Brands, stop talking about it. Be about it.

Henry AdamsActions speak louder than words, and brands should stop talking and start doing more to show they are more than meaningless products or services, writes Henry Adams.

For a few years running, the Meaningful Brand Index has reported that most people couldn’t care less if 70% of brands disappeared in a puff of smoke right here, right now.

There are a couple of things we can take from this. The first is that perhaps it should be renamed ‘The Meaningless Brand Index” because, by most definitions, those 70% aren’t even brands; they’re just names on labels, meaningless products or services.

The next is that consumers are sending a loud and clear message that it’s time for brands to rethink and redefine their business models and business values. Or, to put it another way, it’s time for them to pull their socks up, get their hiking pants on and start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.

These are lessons that major companies and brands need to learn: the imperative for a whole way of thinking, a new way of branding and a new way of thinking about branding.

When, for example, JC Penney announced its relaunch and Gap its repositioning, these multibillion dollar shrinking giants continued to operate in an old outward bound marketing model, using outmoded shift techniques — trying to find and push the messages that would bring customers to them. Unsurprisingly, this approach worked about as well as a chocolate teapot.

Again, the message is loud and clear: to deliver a meaningful brand performance – and give their consumers meaningful value and experiences – brands must connect, engage and behave responsibly and responsively. For far too long they’ve relied on pushing their own messaging communications and content in the hope that the audience would listen and act on what they heard without question. Yes, some of this content is attention grabbing, disruptive and even involving, but how much is it really creating a new and deeper engagement for brands in an environment exploding with fragmentation?

How a company or brand behaves and acts has far greater influence on someone’s interest and involvement than any single product or service they sell. Jon Iwata, the CMO of IBM has for years spoken about the “Authentic Enterprise”, where how you act as a company defines who you are.

It makes sense. Products and services spring up like mushrooms and, like mushrooms (although not as tasty on toast), many are pretty much interchangeable.

They mostly all meet the needs of their market, yet marketers still seek that elusive “differentiation” that distinguishes their brand from others. What they fail to recognise is that today, a brand has to be either useful, meaningful and engaging, or it’s irrelevant. This is as true in B2B marketing as well as in B2C – in B2B, a brand creates a promise or expectation of how it will behave with customers and in the industry.

Innocent SmoothiesAn excellent (and early) example of a brand that does what it says on the bottle is the British company Innocent Drinks. It was founded in 1999 by three city workers who started selling smoothies at a music festival. They put up a sign asking people if they thought the three of them should give up their jobs to make smoothies, and also put a bin saying “Yes” and a bin saying “No” in front of the stall. At the end of the weekend, the “Yes” bin was full, so that’s exactly what they did. Their brand promise was, “We promise that anything Innocent makes will always taste good and do you good. We strive to do business in a more enlightened way, where we take responsibility for the impact of our business on society. Where we can, we will donate our resources or money to those who need it more than us. It’s that simple.”

Again, they did exactly that. They introduced new products like Veg Pots for healthy children’s lunches, partnered with the British government on their 5 A Day project and set up the Innocent Foundation, which funds projects in the UK and all over the world to alleviate hunger. As a result, brand and product at Innocent cannot be separated (even though Coca-Cola bought a majority share in 2013, the founders made sure that Coke committed to Innocent’s ethical ideals, and its promise to give 10% of profits to charity as part of the deal) and consumers love them for it.

FarmVilleIn another example, Zynga has become one of the most successful businesses on the web with games like “Mafia Wars,” “Texas Hold ‘Em” “Farmville” and “YoVille” helping the company become a big player in the expanding social-media space. With a daily user base of 50 million, for Zynga, user experience and perceived value is everything as its players are its best marketers: the games tap into the network effect of social media; people invite friends from their social network to play games, and, they, in turn, invite more in. However, when Zynga came under fire for several questionable offers showing up in its games, CEO Mark Pincus listened to his consumers’ disquiet and removed offers altogether. The result was that consumers felt an increase of value in the games and increasingly valued by Zynga itself.

Stop Funding HateIn short, these days, articulating purpose alone is not enough. Brands need to think less about what they say and more and more about what they actually do. Interestingly, at this very moment in time, we’re able to witness the process in action (or inaction). Stop Funding Hate, an organisation aimed at persuading advertisers to pull their support from certain racially divisive British newspapers has recently targeted Virgin. Given how much we’ve heard over the years from Sir Richard Branson about Virgin’s socially responsible values, shouldn’t we expect the brand to act like them, too?

Henry Adams is the founder of Singapore-based content marketing agency Contented


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