In today's environment, the notion of building meaningful relationships with customers and other stakeholders can feel daunting.
For example, companies might feel caught between the partisan poles, nervous that an action taken on one side of an issue could alienate those on the other. In fact, a recent survey by Morning Consult found that large numbers of consumers indicated preferences for brands based on their political stances.
But there is hope. We've worked with dozens of major brands that are successfully navigating these issues. In our decades of work in this area, we have found that customers and other kinds of stakeholders choose to affiliate with an organization primarily based on their assessment of that company’s motives, intent and values. While individual actions embracing one particular cause or another might matter, they are typically only impactful when they bear a strong relationship to the organization’s brand. In other words, embrace and focus on the things that are core to who you are, and don’t worry too much about the rest.
Expectations for corporate brands are complex. It is often difficult to judge a company solely on the basis of its product, as products are often varied. In addition, consumers intuitively understand that a company is more than the sum of its products; a company is an employer, a policy influencer, a community leader, etc. In that framework, a consumer’s interest in having a relationship with the company takes on a different meaning, and it can be lost just as it can be earned.
As an illustration of this, consider Lyft and Uber: Because the companies share many of the same drivers and offer equivalent pricing, there would seem to be little practical difference between their products. Yet, according to The Washington Post, the values and images portrayed by both companies played a significant role in their success.
I don’t have any personal insight as to whether there is any true distinction between Lyft and Uber; I only have the observation that the perception of values is meaningful to brand choice, heightened in this case because the corporate brand and the “product” brand are synonymous. This elevates the risk associated with perceptions of corporate values.
This conclusion — that perceived values are a driving factor in stakeholder decision making — leads us to the obvious question: In the current environment, how can a company hope to share the aspirations and values of its varied stakeholders?
1. Let your values shine.
Values must drive business choices and be transparent to internal and external audiences. If they fail these tests, then they aren’t values. Values need to be discussed, socialized and recognized as a living part of the culture of the organization. That starts with you becoming comfortable talking openly about those values, particularly with your own colleagues.
2. Express values through your actions.
Values are most persuasive when they are expressed through action. Values should be a subtext to business practices, policy choices, community engagement, social responsibility and all the associated communications. When talking about the strategic direction of the enterprise to internal and external audiences, explain how that direction is in sync with the organization's values. Values lead strategy.
3. Recognize your consumers' values.
Consumer values have shifted. For example, in our work, we see that environmental responsibility has emerged as a core expectation for companies across a variety of sectors not traditionally impacted by environmental concerns. Consumers no longer think of the environment as a separate consideration from their own personal well-being.
Start by ensuring that you understand your consumers' expectations through a lens that goes beyond product attributes. Consider their aspirations, particularly where those aspirations are relevant to your business and its impact on society. Brands increasingly are differentiated by their aspirational differences, rather than their functional differences.
4. Lean into your purpose.
Companies that lean into their purpose through their actions and values tend to inspire ever-greater loyalty. Look at Patagonia, which declares that, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” This declaration wouldn’t work for every company, but for Patagonia, it seems to be a genuine expression of its values.
Don't overreach here. Your purpose might not be to save the planet, but a purpose that is relevant to your business and that addresses the aspirations of your stakeholders can still inspire loyalty. Focus on what you are well positioned to deliver and what is true to your own values.
No company can appease all of its stakeholders all of the time. But what you can do is root your brand in some larger aspirations and values that imbue it with greater clarity and meaning. These actions can help create context for what it really means to have trust in an organization.