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Achieving True Brand Integration in a Transparent World

The challenges of 2020 haven’t been easy for anyone, including brands, which have been thrust into a new world where their values and priorities are on full display and painstakingly dissected. While the challenges marketers are facing in this moment are indeed daunting, the global pandemic and social unrest aren’t the root causes of them. Rather, current events are simply highlighting and magnifying a handful of real marketing issues that CMOs and comms professionals have been struggling with for quite some time, among them:

  • Marketing is messier today. The number of the touchpoints that brands use to connect with customers now vs. 10 years ago is vastly different, as are the formats and frequency. Add to that the expanded role of marketers as public policy experts and issues advocates, and we’re dealing with a vastly more complex marketing landscape than ever before.
  • External expectations of our brands have evolved rapidly. Consumers want to feel good about the companies they do business with, and they’re putting their full support behind brands with values that match their own (and boycotting those that don’t).
  • Measuring marketing impact has never been more important or complex. Evaluating ROI is critical to our success, yet as Einstein so perfectly put it, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” Beyond crafting meaningful stories that deepen our connection with our target, we must also do so in ways that have facets of measurability.

Even with all that in mind, the biggest challenge for marketers in this era of uncertainty is actually a lack of cohesion inside the companies they represent.

When organizations aren’t on the same page internally, milestone moments like COVID-19 and racial injustice only spotlight existing fractures. We can all think of several brands that released cringeworthy statements or ads over the last few months that felt tone deaf at best, inauthentic or insensitive at worst. But it wasn’t necessarily the execution of the work that was problematic – it’s something deeper that suggests a lack of internal alignment around what the brand stands for at its core.

By contrast, the brands that got it right – e.g., Oscar Mayer and Guinness – did so not by retrofitting their story to include the latest empathy buzz words and assurances of comfort in “these unprecedented times.” Rather, they stayed true to their positioning and followed four not-so-simple fundamentals that served to provide a solid foundation among significant shifts and countless unknowns. Here’s a closer look at those fundamentals and what they help companies achieve.

1. Align your brand strategy.

An ad or press release can tell a great story. But if the story isn’t rooted in a brand’s positioning, there’s no hope of connecting with consumers in the real world. Alignment and misalignment typically start at the top. As the C-suite zeroes in on vision, mission and values, marcom focuses on positioning and brand tone. When positioning lacks support from all internal stakeholders, it isn’t possible to drive the external efforts in an authentic manner. However, with the power of the entire organization behind a brand’s purpose, it’s possible to live that out from top to bottom and left to right – and to infuse it into every touchpoint and consumer interaction. Only by doing this will a marketing message truly resonate with target audiences.

2. Be Believable.

Research has shown that consumers are increasingly distrustful of brands – and our country’s economic, social and health care disruptions are only exacerbating that skepticism. But believability isn’t born from a sentimental TV spot or viral social media stunt, especially when they all sound the same. The most believable (and beloved) brands consistently live out a positioning that is relevant to their target audiences, true to their role in the target’s life and differentiated from the competition.

From there, brands must consistently put that positioning into action, committing to initiatives that endure long after a Facebook post comes and goes. Only when a brand’s values and purpose drive its actions and messaging does a true consumer connection spark. Consider Nike: Not only did they inspire amateur athletes that are their core audience with the quarantine-friendly #PlayForTheWorld campaign, they began donating shoes to health care workers around the world and offering free access to premium training programs. By rooting their response in their brand positioning, their actions have been believable and embraced by their target.

3. Do First, Say Second.

Talk is cheap, and consumers see right through it … and then tweet about it. Never has this been truer than in recent months, as consumers sniffed out (and then called out) the cookie-cutter brand responses to COVID-19 and social justice issues. According to our research, consumer skepticism will only grow and intensify in the years ahead. The next generation, Gen Z, values authenticity as much as or more so than their millennial predecessors, which means that any brand’s promises of generosity must be genuine.

That rings true as we consider the brands that have fared best in this season of uncertainty and unrest, among them Ben & Jerry’s. In their statement on racial injustice, they got specific about how their values inspire their beliefs and expressed a commitment to long-term change – all of which was well supported by the actions they’ve taken on social issues in the past. Their statement was widely lauded because it wasn’t lip service – it was directly inspired by their proven purpose and beliefs and the values they’d been living out for years.

4. Expand Your Influence.

Our marketing landscape is increasingly fragmented, and in a world of flash, filters and “here today, gone tomorrow and pay-for-play” content, it’s harder than ever to connect with consumers in a meaningful and lasting way. Accumulating enough audience to drive awareness beyond the current base requires marketers to play outside the boundaries of traditional marketing touchpoints. With believability of ads at an all-time low, we must think about influence and impact more broadly. That means stepping up to advocate for issues and policies that impact our brands while encouraging and soliciting support from key stakeholders who can help carry our messages forward in a credible and consequential way.

Chances are you’ve seen your favorite brand expand their influence during the COVID-19 crisis by pivoting operations to meet an unmet need – e.g., apparel companies producing masks, car companies creating PPE and test kits on their assembly lines and distilleries churning out hand sanitizer. By fulfilling current needs and supporting their customers and communities in a different way, they’re growing both their company’s goodwill and influence even in a time of crisis.

These four fundamentals offer marketers some light in the fog caused by the shifting patterns of the pandemic, economy and social unrest. By staying true to a relevant and well-defined purpose, we can face what’s next and keep our brands strong for the future.

Interested in achieving true brand integration in today’s dynamic marketing landscape? Email Ted at tjun@hiebing.com to set up a call.