We’re not calling YOU, dear reader, names here – we’re simply summarizing what consumer marketers have known for some time now: that we’re moving from the “consumer era” to the “relationship era.” And, unless you want to eat the dust of savvy companies who value the human element of the audiences with whom they do business, you’d better pay attention.
According to Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, who wrote a fantastic article on the Relationship Era for adage.com, marketers survived using mass advertising tactics for hundreds of years. During the Consumer Era, which lasted from 1965 until about now, marketing transitioned from focusing on product attributes (Lucky Strike cigarettes: “It’s toasted!”) to engaging the customer’s heart and mind (MasterCard: “Priceless.”).
And it’s worked. Reaching your audience on an emotional level like MasterCard, Nike and Apple is what all brands aspire to do. But an emotional appeal isn’t enough anymore. The digital age has ushered in a new, highly fragmented communication model. It’s no longer “few” to “many,” – it’s “many” to “many,” and companies are no longer in total control of their brands and reputations. In the Relationship Era, marketers (this means B2B marketers, too) must attract the customer who not only adores and buys their product, but evangelizes it as well.
According to Garfield and Levy, the new currency of commerce is trust. The 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer reported “quality products and services” was the top response in identifying the standard of trust. In 2012, “quality” dropped to number three and “transparent and honest practices” was number one – cited by 83% of survey respondents.
While quality still matters, it isn’t something you can afford to hang your hat on. Companies today are being evaluated 24/7 in countless conversations, and by and large the brands with the most zealous evangelists are those who are true to their core values. According to the adage.com article, a Google search for “I love Apple” garners 3.27 million hits. “I love Zappos”: 1.19 million. “I love Exxon”: 4,730. And “I love Dow Chemical”: a whopping three. Not million or thousand – just three.
Like it or not, your brand is tied to emotions such as love, hate or indifference. Typing in “I hate Exxon” will get you 2.16 million Google hits, compared to the 4,730 hits proclaiming love. The conversations happening around your brand and company have little to do with your catchy slogan and everything to do with what Garfield and Levy call your brand’s “essential self” – or the core values upon which your company operates.
Your brand’s “essential self” is not to be confused with a unique selling proposition, however. It’s not a reason why your widgets are better than the other guy’s or how you deliver value to your customers. It’s an authentic sense of purpose that drives every facet of your business, from the employees you hire to the vendors with whom you partner.
If this “essential self” does not align with your actions or marketing messages, you’re going to be in very real trouble. These words were etched in stone in the lobby of a corporate headquarters: “Integrity. Communication. Respect. Excellence.” The company? Enron.
Core values and mission statements can’t be faked by a PR department. To be believable, they must be internalized by every single person in your company from top to bottom, and they must inform the individuals and companies you do business with on the outside.
Let’s revisit Dow Chemical and their three positive sentiments. Their slogan is “The Human Element.” It’s aspirational and personal. And it looks good on paper, if you overlook the fact that they are a chemical company that bought the chemical company responsible for one of the world’s largest industrial catastrophes in history: the Bhopal gas disaster. Makes their message about humanity seem disingenuous, doesn’t it?
It is possible to operate with values and turn a profit. Just look at the example cited in the article: outdoors outfitter Patagonia. They’ve been doing business the same way for over 40 years and still enjoy profits in the 9% range. They donate at least 1% of gross sales to environmental causes and their employee turnover is less than 5%. And this is after making “costly” decisions such as using only organic cotton.
As B2B marketers, we concede that business customers aren’t likely to affix “I love my inverted thermodynamic coupling widget!” stickers to the bumpers of their cars. But they will share a positive experience with their online user community or industry trade organization. If they’re an organization committed to living and acting on their core values too, they’ll choose to do business with like-minded companies.
Firms driven by purpose rather than the bottom line regularly outperform the rest of their corporate counterparts. In the past 15 years, companies like Honda, Trader Joe’s, Southwest Airlines and eBay saw growth (on average) of 1,646% while the rest of the S&P grew just 157%.
These days, operating truthfully and transparently isn’t a choice – it’s a must if you want to grow and succeed. Because your customers are talking about you whether you like it or not. If your actions don’t align with the messages you’re disseminating, they’re going to notice. We all want more than three vocal fans in our fan club, right? And we certainly don’t want 2.16 million against us.
How does your organization live its core values? Do you think it’s possible for profitability and corporate responsibility to go hand in hand?