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Being the Brand You Want to Be

What are the Risks and Benefits when a Brand Expresses Values?

Over the last few months, there has been virtually constant news about which brands are making public statements of values and whether that is a good idea. Lists of brands to either boycott or patronize have been drawn up for both supporters and opponents of President Trump. Some brands have taken an explicit stand around the travel ban, while others have been studiously neutral. Advertisements that the advertisers claim are non-political are routinely scrutinized for political messages.

What We Say ≠ What We Do

Psychology and marketing researchers have accumulated a huge amount of evidence that people’s expressed attitudes don’t always turn into behavior. This is as true for values-based consumption (e.g., green purchasing, attending to labor practices, politics) as anything else. We say we want to buy green, we say we don’t want to buy products from companies that abuse their workforce, we say we will boycott businesses that support or oppose President Trump, but we don’t always follow through on what we say.

The Switching Segment is Limited

Compounding the first reason, the number of customers open to switching to or away from a brand may be small in general. Consider three generic customer segments: the advocates, the critics, and the indifferent.

Actions May Cause Reactions

Overall, brands that take a side may lose some business. If a brand is seen as “blue,” “red” customers either may cut back on purchases or stop purchasing it entirely. What this may in turn lead to, however, is increased purchasing from customers on the other side. Call it a sorting rather than a loss. “Blue” customers may increase their purchases of a brand they see as supporting their values. A company may even acquire new blue customers that it had not previously served. Customer engagement may change: there may be more word-of-mouth, pro and con. Think about all the conversation around Budweiser’s recent Super Bowl ad retelling its founders’ immigrant roots. If you believe the old saw that “no publicity is bad publicity,” Budweiser got a lot out of free exposure out of that ad. Even if you don’t believe it, passionate blue engagement may offset passionate red engagement. All of this likely further diminishes the overall sales effect of taking a values-driven stand. It may even lead to a more coherent customer base that is easier to serve.

Consider Other Stakeholders

Looking at overall sales is probably the wrong answer here. The logic of small risk here also implies small returns. In the end, choosing a side probably doesn’t risk much or gain much for a firm in terms of sales; sales impact isn’t the way to make this decision.

Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable

The old saying when I was growing up was, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” That is the safe, mass-market brand answer, but I’m not sure it’s the right answer for our times. If we never talk, we never change. What I do think brands can do is express values without demonizing opposing views. Calling people stupid doesn’t make them smarter. Conversation and simple good deeds trump, if you will, confrontation. Don’t worry so much about whether good values are good business. Worry about whether good values are good values. Be red, be blue, or just maybe, try to be a brand for everyone.

A practical business professor musing on marketing and management from his not quite ivory tower. Writings do not represent the views of Northeastern University

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