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Expectations of Ethical Brand Behavior Are on the Rise

Brands must earn a place in consumers’ values-based portfolios.

Nick Richardson is a project manager and media specialist. He manages media at Bully Pulpit Interactive and is a Long Dash alum.

The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis has inspired opinion writers and industry leaders to draw parallels with past tragedies. It feels natural to make these comparisons, such as “What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis” and “What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Marketing in the Time of the Coronavirus.” However, our tendency to look to the past in pursuit of a blueprint for the future runs the risk of leaving us only partly equipped to navigate the changes taking place. 

Instead, we must acknowledge that we are in a marketing ecosystem unlike any other that has been seen before. If brands are to communicate with their audiences during a global crisis that has riveted the world’s attention, they must understand this ecosystem and how to succeed within it. This requires brands to recognize that this moment will put additional pressure on them to act in accordance with consumer values, now and in the future.

The New Marketing Ecosystem

Today’s marketing landscape looks vastly different from the one that existed 20 years ago. Brands did not have the troves of consumer behavior data that is available today to inform their decisions, nor did they have the ability to engage with consumers directly through social media platforms. Companies relied on broad and generalized campaigns to broadcast their message, and consumers were in receiving mode. Brands offered people a product, experience, or even a vision of the world, and consumers had the option of buying whatever they were selling. 

Fast forward nearly two decades and a complex combination of factors have turned the relationship between brands and consumers on its head. Now, brands and consumers exist alongside each other on various digital platforms, and their relationship is more intimate and two-way than in the past. This, combined with the proliferation of choices available to consumers, has put consumers in the driver’s seat. Now, brands must be continuously responsive to what consumers care about, and there is a growing body of evidence that suggests consumers prefer to buy from socially responsible brands whose values align with their own. 

These factors have led to an undeniable truth: To consumers, brands can be ethical investments as much as they can be capital investments. In response, brands that used to promote only products are now addressing issues ranging from xenophobia to equal pay to toxic masculinity in their marketing (to varying degrees of success with consumers).

The Unique Challenge COVID-19 Poses to Brands

COVID-19 has significantly complicated this new ecosystem. First, it has taken away brands’ control over when and how they dip into sensitive waters. For the first time in recent memory, a single topic has and will continue to dominate the airwaves and the public conversation for months on end. There is no ignoring, or escaping, the conversation on COVID-19—people expect brands to be actively engaged in the public conversation, so much so that to talk about anything else seems tone deaf. Whatever annual strategy brands had in place prior to the pandemic was likely discarded over a month ago.

Another challenge is that consumer spending power is down even as consumers have increased exposure to brands and advertising. No other crisis has increased consumer exposure to the most prominent digital advertising spaces in quite the same way as a global quarantine. According to one survey, 66 percent of American consumers say the coronavirus has increased their consumption of streaming content. Even though more time spent with digital content will increase people’s exposure to brands and advertising, skyrocketing unemployment and economic uncertainty have decreased consumer spending—people are spending more time with brands, but not necessarily to buy products. On the contrary, people may be using this period of time to evaluate brands and be all the more selective about the companies they choose to engage with.

Third, the urgency of the pandemic has created additional risk for brands. Early consumer polling already shows that Americans are critical of brands attempting to exploit the pandemic for profit. Brands do not have the benefit of months-long focus groups and audience research reports to help them craft a COVID-19 strategy. Instead, they have been forced to quickly show how they can help fight the pandemic without fully understanding how consumer perspectives and needs have changed. In an age when a brand’s actions are expected to not just signal their own values, but also reflect the values of their customers, brands viewed as opportunistic or tone deaf in this moment could damage their relationships with consumers for years to come. 

These challenges are unique to today’s marketing environment and the stressors COVID-19 has placed on brands. While the duration of our tragic and difficult encounter with COVID-19 is unclear, the path forward for brands who wish to endure is not. Brands should commit to two core ideas to adapt to the current challenge and ensure their own longevity.

Amplified Importance of Shared Values

First, brands should understand that COVID-19 will increase the pressure on brands to commit to a shared value system with their audiences. To date, this shift has been steady and moderately paced, largely because there has been no single catastrophic event with the potential to upend brands’ marketing activities. In other words, brands have been relying on continued social stability to allow them to test the waters with different issues and evolve their social responsibility tactics deliberately and carefully from issue to issue. 

The current moment, however, is not simply another social trend to keep up with. It is a catastrophe that requires brands to immediately and fully reflect their values and the values of their consumers out into the world. This starts with brands taking stock of the people in their ecosystem most impacted by the pandemic and offering support in ways that reflect their expertise and values. UberEats, for example, has been waiving customers’ delivery fees when ordering from local restaurants. Nike and General Motors are using their global supply chains to provide safety masks to health care providers, and QuickBooks is teaming up with GoFundMe to support struggling small businesses. 

The key is for brands to recognize that this moment will accelerate the need to act in accordance with consumer values. Brands that fail to see this moment as a pivot point are likely to underwhelm during the pandemic and struggle after it.

Principles Over Contingency Plans

Second, brands should emerge from this crisis with a clear set of principles to guide their response to future crises. There will come a time when COVID-19 is more past than present. As brands and consumers settle into a new paradigm, brand leaders will certainly reflect on what they could have done differently and how they can better plan for unseen catastrophic events in the future. Contingency plans for certain black swan events are prudent to have in place. However, finite resources and the inability to predict the future make it unrealistic to plan for every crisis. Rather than create contingency plans for every potential world-altering event, there are more practical steps brand leaders can take. 

Specifically, brands should teach their employees to operate by a set of principles that reflect the company’s values and objectives. Generally, these principles should include staff empowerment and accountability to take action in a crisis and have clear, nimble workflows to provide appropriate oversight. They should also take into account the enduring aspects of a brand’s identity that have withstood the test of time. The Atlantic, for example, has long operated under the values of a “force of intellect” and a “spirit of generosity,” which serve as a guiding light for the company’s actions in times of stability as well as crisis. By emphasizing principles over contingency plans, brands will be able to better communicate their purpose and values to the world, and also prepare their teams to handle future unknowns. This will ultimately reinforce a brand’s ethical behavior and earn it greater esteem and respect among its audiences. 

Behaving in accordance with consumer values is not the only concern brands need to focus on. Of course, they need to continue to provide products and services that reflect the constant shifts in market forces and consumer needs. However, companies that are blind to the ways in which consumers are cultivating personal portfolios of values-based brands are missing one of the most important lessons COVID-19 can teach them—namely, that the crisis will cement the trend towards shared value systems between brands and consumers. Brands who internalize this lesson and act in accordance with the values of their audiences will find themselves better equipped to navigate an evolving landscape and earn a lasting place in their audience’s lives. 

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