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Shared value: the next step in the evolution of branding
Posted by
Robert Jameson at 10:00

Darwin's Theory of Evolution says that for a species to survive, it must develop advantageous traits specific to its environment. "In a nutshell, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism's genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival, a process known as natural selection."

Today, this theory is very appropriate to how brand managers view their brand in the context of the brand universe. The sheer number of products has resulted in an overpopulated marketplace - so much so that in a single store - consumers can, for example, be faced with up to 175 different salad dressings. With such a saturated marketplace, only a handful of brands will thrive. So, what 'advantageous traits' should a brand manager seek to cultivate within the brand's 'genetic code' in order to ensure its survival?

The short answer is that the ability of a brand to fulfil the deepening needs of the consumer - in the context of their broader world - will result in a process of 'natural selection', determining whether a brand thrives or ceases to compete. But surpassing consumers' needs is no easy feat as they are constantly evolving and increasing. Given the quantity of brands out there, we can all assume that what was once the staple of marketing theory, i.e. price, placement, etc is now only a basic requirement to be in the game.

So, what then is at the heart of consumer's needs from a brand today? There are probably three critical needs that must be integrated into the DNA of a brand to ensure its survival in a new world order.

The first of these is fair play. Consumer activism has become the norm in countries with high rates of Internet usage - both in the West and in countries such as India. In South Africa, we are still experiencing a relatively passive consumer. But that will inevitably change. For example: cell phones now allow everyone to be a citizen journalist. Just think of the cell phone footage that an anonymous individual took of the product labels being switched on pork offal, which was then sold as halaal. There is a proliferation of websites, where consumers can log what they think is unfair practice - whether in terms of pricing, quality or even, labour practice. If a brand, doesn't play fair - irrespective of what the advertising says - increasingly more powerful consumers will kill it.

The second 'survival gene' is authenticity. Remember the days when paid 'celebrity endorsement' was enough to create a distinctive brand identity? Today's consumers are more sceptical and more sophisticated than ever before. This is probably as a result of the plethora of choice and the process of branding itself, which has created a more sophisticated consumer. But it's also, undoubtedly, because of the transparency that has been forced on society by technology. Consumers can literally 'smell' inauthentic behaviour and credibility can't be bought. You will undermine the brand if you say you're organic when you are not (look at the Green Index) or violate the trust of consumers (think of the dairy companies and the use of animal rennet in product or BP purporting to support the environment but not taking responsibility for the oil spill off the U.S. coastline). In the long-term, 'faking it' or 'fudging it' costs more and brands will be 'found out' by savvy consumers. A trusted 'survival gene' is to be genuine in all brand interactions.

The third gene is 'shared good.' One of the newer factors that influence choice is the level to which the brand is used as a vehicle for good. This speaks to the idea of 'shared value.' With the right intent and strategy, a brand can advance the social and economic conditions of a community, whilst being profitable and competitive. For example: the Pampers 'One Vaccine" campaign - where every pack of Pampers bought, will allow for a disadvantaged child to be vaccinated against malaria. Another example is, TOMS US online shoe retailer, with their "One for One" campaign. For every pair of shoes sold, they donate one pair to a child in need. This is an example of how a brand can hone the idea of shared value. By adapting and understanding the 'deeper' needs of their market, TOMS has rivalled some of the most established brands and formed meaningful relationships with consumers. How consumers perceive 'shared value' has become complex and requires that the brand integrates the idea of value into all touch points.

We know that the world of business and branding is changing rapidly. Brands must realise the prospective financial gain in rooting profits in a social or environmental purpose and accept that it is an integral part of their future survival.

It seems that more is expected of brands than ever before. They are required to behave with the same integrity, values and added-value that we expect from human beings - in fact we expect trusted brands to behave like the 'friends' that they purport to be. Just as plants and animals have symbiotic relationships between one another, it seems consumers and brands are beginning to forge those of their own. In order to prosper in the future it might just be that those who work for each other rather than against each other will be the successful ones.

So, brands that are genetically encoded to meet the broader needs of society - that are able to make a positive contribution to our humanity - and that can adapt to meet the greater needs of consumers - are more likely destined for survival.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." - Charles Darwin

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