— Melissa Waggener Zorkin
It’s been a rough month. Everywhere you look, it seems, the weather has been downright apocalyptic, from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose to the deadly floods in Southeast Asia and the strongest earthquake to strike Mexico in 100 years. Here in the Pacific Northwest, smoke and ash from more than a dozen wildfires have blotted out the late-summer sun. And that’s just the weather! In the U.S. (and around the world, too), we bounce from political crisis to political crisis. At the same time, new technologies are speeding everything up, disrupting businesses and in some cases dislocating entire industries.
In the face of all this instability, it’s sometimes easy to get discouraged or frustrated about what WE can do as individuals, families or work teams. But deep down I’m an optimist, and I believe that our greatest challenges are also our greatest opportunities.
In change — in motion — we can find power. This is true for people like you and me, and it’s true for brands, too.
WE recently released a six-market study that clearly shows brands cannot afford to stand still in our ever-changing world. What does this mean? We’ve boiled it down to four essential lessons.
- Stability is an element of motion.
Across Australia, China, Germany, United Kingdom, United States and South Africa, more than 80 percent of the consumers we surveyed said they see today’s unsettled times as an opportunity for brands to step up and provide the stability people want and need.
In this context, “stability” can mean lots of different things. When Google Maps marked road closures in Florida before Hurricane Irma, they gave folks the trustworthy, real-time information they needed, plus reassurance that somebody was looking out for them. That’s stability. When Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya announced he would share equity in the company with his employees and hire hundreds of refugees from conflict-torn countries to work in his plants in New York and Idaho, he gave workers and consumers the confidence that something mattered more than the bottom line. That’s stability. And wherever you are in the world, when you order your latte or Frappuccino at Starbucks you know exactly what you’re going to get, every time. That’s stability, too.
Every day, brands have new opportunities to project stability in an unstable world. Just last week, when President Trump announced the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Microsoft’s president and CEO joined dozens of other corporate leaders to make their opposition to the decision clear. Their message — “we have your back” — offers stability to employees, of course. It also sends the message that Microsoft and other companies are ready to stand up for their people and stand behind their values. That’s what today’s consumers are looking for.
- Cutting-edge is transcendent.
Our study also found a high correlation between brands that are seen as cutting edge and brands that are seen as having positive social impact or providing a pleasurable experience. This correlation strongly suggests that customers appreciate brands they think are innovative, whether that innovation is enabled by technology or inspired by it.
For example, Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods Markets has the potential to upend the way the grocery-store business works — and competitors are taking note. Starting next month, Walmart customers will be able to buy hundreds of thousands of products using the voice-activated Google Assistant app or the Google Home speaker system. Will partnering with a tech company change the way customers see Walmart, giving it the perception boost it needs to compete with the Whole Foods-Amazon juggernaut? Only time will tell — but our study suggests that it might.
- Pursue the Unilever effect.
The progressive moves of Unilever CEO Paul Polman, which range from devising water-saving and carbon-reducing formulations of the company’s products to serving as the only businessperson on the U.N. committee charged with writing the organization’s recent Sustainable Development Goals, confirm what our study shows: that doing good also means doing well. Unilever’s customers don’t buy its products in spite of the company’s commitment to environmentally sustainable production standards, gender equality in the workplace, and global anti-poverty initiatives; they buy its products because they see that the company shares their values.
Polman, and Unilever, were ahead of their time in many ways, but now the world is starting to catch up with them. Now, consumers expect their brands to have a purpose. In fact, our study found that a staggering 63 percent of people surveyed across all markets expect brands to deliver both functionality and purpose in some form.
The Harvard Business Review recently called out brands — like Patagonia, Toms and Warby Parker — for whom “social purpose” is such a crucial part of their identity that they’d be hard-pressed to survive without it. These brands prove that recognizing and capitalizing on social-purpose-driven action is a great opportunity to gain a competitive edge, create a deeper sense of connection and loyalty with customers — and, of course, help contribute to a better future for us all.
- Love you today, shame you tomorrow.
The final lesson: Brands must pay close attention to the changing expectations of their customers, and work to build love and advocacy for what they are doing. That means spreading the word, putting their money where their mouth is, and always being prepared to respond quickly to anything that might put a wedge between a brand and its customers.
Why? WE’s research suggests that today’s consumers are more finicky than ever. In 40 test scenarios, when asked if they would defend a brand within an industry they love during times of crisis, only 2 percent of respondents said they would. (What’s more, 98 percent of the respondents said they would publically shame a brand in crisis if it failed to act on its values.) There are many examples of brands that have experienced this “love you today, shame you tomorrow” effect — and only a handful that were ready to quickly rebound, reset and re-win the confidence and loyalty of their customers.
The lesson here is that brands can’t stagnate — they have to make their values clear, to themselves and to their customers, and they have to live those values every day. When they slip, they have to get up and keep trying. Values aren’t a fad, and consumers know that better than anyone.
We live in turbulent times, and the winds of change are all around us. Brands have two choices: They can be blown every which way like an old plastic bag, getting tangled in tree limbs and power lines as they drift along, or they can use those winds to fill their sails, pushing them further and faster in the direction they choose. Standing still simply isn’t an option.