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Tech Faces Rising Expectations — and Skepticism

11/4/2021
— Mark Martin, EVP 

Technology companies today are walking a tightrope. On one hand, consumer expectations are higher than ever, and the pandemic revealed just how much we now rely on technology to handle nearly every aspect of our lives. Tech has brought the world into our living rooms and kitchens—enabling us to work, see the doctor, and even attend weddings and birthday parties.

Consumers are also looking to these companies to help fix many of society’s problems. WE’s 2021 Brands in Motion survey reveals the high expectation on brands to help create stability in uncertain times. This rose by 30% since 2019! Among consumers and business technology-sector respondents, more than 80% say that during times of high social division businesses and organizations have a moral obligation to help bridge differences.

Our increased reliance on technology has also caused consumers to become more skeptical about the power these brands have and the role they play in our lives. I was glad for the opportunity to talk with other communications professionals about this challenging moment at PRovoke Media’s 2021 Global Summit. In addition to Brands in Motion, we discussed Ketchum’s 2021 Social Permission and Technology Study. That report echoed the tension facing technology companies today, as it found a wide gap between the love consumers have for technology products and their growing concern about their business practices.

At the online panel discussion (thank you, technology), I spoke with panel host Lisa Sullivan, Ketchum Partner and Managing Director of Technology, and Heather Craft, Hotwire Co-President, North America. We discussed the current challenges the tech sector faces, and how brands can navigate this pivotal moment.

 

The Pressure on Tech Mounts

Sullivan started off by describing the deep ambivalence many consumers have about technology companies. “[Consumers] love what technology has allowed them to do, but their relationship and their perception of the companies and the industry, and that power is much more complex. In some ways the industry reputation suffered during this time. We’re seeing people reporting increased tech fatigue and burnout that they’re attributing to technology, concern about the intrusion of technology into their lives, and, in many cases, a wish that people were ‘born in a time of less technology’ as if that were possible,” she said.

The increased awareness of technology’s power means that the expectation for brands to be good corporate citizens is higher than ever. Sullivan noted that consumers expect technology companies to play an active role in bettering our society and fixing societal ills, and that it is often blamed for the increased political polarization of our times.

Craft added that technology companies have branded themselves as innovators who can create rapid change. “Now we expect them to do that for good,” she said. “We want to see that show up and use that smart genius creative excitement that comes with technology for the greater good.”

Indeed, WE’s Brands in Motion report found that 76% of consumers say brands should invest to make the world a better place. Our research also found that more than 70% of business-technology sector respondents say they’re more likely to purchase or recommend products from brands that address societal issues that matter to them.

Technology brands are aware of these expectations. They know they have to lead with purpose and engage on societal issues, but the situation also makes them nervous. Our clients at WE are eager to understand how they execute on these demands. How do they drive their purpose programs? Which issues should they engage on?

There are no easy answers, which is why brands first need to make peace with the idea that they won’t please everyone. WE’s research found that although many are looking to brands to engage directly on today’s biggest issues, there remains a significant portion of the audience that doesn’t want brands to step into societal issues. It’s simply not possible to please the whole of the market.

That’s why brands must focus on their key stakeholders — their employees, local community members and core customers. These are the people who support your mission and want to hear from you.

 

Employees: Tech's Most Important Stakeholders

In all sectors, employees are a brand’s most important stakeholders — its most powerful evangelists and most devasting critics. In technology, and especially during the current labor shortage, the importance of engaging these highly skilled, always-in-demand workers can’t be overstated. Ketchum’s research found that among technology early adaptors — or “Techruptors,” as the report calls them — 56% have considered leaving an employer that’s not committed to ethical use of technology. “As we as we work our way through this great resignation that we’re all in, that’s a really powerful and concerning statistic for a lot of companies,” said Sullivan.

Employee expectations have also rose, noted Craft, as many employers raised the bar on the way they treated their people during the pandemic. “Now there’s no turning back in the way that you show up as a leader, and employees aren’t going to hesitate to walk away. We’ve reevaluated our set of values as individuals, and those people are now eager to invest their time and energy in companies and projects and ideas that align with those values,” she said.

In WE’s Brands in Motion research, 87% of business tech-sector respondents said brands have a moral obligation to engage with societal issues when it impacts their employees. They also expect frequent dialogue; 77% said senior executives should communicate with their employees about their personal position on issues at least every six months. In other words, it’s not enough to simply survey your people every year or so — communication must be ongoing.

Fortunately, there are many ways that brands can engage their employees and all their stakeholders. Although communications teams will always want to pursue opportunities in earned media given its longstanding credibility and reach, we also must contend with the fact that the media is under tremendous pressure right now, with fewer reporters covering more and broader topics. To that end, my colleagues and I at WE stress the ongoing importance of brands investing in and developing their own owned channels. This is one of the best ways for technology brands, especially, to diversify communications, expand their reach to the audiences that matter most, and clearly tell the world what they stand for and how they’re changing the world for the better.