaneously delivers benefits to individual customers and employees and betters the world. The five steps of the model – trust, enrichment, responsibility, community, and contribution – span across something I’ve labelled the ME-to-WE continuum. My research demonstrated that people look to the brands they buy and businesses they support to help solve their personal ME problems as well as their wider WE concerns about the environment, the economy and social issues.
5 Steps of Brand Citizenship
You share five steps of Brand Citizenship. The first step is trust. How do leaders develop a culture of trust?
Building deep trust is difficult today. People are cynical and for some reason always looking to uncover what companies are doing wrong rather than what they’re doing right. Importantly, we each define trust differently. You, for example, may trust a friend who is there to listen when you’re down and be indifferent if they share what you told them with a mutual friend. Your wife, on the other hand, may only trust a friend who keeps her secrets. In the same way, trust in a business will mean something different to each customer, employee, and stakeholder.
Through my research, I uncovered five characteristics that foster trust:
- Clarity – being clear about who you are.
- Reliability – delivering what you promise, every time
- Sincerity – being honest and genuine
- Reciprocity – giving to give, not to get
- Active Listening – acting on what you know and learn about individual people, whether they be customers, employees or other stakeholders
While countless brands include trust as a value or personality attribute in their strategy, no brand can own trust. In the same way a new friend, colleague or neighbor gains our trust by the way they behave, business leaders earn trust over time through their – and their company’s – collective actions.
The Power of Community
Step four is community. This drive for connection is more important than ever. Talk about the power of community.
The American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow labeled belonging, which is the basis of community, as one of our five basic needs, coming after physiological requirements and safety demands. The social networks and communities we belong to and opt out of partially shape the definition of who we are. Brands facilitate our connections to a larger collective: people who buy the same products and services, share ways of living, or are united through common purpose and values. In a consumerist culture, it’s no surprise that our social identities are in part wrapped up in the brands we choose.
All brands have the opportunity to cultivate loyalty and a sense of belongingness by demonstrating that they care about the things that matter most to their customers, employees, and other shareholders. As I demonstrate through case studies in my book, cultivating meaningful communities is about so much more than social media. It can range from having employees co-create corporate values to outsourcing customer service to customers and affiliation groups to bringing employees and the local community together to demonstrate our interdependency with nature. Importantly, the most effective communities intertwine our sense of ME and WE: they simultaneously respect individuality and serve the whole.
How do leaders assess where their organization is on the ME-to-WE scale?
A company’s purpose dictates where on the ME-to-WE continuum its brand ultimately sits by clarifying why it exists at the highest level. Regardless of where a brand strategically sits, the goal is to glide back and forth across the five steps, not to necessarily end up at Step 5 – contribution. My research clearly substantiates that a company with a meaningful purpose can strategically position itself at any one of the five steps of Brand Citizenship and simultaneously deliver benefits to ME and WE. In the book, I discuss various ways to assess where you sit from research studies to a “cheat sheet” I’ve created based on the learning from my three years of research and an assessment tool I’ve developed.
What ways do companies go about finding their purpose?
Purpose is very similar to a brand vision, in other words a company’s raison d’etre at the highest level or the why behind its existence. Although it would seem a company’s purpose is apparent, clarifying it is typically difficult. It must be true to what the company is and what it does, not based on a competitor’s position, or reflective of an advocacy group’s demands or a politically correct definition of an industry.
Purpose sits at the intersection of the reason a business was created, the things that matter most to customers, employees and other stakeholders, and the way a business operates. Identifying it typically requires stepping back and reviewing a company’s heritage; gaining an understanding of customers’, employees’, and other key stakeholders’ expectations; and reflecting on the core competencies and values that drive success today, as well as those that will be necessary to shape it in the future. Some companies do this through comprehensive research and methodical strategic assessment, while others use intuition. Numerous approaches sit in between these two ends of the spectrum.
Translate Purpose into Behaviors
How do operating principles help translate purpose into behaviors?
Operating principles link the ambitions embedded in a company’s purpose with organizational processes and procedures. In the same way that peoples’ morals and ethics form their behaviors over time, operating principles remain constant in the face of changing strategies. They act as guide posts for prioritizing resources and activities. The most motivating engage employees rather than constrain them by emphasizing what is important and leaving room to breathe, rather than being prescriptive.
There are so many examples in the book. For our readers, would you share one organization that gets it right?
There is not just one type of Brand Citizenship. Multiple approaches along the ME-to-WE continuum resonate with customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders of all types, as well as with companies in all industries and of all scales.
On the ME end of the continuum, SunTrust, one of the largest regional banks in the US, is an example of a brand strategy that exhibits good Brand Citizenship. It reinforces its brand purpose through its free onUp program that teaches people how to be good stewards of their own money, no matter how modest their means. Anyone, not just SunTrust customers, can join onUp.
At the other end of the spectrum, Lush Handmade Cosmetics embodies its founders’ determined journey to live their personal purpose and positive activism. The brand continually finds new ways to connect its fans to sustainable products, fair trade, and philanthropic causes.
For more information, see Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit.