Why brands should have an opinion

Date
28 September 2022

Nice toaster. But why do you work with an influencer who, along with being a breakfast guru, is also openly homophobic? What customers expect from brands has changed a lot in recent years. A great product with excellent service is no longer enough: now a brand has to have a meaningful connection to core values. As a brand, don’t just position yourself in the market, but also in society. How exactly do you do that?

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Simon Sinek's Why, purpose and CSR: all trends indicate the same thing. The future of companies lies in their social relevance. Whereas in the 1970’s it was about good products and in the 1990’s it was about excellent service, now it is all about topics such as sustainability, inclusivity, and human rights. For example, in the 1980’s Shell was the crown jewel of the Dutch economy. If you worked there, you’d made it, whereas now if you bring that up at a party, you can expect to hear critical questions about Nigeria and greenwashing. While Shell as a company hasn’t changed much, society has.

Start with your origins
There is a lot going on in the world right now and taking a social standpoint is becoming more topical. A modern CEO should want to join a talk show, as a number of professors (and KPMG partners) recently argued in the Dutch newspaper Trouw. But this isn’t really new because every brand already has a story where their core values play a role. Just look at the 'about us' page, where the origin of a company is described, based on the way the founders viewed the world. A good example of this is the legal expenses insurer Arag. Founded in Germany in 1935 with the idea that everyone should have access to justice, regardless of whether they can afford an expensive lawyer. An idea that’s still relevant today as you can see in this video message for the bullies:

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Funeral insurer DELA is a homegrown example, founded as funeral association Dragen Elkanders Lasten with the aim of making a dignified farewell possible for all. Since its inception, DELA has continued to be a non-profit cooperative. But what if your company does not have a 'beautiful' history, because it’s a newly founded company for example?

Everyone has core values

In mergers and acquisitions, a strong cultural match is essential. As Peter Drucker said in 2006: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Bringing different parties together is about making sure that everyone feels at home and doesn’t feel like they’re suddenly working at a completely different company. At the start, you look at the shared vision: are both parties people focused and do you both value personal growth, for example? If you are both on the same page, then operational matters and processes follow naturally.

Dare to make choices

In essence, what really matters is that as a company you dare to make choices. You can't be everything to everyone, that's just as true on a personal level as it is on a business level. Not everyone will like you, and as a company you cannot be relevant to every customer. You can't win them all. A well-known example of this is Nike's Dream Crazy commercial starring Colin Kaepernick, the black American football quarterback who started ‘taking the knee’ when the national anthem played before games:

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His silent protest against police brutality and inequality caused controversy across the country, to the point that no NFL team wanted him. The day after the campaign went nationwide, Nike's share price plunged. Nike shoes were burned in social media posts, often ignited by conservative groups that had chosen Nike even in the Michael Jordan era. A few days later, however, the price rebounded as sales increased: the message had resonated enormously with a younger generation who were now buying Nikes en masse. Clear evidence that emotion works in branding.

Name what you don't do

In the highly polarised American landscape, a company cannot avoid making choices, whereas in contrast, in the pragmatic Netherlands, where traditionally the merchant travelled with the preacher, this is more nuanced. A recent example of this is this year's World Cup in Qatar. Dutch companies such as Arcadis, Boskalis and BAM profited enormously from the event, despite the estimated death toll of 6500 migrant construction workers. Hendriks Graszoden did not. The company from Limburg had a long-standing tradition of supplying turf for the World Cup but refused the profitable order. Where the directors of one company forgot to do their research, Hendriks Graszoden immediately hesitated. A spokesman told 1Limburg : "We saw how the construction of the stadiums was organised. Not all workers wore protective clothing. We didn't like that attitude from the organisation." A wise choice that hurt in the short term but prevented image problems in the long term.

Positioning on social issues: do's and don'ts

Saying what you do and doing what you say: it's important to not only have your brand positioning on paper but also to put it into practice. What do you have to consider as a brand?

brand positioning | iO

Stick to your core values

Today, what you see in the media is that there is a lot of ad hoc reaction to public outcry and complaints. It’s a familiar cycle, an event or investigation forces a response from a brand, which then quickly folds in the face of public outcry. The real challenge for brands is to be proactive, not be publicly forced to make snap decisions. Of course, even with the best of intentions, public outcry and complaints cannot always be prevented. For example, Amnesty International recently came under fire because of a report that accused the Ukrainian army of endangering civilians. It was criticised as victim blaming that also played into the hands of Russian propaganda. Such a situation offers an organisation the opportunity to recalibrate: is this in line with our core values? Should we acquiesce or push back? You can take the time to make these decisions, as long as you communicate clearly.

What not everyone realises is that every company comes from somewhere. There is always an origin of some kind in society. Your customers and employees are real people, they have their own core values that drive them. Wanting to operate as if you are not part of society is a weird idea and makes no business sense, because it’s free and relatively easy to do.

Curious about how your brand can position itself in society?

Our experts are here to help you.

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Bart te Riele | iO
About the author
Bart te Riele
Creative Director | iO

Bart is often the one that pushes simple solutions to complex problems. He often asks the same questions: “Why?” and “Why not?” and nothing brightens his day like ideas that make other people nervous. After all, magic only happens outside of your comfort zone.

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