Passing the brand baton to the consumers
The placard wielded by an angry protestor with the crudely painted slogan "BP = BS" says it all. Brand BP is a sham - and consumers know it.
19 Nov 2010 12:07
They know that the brand has imploded, brought down by arrogance, ego and deceit - and they're the ones deciding the company's eventual fate. The environmental, economic and social fall-out from the oil spill has been catastrophic and for brand BP, it's life-threatening.
The BP story isn't only about a company in crisis - it's the clearest example of the monumental shift that's taking place in the post-recession branding world. There have been small, incremental changes over time, but two key factors have resulted in a massive change in the way consumers think and act - and the global brandscape won't ever be the same.
Brands are no longer trustworthy. They're no longer seen as honourable. In the case of BP which had positioned itself as a bastion of environmental concern and which was then ousted with devastating consequences, the duplicity was clear and consumer loyalty was shattered. BP's (mis)handling of the situation - and the consumers' understandably angry response - is the clearest demonstration that brand power has transferred to public hands and that the branding world as we knew it has irrevocably changed.
BP's apology was skin-deep. Its integrity was in tatters, the share price fell to record lows, billions of dollars in value was lost and the CEO was ousted - all as a result of a powerful consumer voice. Unless an organisation really, really walks the talk - they're not guaranteed a future.
The fact that consumers no longer trust brands coupled with a rising tide of immediate and honest digital communication are the two most important determinants of which brands and which marketing businesses will succeed. With the world of information literally at their fingertips, consumers are far more aware, critical and discerning - and successful brands need to embrace the new order, not ignore it.
For a brand, living up to its promises will be the most important thing it does. Branding is about reputation and integrity counts for everything. But how organisations manage their reputations has also changed - particularly in the wake of the recession.
From banks and retailers to car manufacturers and airlines, the recession toppled many brands which had previously been seen as mainstays of the global economy. Consumers felt immensely betrayed as brands which had been flying conspicuously high in the heady boom times came crashing down, unable to deliver on their promises, unable to fulfill their expectations and seemingly unwilling to admit to reality.
In the past, very few people relied on sources other than the company voice for brand information. While there's no denying the legitimate and valuable place that the traditional channels have in building brands going forward, it will be the reality based channels of PR and digital that will dictate the lion's share of future brand direction and success. These don't merely create awareness in the way print or TV ads do, they resonate with the audience and provide a call to action. Creating opportunities for dialogue and opinion represents a sea-change in the way brands communicate.
Pre-recession, brands were also highly prosperous. They became increasingly complex as they mushroomed, yet their multiple offerings confused rather than impressed the consumers. Now, the branding challenge is to simplify the package, make it easier to understand and easier to identify with. How do you feel about making a selection from a winelist offering 400 different choices? Wouldn't you rather have an informed waiter assist you with a choice of 30 carefully chosen varieties?
Consumers are looking to simpler, less overt lifestyles and the challenge for brand-builders and marketers is to build brands that understand and reflect this. How well they do will have absolutely nothing to do with the size of their budget and everything to do with their integrity.
An African example of a brand that really walks its talk is Nedbank. From all their affinities to being the first local carbon neutral bank, it's brand that is delivering on its promise. The rest of Africa lags when it comes to the new branding order as consumers still place price ahead of trust and integrity - but that will change as communications technology becomes more widely accessible. Connectivity will revolutionise branding in Africa.
In the rest of the world however - South Africa included - there's a new brand order, conducted by the consumer. And to avoid being reduced to a damning slogan on a protest poster, brands will have to change the way they behave or face marching orders of their own.
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