“Survival of the fittest” is often attributed to Darwinism. More accurately, however, Darwin was describing “survival of the flexible” as those species most rewarded with longevity. In the midst of an economic crisis stacked on top of an environmental crisis, it is this agility that is quickly defining the business and community leaders of tomorrow.
Understanding current financial limitations while remaining focused on the critical triple bottom line is the fundamental challenge for today’s organizations. The current confluence of an environmental and economic crisis is the greatest opportunity for culture change of our times. Companies and organizations that both understand and react to the latest in consumer expectations are well positioned to offer beneficial goods/services to customers and financial stability to their stakeholders.
These new consumer expectations include:
Transparency over spectacle.– Thanks to speed of accessing information, modern consumers are willing and able to research the companies and organizations they support. Much like Consumer Reports provides insight to product performance, blogs and NGOs eagerly provide more and more information regarding a company’s social and environmental performance. In an era where everyone has a voice, most Google search returns are user generated content, rather than corporate sponsored communication. This is your advantage.
According to the Reputation Institute, using its innovative reputation-modeling, a 10 percent increase in corporate reputation translates into a 1.3 percent increase in bottom line corporate value. Reputation is a trust issue. Trust is achieved through transparency.
Strive for Transparency over Spectacle. Report on it in your marketing and through standardized transparency reports (i.e. GRI).
Dialogue over monologue. – Social Networking sites have created the marketplace of the conversation. Consumers are using online conversation, status notifications and group affiliations (neo-tribes) in their social life. This is transcending the social and is becoming a business requirement as well. “What is Company XYZ doing right now?” Shell has launched Shell Dialogues to “explore the energy debate.” At the site, stakeholders can engage with Shell experts on a variety of topics. This can be viewed as a hijack of the strategy in question, but they are hijacking it for a reason.
Old school marketing of broadcasting a single, unreturned message is a failed strategy. Today’s consumer wants to engage with the brands they support. They want to shape them in their own image, not the other way around.
Whenever possible, ask questions of your customers. Then, of course, listen, engage, react, and say “thank you.”
“Fans” not customers. – In the Green Space, there is still quite a bit of “badge wearing.” The modern consumer is looking for unique opportunities to walk their own talk. When they find a brand that supports their mission and furthers their own brand of environmentalism or social justice, they talk about that brand, service or idea to their social networks. Old research demonstrated that the LOHAS consumer disliked being “marketed to.” This is likely true of all consumer segments. However, beneficial goods and services that reinforce personal brands have an amazing opportunity to create a fan-base out of their customers. Method and Dansko are great examples of this.
Treat your customers like fans, rather than customers. Create moments and stories they can share with their friends.
Cultural value AND immediate gratification. – Your new fan-base is hungry to support corporations that support their own cultural values. But they also want the perceptions of a fair price. They want transparency. They want value. And they want it now.
“Green” as a product attribute can be a powerful motivator, but it is rarely the only motivator. It is a new feature – in some cases it’s that new car smell. Don’t be confused into thinking that your product or service can live on green attributes alone. Make sure your fans know both your cultural value and economic value.
Play on the same field as your non-green competitors, and then spike the ball with extraordinary cultural value.
As disposable income decreases, consumers will naturally be more fiscally conservative. But, the smart ones with a little more expendable income will choose banks they are culturally aligned with. They will choose wisely where they can get the most economic and cultural bang for their buck. They will deposit their money with companies they trust and share values with. Build a brand to reinforce this. There are two strategies for building brands:
1. Earn them
2. Buy them
Both strategies work. One takes money. One takes time. Immediate return is what got us into this mess. So let’s choose enduring value over immediate return.
Cut your media buy, but engage your fan-base in new ways.
• Invest in social media
• Invest in public relations and blogger relationships
• Create public events that do MORE than just promote your business.
• Promote those events.
• Build a heroic brand.
• Develop deep economic and social relationships with mission-aligned non-profits.
And then, okay, if there’s money left over, buy an ad. Smart marketing dollars spent during a down economy are far more powerful than money spent during boom years. Consider that each dollar represents a greater percentage of the overall marketing expenditure in your given industry.
We are at a unique place and time. The crossroads of environmental and economic crisis provide agile companies with the ability to capture market share in a down market. Beneficial corporations and start-ups have the advantage in this market. We are the future value chain for products and services. We offer more than product. More than status. We offer solutions to the crises of our time. People need that. Companies with environmental and socially beneficial goods and services will manage through the current economic crisis and build value for the very sector that they helped create. Modern consumers are looking for solutions, perhaps even heroic companies to support.
Given 75 percent of a respectable media budget, innovative marketing and stakeholder engagement can return far more value in the long-run.
In the short-run, however, advertising is just the price you will pay for not being creative.
John Rooks is the President/Founder of The SOAP Group (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) – a communications advocacy company developing sustainability messaging and branding for corporations, start-ups, non-profits, traditional ad agencies and all the crevices in between.