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Case Analysis: Why Trust Is Key

A consistent brand does not emerge from conformist employees

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I exhausted my year’s budget for charity in just the first three months of 2017, and sadly not quite on charitable causes. Years ago, I moved from the UK to the US, because the nation and the brand Obama represented my values of equality, co-existence and a post-racial world. Change in our Presidency now meant having to democratically resist constant challenges to our core values. In the process, it also meant defying every brand that supported climate change deniers, xenophobia at work or play, misogyny, business hostility, an anti-immigrant sentiment or unfair protectionism.

But little did I realise that resistance costs money; grassroots campaigns are effort intensive and protests are a drain on time. I am sure many others who are diverting their contributions to charity and to restoration of the democratic values that the nation always stood for, feel the same way. It hurts me to see brand USA lose its “national brand value” because people are losing trust and the core values of the country are being fast eroded.

Ananya’s right, ‘trust’ is a word that precedes ‘like’ and consumers will switch, if they don’t trust. And yes, it applies to everything, even countries. Ananya’s activism is individualistic, resulting in her brand not just losing a customer but also gaining a demotivated employee in exchange. Now, just imagine what collective activism can do to this brand? Imagine if a cadre of Twitter activists, heard her story about the sexual harassment allegations and put pressure on her company to take a stand. Quickly and vocally. I think there isn’t a better current showcase for the power of social media, against brands that don’t sit well with you, than the currently trending #GrabYourWallet campaign. This hashtag movement, which began in October 2016, has made many brands answerable to their ethics and values.

And they didn’t stop there! They recognise that women rarely get the same pay as men for the same work, so hashtag and social media movements like theirs, also support, say, the 100-plus private companies in the US that have committed to the equal pay pledge.

Brands today are naked, for all to see, they have to play fair to their employees if they want to see a strong bottom line – the rest can just be ‘bleh!’ – survival between fig leaves and periods of stunted growth.

Sure, fuel oil might be an exciting category for some, but let us start with some mainstream brands such as Nike or Apple? Dig deep into their adverts and points of sale, both accurately depict the soul of the company, and are congruous across. That said, their advertising in early days, fundamentally relied on an external brand image that delivered a monologue to its consumers, riding on retention, awareness, and affection to drive those sales. Now add those lovely people in coloured tee shirts sincerely helping you with a smile, as you browse their products – feeling better already? Yes, because customers don’t want an act, they only want honesty. Not just a ‘designed in USA, made in China’ tag, which tries to pander to their tastes. They want something real. No wonder Steve Job’s reveals were a hit – they wanted something they could feel, touch, hear!

Besides, there is no such thing as a controllable external brand image anymore. With the web taking over print, tube and other mediums, consumers have an unprecedented view into the insides of a brand and access to its most sensitive reviews, not to mention instant word-of-mouth reports from people who have hit the early adopter curve. The JDs of the world cannot say one thing and, safely protected by the impenetrable corporate shell, look another way. Brands have glass walls these days and HR is unable to stop people from seeing through. If you doubt this for a second, think back to when Nike’s brand was suddenly threatened by alleged unfair treatment of foreign labour, or how Apple, consistent with its touting of power and data privacy, and Cook (yes, it starts with leadership) told the FBI to back off in the San Bernardino case, when they wanted the terrorist’s phone unlocked. Cook took a courageous stand and said, “While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.” Consumers believed and trusted what he is saying. He isn’t just fortunate to run a company whose business interests, align with his convictions but Apple nurtures such leadership.

This helps Apple, in turn, for, the next time privacy activists hold a big rally, they are going to do it in front of their local Apple Store. With pride. United Airlines failed precisely because it didn’t do this. Its culture allowed it to, never mind protect, rather bully its own customers. In questions of culture, top management is the real culprit; their bosses are guilty of having fostered a culture where this behaviour is possible, even if not encouraged. Any brand that builds a culture that rewards profits over integrity and rigid rule following over innovation, will end up with disengaged employees, who, like at United, will treat their customers with equal disdain.

No wonder then, that, as social media keeps brands honest and transparent, consumers like Ananya are unlikely to settle for the external brand image but probe further to find out what a brand really stands for. Given that she found a whiff of contradiction, Ananya dropped the whole brand!

Anthropology claims that homo sapiens aren’t concerned with mere transactions but are instead creatures of meaning. Our cultures have given us the symbolic tools we needed to create our own sense of identity. People don’t just choose a brand with bells and whistles or the cheapest one but those brands that have the right meaning. What was ok for a brand yesterday is not so today, because we are constantly creating and rearranging our mosaic of the self. We have today unmatched choice in of destinations, friends, lifestyles, travel, philosophies, moral and religious beliefs, worldview and personal code of behaviour. Since tradition doesn’t limit us but enriches us too, we are witnessing that our choice of brands and what they represent to us and of us, is taking on a new and intriguing role. In such a flux, brands have to create value to even exist, create meaning to sell and create sustained interest for repurchase.

In fact, Ananya has a point, in order to be relevant to consumers and sustainable over time, even fuel oil brands must operate much like a culture. If they have their core values in place, beyond mere profit, the rest will follow. This includes ensuring that those who harass, however high up the ladder, must be asked to go.

Everything the company does, every point of sale, every sponsorship, public statement, advert, website, employee and HR training or business decision it makes has to be congruent with that credo and core values, which the brand claims as its own.

Why is respect or lack of it in Ananya’s case so potent? Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 notion of the “looking glass self” explains that we use others’ expressions, behaviours and reactions to define ourselves. We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. If JD misbehaved, he made Ananya feel devalued and HR (whose job it is to undo it), simply transferred him, adding to that hurt, making her feel smaller and pulling her down. In the process, Kayplas’s HR lost valuable chance to improve the culture, tame the incivility and motivate the whistle blower. No wonder, brands mean a lot to the employees who are working for it. When they are made to feel valued, respected, trusted and exceptional by their company, research shows they manage to apply their unique skills and expertise even better to achieve their corporate goals.

Consistency, not conformity, and you will have yourself the path to Apple’s Genius Bar. A consistent brand does not emerge from conformist employees. When Ananya and Shyamak both determine how they can deliver on the corporate brand promise in a way that is authentic, that ignites them and makes them exceptional, only then can the company benefit from their ambassadorship. Purpose, passion, values, culture, trust – these are what people want to belong to; goals and values bigger than themselves. It is ever more important now as brands have become the common denominator in the culture wars.

There is a reason why consumers choose to pay twice as much for cosmetics not tested on animals or eggs from a cage-free facility, not because it is a better lipstick or a bigger egg. They do this because they don’t want to be the cause of any suffering animals. When people are considering the consequences of their actions, don’t you think they will make sure their brands hold up their end of the bargain?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Kamal Julka

The writer was brand director, HP, EMEA, at Publicis London. Now based in Chicago, Julka is a guest faculty at ICSC European Retail School, and an examiner at the Chartered Institute of Marketing

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