Several brands are making big bets by placing their stories ahead of their products. From closing shop on the biggest retail business day of the year to committing to sourcing more ethical ingredients at no additional cost to the customer, major national retailers are making it clear that they are committed to building and maintaining their narratives instead of maximizing short-term profits.
Brand reputation is about much more than simply what tastes the best or who can offer the best deal—it’s about conveying the ethos of a company in a way that allows consumers to become invested stakeholders instead of casual buyers. Business transformation is about integrating new technologies, innovating infrastructure, and recruiting new talent. But it’s also about a company-wide mindset shift from product to audience-focused. Here’s a look at some of the biggest moves in company-wide mindset shifts and what it means for brand storytelling and customer connection.
McDonalds was one of the first major fast food retailers to pledge a switch to completely cage-free eggs in all of its dishes. The move came amid mounting pressure from public opinion in the wake of multiple documentaries lambasting factory farming techniques, which proved that even convenience and value-minded customers are concerned with brand stories and the nuances of the food supply chain. Once the paradigm shift began with McDonalds’ pledge, Taco Bell joined in on the cage-free craze and even seeks to beat its competitor by rolling out “American Humane Certified” eggs across its entire lineup faster than McDonalds.
The race to go humane is about much more than being nice to chickens as soon as possible—it’s about preventing consumers from shifting brand allegiance based on values that supersede their other considerations. Watching major fast food chains go head-to-head is an intriguing look at the speed with which paradigms shift once the snowball has started heading downhill. When it comes to building and maintaining brand reputation, upfront cost pales in comparison to the potential long-term losses or gains. Rapid implementation of new product incurs significant cost to an organization, but neither McDonald’s nor Taco Bell will pass that cost on to the customer. As corporate and consumer culture trend toward transparency and social entrepreneurship, it will be more expensive to cut costs than to absorb an initial increase in cost that will lead to customer retention and acquisition. Brand storytelling should convey the company’s admirable and evolving values.
A few weeks ago, REI’s #OptOutside campaign finally reached its crescendo as all of its stores were closed on Black Friday in a move aimed at encouraging its employees and customers to spend the holiday weekend getting outside instead of waiting in long lines to buy discounted products. Just as the retailer encouraged would-be customers to opt out of the Black Friday madness, it also chose to forego any potential earnings on what many consider the single largest retail day of the year. Though #OptOutside was a brief campaign, its message is part of a lasting effort to tell the REI brand story clearly.
Similar to Patagonia’s famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ads from a few years ago, the seemingly counterintuitive urges are actually anything but. In both cases, company ethos is clearly communicated through a very simple series of advertisements and social media posts, and closing the stores one day likely bolstered REI’s brand reputation among its key demographic more than the best ad campaign ever could. #OptOutside is one chapter in a much longer story that consistently reflects the company’s culture, which is a critical distinction. Positive PR moves only work so well; great storytelling only comes from ongoing and sincere business transformation.
AirBnB recently faced intense legislative scrutiny in its hometown of San Francisco, so it launched a counter-campaign that hinged around the stories of its individual users and the collective impact of its service in the city. Though AirBnB is now far from the scrappy startup that got rejected by seven investors when it sought a modest $150,000, it played up the startup narrative during its intense counterstrike to Proposition F (spoiler alert: voters struck down the proposition, which would have dramatically altered the way short-term rentals function in the city).
Even some infamous faux pas in its attempt to spread awareness about its positive impact on the city could not derail the public perception that AirBnB has built over the last seven years. From its site and logo redesign a few years ago to its most recent victory in San Francisco, the brand has continued to insist that it’s a partner with every community. Though AirBnB is a SaaS company, it’s had to maintain the same dynamic focus on customers over product in order to remain competitive and relevant. Last month’s Proposition F vote was an intriguing case study that pitted a brand with a history of good storytelling against a strident message from lawmakers and petitioners. The voting public proved that it believes in the customer-first brand story that AirBnB tells, which was a literal vote of confidence in the value of quality, consistent content.
Customers enjoy the empowerment that comes with participating in a brand’s story. Whether it’s offering a vote of confidence in a fast food chain by continuing your allegiance as the brand announces changes that reflect your values or voting with your wallet by switching your preferred drive through to one that has been public about its commitment to healthy, sustainable ingredients, the consumer has a lot of participatory power in a brand’s story. Speaking of power, in the era of knowledge-as-power, brands are held accountable now more than ever. Transparency is expected and concern for customers and global impact should be clearly communicated as a brand’s number one mission. Even in much less obvious consumer-facing industries, pressure is mounting for enterprises to tell a great story. Finding the consistent theme in your brand’s history and aligning it with your goals for future growth and connection to your consumer base is essential. Evaluating your areas of improvement may not look like the obvious thing to do on a spreadsheet, but it can save you a lot in the long run. From legal fees to customer retention, the virtuous feedback loop of telling and living a great brand story is truly priceless.
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