“A brand is the emotional source of an organization — its very soul.” – Aim Research
Before we discuss brand accountability, let’s examine what brand is, a word that is used often, though a closer look may be helpful. A Brand is the quest for a higher preference over other brands. A brand is not simply what you do and how you attempt to become someone or something within your industry – a brand is your identity or persona in the minds of clients and the marketplace. You can’t just pick it up and dust it off. It takes effort, intentionality and a long-term commitment to develop a loyal clientele. A brand is the line of products and services you offer, the quality and responsiveness to your customers, wrapped into a script or story with your reputation. It’s the trajectory of growth or success that you have demonstrated – not only what you offer but your achievements that show your capabilities within your chosen market.
The American West is a good starting point for the modern origins of branding. Ranchers would brand their cattle to be able to locate those that strayed from the herd, and the mark was an assurance of quality that would lead to some buyers paying higher prices for specific brands of cattle. They weren’t just buying beef; they were making choices within the market to favor particular brands.
Crafting a strong brand can take years and even decades. It is more than market share or a dominant position within it. Some of the most successful companies can be loathed by consumers, where they are just waiting for a competitor to enter so they can leave the incumbent and speak with their wallets. Monopolies or oligopolies are antithetical to brand accountability because there is no consumer choice.
Steve Bryant points out in his article about branding “You don’t get it: you aren’t the point”. that:
“A brand wants people to aspire to its product. To a brand, their product is the customer’s goal. But people don’t aspire to products. People aspire to feelings that products give them. This is true for everything from candy bars to sports cars to cloud-based document storage solutions.”
The simplest and most effective strategy for branding is to be the best or top dog in your industry, giving customers the sense that they own the best. Think iPhones, Louis Vuitton handbags, Amazon and Disney. It’s the image that is cultivated in the mind of the consumer and the trust consumers have in that brand that makes them keep returning. The whole point of branding is to set the standard and define the marketplace, to be recognized and trusted. A brand evolves as the company does, as their reputation and relationship with customers creates a long-term feedback loop that determines the direction and destination of the brand.
For a particular case study of a dominant global brand, one could look at Apple and Amazon. In a recent article, Bloomberg.com referred to Apple as a “$2.3 Trillion Fortress”. That image of impregnability combined with a massive number in terms of the overall worth of the company communicates prestige that’s virtually unmatched anywhere in the global marketplace. Amazon has shown constant growth, and this growth in their bottom line has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, since people are sitting around shopping online, and Amazon has been a huge beneficiary. The constant flow of Amazon boxes at the curb every week are the best advertisement and endorsement of a brand that a company could ever ask for.
So how do we approach Brand accountability? Its purpose is to communicate company values, follow or apply them, and measure or evaluate actual alignment with these values, comprising the life cycle of how this concept is developed. Brand accountability is communicating the “Why” or core values of a company that align with the company’s mission statement and is supposed to both earn a profit and help society at large, or draw attention to social issues that the company wants to address and possibly highlight and improve its own conduct in doing so. In recent years it has come to be associated with transparency, and sincere, long-term commitment to deeper social concerns, anchored in ethics, sustainability, responsibility, and passion. Authenticity is the final ingredient in brand accountability. It is also often closely linked with environmental sustainability. Perhaps the worst offense or knock in the current landscape on your brand is that you contribute to a toxic physical or social environment in a global context.
Brand accountability means “being a force for growth and a force for good”, according to Mark Pritchard, Brand Officer for P&G. This is the new direction and collective philosophy that defines brand accountability in the global era.
Savvy brand accountability blends customer wants and needs with core social values that the company wants to promote – a strategic marketing position that is a deliberate attempt to cast oneself in a virtuous role. Taglines or a pithy mission statement help communicate a company’s larger mission in the context of brand accountability. In 2017, Facebook changed their mission statement to “Bring the world closer together”. The full statement is “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Perhaps one could add “only if they agree with Zuckerberg”. Facebook could be cited as an example of rogue accountability, able to stave off real criticism, or at least absorb and not have any real damage to it’s market share or numbers of regular users.
Perhaps it will help if we distinguish brand accountability from brand viability, or the strength and market reputation that a brand enjoys. These two elements should not be confused, though a strong brand can be a double-edged sword if a company or enterprise is trying to squeeze maximum profits out of people at any cost. The public has a short memory when it comes to blue-chip or iconic brands, which tend to have a greater ability to endure bad publicity much more so than a smaller firm or medium sized business.
What recent experience has shown us is that brand accountability can be bypassed according to brand strength, market share, product quality, or customer loyalty. So long as the sins aren’t too grievous, then all will be forgiven and forgotten, especially if you’re making really cool products or services that everyone wants to have or use.
The heart of brand accountability is the values that a company pursues in order to make a profit. When a company pursues a more ruthless or aggressive direction, it may be pleasing to shareholders, but may turn customers off, especially in the age of boycotts and cancel culture. When CEOs are variants of hypocritical politicians who are sorry that they were caught in the act, or are engaged in insincere damage control, the public will smell a rat, and may turn to other competitors if there is viable competition.
Brand accountability is ultimately about credibility. Is the company attempting a highwire act between profits and a hypocritical veneer to maintain or increase the bottom line? Or do they really care about customers, about people, and about the health of society in general? As Napoleon Hill put it so succinctly, do they like money more than people, or people more than money? As we progress into the global digital era, corporate social responsibility and coupling profit with sustainability are the foundation of brand accountability. The spotlight has become brighter through online forums and a myriad of social media platforms. True brand accountability aligns free enterprise with human rights. It does not participate in enterprises where human dignity or freedom is compromised.
To boost your own brand in terms of viability and accountability, seek and increase opportunities to apply your corporate values in the public space. Many companies automatically give a percentage of their operating profits (not net profits) to various charity or community organizations. Rather than hoping to be noticed, being effective and helping others is the best incentive. The biggest donors are often anonymous. Whatever actions you steer your brand to do, let your motivation be that it’s the right thing to do. Let your customers figure out that your brand is worth supporting and they will surely spread the good word about the merits of your company.