How can you meet the growing consumer demand for brand citizenship?

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New research from strategic brand and planning consultancy Onesixtyfourth has revealed how consumers are increasingly turning to brands to help enrich their lives and collaborate with them to create a better society. This cultural shift, which is a consequence of the recent failings witnessed by government institutions and larger corporations, now requires brands to embrace ‘Brand Citizenship’, by aligning sustainable and ethical business practices with branding and reputation management initiatives as a means to foster loyalty and increase brand advocacy. Here, Anne Bahr investigates what Brand Citizenship means for brands and how they can go about meeting this new consumer demand.

What is brand citizenship?

Brand Citizenship is a holistic approach to fully delivering on a brand promise. It’s a concept that emerged from ongoing research into consumer’s changing relationships with brands. It sits at the intersection of leadership, loyalty and good citizenship and unifies these three elements under an organising principle for marketing, communications, product development and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. As an integrated strategy it helps define the totality of the brand experience rather than being a practice delivered only through social media, mass communications and/or big-ticket events. Brand citizenship is not simply do-goodery or rose-coloured glasses syndrome. It’s about delivering a brand across all interactions. And then continuing the conversation based on earned trust.

Although people interact with products at a functional level, it is now nearly universally acknowledged that many brands mean more to consumers than the products they represent. People often choose one good service over another because the brand mirrors their own values, reflects perceptions of who they are or helps them to create an image of the person they want to be. Associations or relationships with brands do not replace religion, altruism or civic duty. But, brands do connect us with people who share our values, educate us and align us with causes that matter to us.

How does brand citizenship fit in with CSR?

Brand citizenship creates a shared sense of responsibility and places consumers in control. In part, it enables people to co-create the future, by choosing to purchase products and services that deliver sustainability and social responsibility initiatives that matter to them individually.

Despite heavy investment in CSR, many good purpose initiatives are not affecting consumers’ overall perceptions of corporations. Our research strongly indicates that this is because CSR is disconnected from marketing initiatives and most typically, not part of a unifying brand proposition. For instance, how many consumers are aware that BP has invested US$7.6bn in alternative energy since 2005, or that ASDA teamed up with charity FoodShare to help cut food waste and support people in need of food this summer? This particular example represents1,500 tonnes of food or the equivalent of 3.6 million meals that will go to UK charities every year, saving them £4.5m/yr. 

The benefits of embracing brand citizenship are:

  1. Gain credit for your significant environmental and social programs
  2. Give more control over the future to consumers as they ally with you because you are transparent
  3. Strengthen brand equity and centralise efforts under one banner: the brand

How do brands get brand citizenship right?

Our survey revealed that people are specific as to what functional, then emotional or inspirational benefits brands can bring to their daily life and this is what lights the way for brands to create their own unique form of brand citizenship.

The qualitative and quantitative research, collated between 2011 to 2013, revealed that participants used many of the same words to describe brand leaders as they did political ones. These are the seven general characteristics of brand leadership that emerged as the most prominent:

  1. Practical: satisfy individual needs first by delivering actionable solutions that give people greater control over their lives.
  2. Efficient: strip out excessive bureaucracy and hierarchy. Small central management, larger front line service drives relevance.
  3. Transparent: be honest about what you are – and are not – doing.
  4. Empathic: understand the values and ethics of the man on the street and what more can be done to help or inspire him. Mirrors my values.
  5. Sincere: certain paradoxes are allowed (i.e., individualism and collectivism), contradictions are not. From the choice of plastics and fuel to the fit of corporate shareholders, decisions must stack up.
  6. Courageous: take considered risks that propel society forward and appeal to the cultural need for progress.
  7. Visionary: inspire people with a clear view on how the organisation will come to shape society.

In the research, people have told us they perceive that brands are more in tune with their day-to-day lives and personal values, in comparison to government because:

  • Brands unite and inspire
  • When a clear sense of purpose is embedded in a brand vision and mission, it inspires people to follow something they collectively feel passionate about
  • Brands are accustomed to innovating to survive and, therefore, have the tools and the techniques needed to take society forward
  • Political reform comes at the expense of an opposing ideal — for example, universal healthcare is opposed by an equally strong privatising healthcare force. Brands, however, can freely advocate for human improvement and social progress
  • Brands reflect our human potential
  • Brands have the ability to turn principles and ethics into results (products, services and social initiatives) and thereby exemplify good citizenship.

How can I embrace brand citizenship?

Brands need to take a holistic approach across the entire organisation. To ensure they fully embrace brand citizenship they need to have total organisational awareness of what the brand can promise, and deliver.

From our analysis we have identified four directions that any brand can apply to embrace brand citizenship. It requires a 360-degree approach towards all that you do and stand for as a brand.

To embed good citizenship into a brand’s proposition and make it an integral principle for business operations, a 360-degree orientation that includes the organisation, the product, the experience and service is required. This is demonstrated in the above diagram.

Direction 1: Organisation: Create cross-functional teams that include marketing communications, product and CSR, and develop measurable performance goals that tangibly motivate them to work together to deliver an integrated brand experience. Promote policies and practices that advocate employees and suppliers, acknowledge the challenges they face and treat them ethically.

Direction 2: Product: Offer fair-for-quality priced products that simplify people’s routines and define new lifestyles that inspire daily living and enable users to feel involved in creating a better future for themselves, society and the planet. See every delivery channel as a unique opportunity to reinforce the good citizenship element of a brand’s proposition.

Direction 3: Experience: Use the brand experience to invite consumers consistently to a personal conversation, one that makes them feel part of something bigger. Adopt a human tone of voice that sincerely reflects the brand's personality and encourages involvement in communications and co-creation of programs.

Direction 4: Service: Deliver honest, reliable and easily accessible customer service. Find new ways to integrate your proposition into people’s daily routines, acknowledge their value both as consumer and producer. Communicate the mutual benefits services deliver to individual users, other stakeholders and the corporation.

In conclusion

As an integrating principle, brand citizenship challenges traditional organisational boundaries and thereby requires courage to break from business as usual. It ultimately relies on distinctive departments and agency teams working closely together to deliver a promise credibly. As influential brands are discovering, in the midst of economic, social and environmental instability, brand citizenship is a win-win proposition through which consumers, stakeholders, the planet and society can all mutually benefit. In other words, it is the new model for brands to embrace when building leadership and loyalty in 2014 and beyond.

Anne Bahr Thompson is founding partner of Onesixtyfourth

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