Branding for Good

In an increasingly untrusting world in need of reassurance, Ian Howard says brands will be judged by what they do, not what they say.

To borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that the “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time”, I’ve long held the belief that humanity is defined by its inherent gift to believe wholeheartedly in one thing, while entirely un-ironically doing the exact opposite. Hypocrisy, it seems, is the universal skeleton in our closet.

Generally speaking it would appear that we’re accepting of such hypocrisy as long as we don’t shout about it. As long as we keep our beliefs to ourselves, society seems accepting of us acting any way we like, and our hypocritical skeleton can remain firmly locked away. 

But the minute we start to air those beliefs to others, shout them from the rooftops to fuel our own agendas or build our soapbox out of them to enhance our social standing; well then the game changes. Then it’s open season and anything goes. Just ask David Clark or Ellen DeGeneres. Hypocrisy in the context of personal brand building is the ultimate social crime.

It’s not just individuals with personal ambition who find themselves under the microscope though. Businesses, and the brands through which they express themselves, are held to the same account. Which begs the question: in an uncertain world in which brands have recently fallen over themselves to tell us how kind, supportive, empathetic and community-driven they are, how many of them have a hypocritical skeleton tucked away in
their closets?

Words, while still holding great power, simply aren’t enough anymore. It’s one thing to say you support social movements like #blacklivesmatter or #timesup, but it’s quite another to ensure that your strategies and working practices demonstrate your support of them. It’s one thing to talk about, it’s quite another to deliver a genuine contribution. While the former is undoubtedly something to be lauded, the latter is where more of our efforts should be focused. 

Value proposition

What we’re really talking about is values-driven business. Values. A small word but one that has big connotations and that needs serious consideration. By its very definition, a value is only a value if you’re willing to let it cost you something. So defining the values that drive your brand is to make a bold decision about what your brand would never do. It prevents your business from pursuing certain revenue opportunities, certain customers, certain partners. Values, defined in the right way, should place some constraints on how you do business. 

If your values aren’t constraining you, they’re not really values. They’re platitudes. Throwaway sentiments that look nice on a wall but are ultimately entirely meaningless. To overstretch the metaphor, they’re the bones of your hypocritical skeleton.

There’s a wind of change blowing through society. Emerging generations have an expectation of businesses that they do more than just make money by peddling goods. They expect businesses to contribute positively to the communities they serve. To be a force for good, however you define that. 

Those expectations are the driving force behind systemic change that the business landscape needs to prepare for now. New reporting requirements – spearheaded by The Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) – will become mandatory in New Zealand in the next few years and will require companies to report more extensively on their environmental impact. While social impact is not yet included in these measures, there can be little doubt that it will be in the future. 

Yet, most large enterprises don’t know what their impact is. Even those that purport to have sustainability or CSR initiatives are often measuring their success simply by having them, rather than by really interrogating their effectiveness. There is little or no accountability, and very few have clear impact objectives in place, or measurement frameworks that judge results.

In the Covid-19-afflicted world, businesses right now have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate leadership in their communities. Those that do will build sustainable brand equity that will provide them with an unfair advantage long after this pandemic is a fading memory. But to do so, they’ll have to be able to prove that they made a difference. That means aligning on the difference you want to make, doing things to make it happen and then holding yourself accountable to the impact you create. 

The world needs purpose-driven brands more than ever. Brands that are good for business, customers and society at large. So, take a long hard look in the mirror and be honest with yourself – are you really walking the walk, or just talking the talk? Because in this uncertain world, your customers are judging you by what you do, not what you say. And, there’s only so long they’ll look the other way in the face of hypocrisy.

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About Ian Howard

Ian Howard is a Strategic Partner at Tracta, Co-Founder of Bright Street Studio, experienced CEO, board advisor, marketing and tech commentator, and ethical business evangelist.

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