“They want the companies they do business with not only to ‘do good’ and make the world a better place but also to advocate on their behalf and make them feel like they are part of a larger community or grander mission.”—author Anne Bahr Thompson about customers’ expectations of the brands they use
This excerpt illustrates a key principle behind “Brand Citizenship,” a concept introduced by Anne Bahr Thompson, in her inspirational and insightful new book: DO GOOD: Embracing Brand Citizenship To Fuel Both Purpose And Profit.
An advance warning to readers of DO GOOD. Don’t confuse the author’s concept with corporate altruism.
Brand Citizenship, according to Thompson, is purposefully pursued in an effort to:
“Create more loyal customers, more engaged employees, more raving fans, more positive reputation, more engaged stakeholders and more shareholder value.”
As the book title states: purpose and profit
Key lessons in corporate good
The book’s focus on social good shouldn’t dissuade you from the important business lessons contained within. In addition to sharing interesting and inspirational stories of companies that have combined doing good with good business, this book provides an excellent summary on the power inherent in an organization truly living its brand.
Beyond doing social good, Brand Citizenship—actually a term registered by the author—reflects the importance of understanding your customers; developing a brand identity designed to resonate with those customers; and then building the operating model and processes that will consistently deliver upon that promise.
All of which is critical for success, regardless of whether your bank decides to become a Brand Citizen or if you simply wish to improve your company’s performance.
Significantly, Thompson writes that “Brand Citizenship isn’t about a company sacrificing to better the world. Nor is it boasting about doing good.”
Becoming a Brand Citizen
As defined by Thompson, Brand Citizenship is a way of doing business.
“It stems from a company’s core purpose, to its delivery of good and services; to its responsibility to its employees, community, the environment, and the world,” Thompson writes.
A company which is a true Brand Citizen recognizes that it is part of a larger ecosystem. It serves society, not itself, and exists only because of its customers, Thompson argues.
Done well, Thompson believes that by committing to practicing Brand Citizenship, a brand will engender trust, which is the starting point for brand loyalty and serves as the foundation for a strong relationship with the company’s clients.
Trust is a concept to which Thompson, rightly so, continuously returns. She does an excellent job exploring the power of trust. I highly recommend her Chapter 4, “Trust: Don’t Let Me Down.”
Trust, though, is only the beginning. Good corporate citizenship only resonates when it improves customers’ day-to-day lives or addresses their individual hopes and concerns for themselves or society.
The four steps, beyond establishing trust, identified by Thompson which are required to earn Brand Citizenship are:
1. Enriching customer lives—which requires understanding consumers as individuals.
2. Taking responsibility—behave fairly, and treat employees, suppliers, and the environment well.
3. Building a community/connection—bring people together through shared values and common passions.
4. Making a contribution—make me bigger than I am. Thompson urges companies help employees and consumers to experience giving or change of habits firsthand.
Thompson labels the dynamic created by embracing these steps as “ME-WE.”
“Consumers feel companies should provide solutions to their personal ME problems, needs and dreams and to their generalized WE worries about the economy, the problems in the world and the planet.”
Employee engagement represents another benefit to pursuing Brand Citizenship. A survey conducted by EY/Harvard Business which Thompson cites found that 89% of respondents stated that purpose-driven organizations encourage greater employee satisfaction.
Becoming a true Brand Citizen thus requires the creation of a clear purpose, which guides and benchmarks all of a company’s actions. In turn, this gives customers confidence and inspires employees.
Citizenship requirements are tough
The advantages of following the Brand Citizenship model outlined by Thompson are real.
Given that, why doesn’t every company pursue this course of action? In reading DO GOOD, two potential challenges were evident:
1. It’s really hard!
2. Is it necessary to focus on a social good?
Exploring each in turn, first, as Thompson admits, achieving Brand Citizenship is difficult. Among the reasons for this are:
• Taking a public stand can be polarizing. Not everyone shares the same definition of “good.” Companies that advocate for a cause run the risk of losing more customers that they gain, as well as angering employees, investors, and other stakeholders.
• Motives may be questioned. Companies may legitimately fear being accused of having ulterior motives for doing good—or of appearing opportunistic.
• Risk of arm-twisting. Advocacy groups may seek to shame or publicly enlist brands to support their causes.
• You have to be “all-in.” Commitment to brand promise has to permeate an entire organization. Asking managers in these companies to make tough decisions in support of a social good presents them with risks. What happens to them, if results don’t follow their efforts?
Thompson supports this last point with an interesting statistic: 90% of executives believe that they understand the importance of benefiting local and global society. However, only 46% say their purpose informs operational or strategic decision making.
Now, regarding the second point—Is it necessary to focus on a social good?
Participants in research conducted by Thompson’s firm found that consumers believe that the first responsibility of a business is to live up to its promises to customers and employees.
In a surprising confirmation of that finding, Walmart was identified by consumers as a business demonstrating Brand Citizenship.
The surprise wasn’t that Walmart was named as a Brand Citizen. The surprise came in the reason cited: Consistency in keeping prices low, which improves quality of life for its customers. (Consider that the retailer’s motto is “Save money. Live better.”)
This raised some questions for me. Among them:
• Which is more important, ethics or consistency?
• What’s more important, singular actions, even if well-intentioned or sustained focus?
• Can any company with a well-defined and operationalized brand identity company claim to be a good corporate citizen?
The attributes shared by Thompson on what it takes to have a strong brand identity sum it up well:
1. Aligning strategies that speak to people’s real needs and desires with their brand purpose and business operation.
2. Developing criteria that guide managers in making the necessary trade-offs among competing stakeholders.
A company can create and sustain a strong brand and realize the benefits that it brings, without overtly supporting a social good.
Must your bank become a citizen?
So, is becoming a brand citizen necessary to optimize the power of your bank’s brand?
Yes … and no.
Having a social mission is not required to build a strong brand identity. However, combining a strong brand identity with a social cause, if genuine and rooted in what your product does, provides intangible benefits and can create a sense of purpose for your entire organization. Financial institutions can think of this in terms of their Community Reinvestment Act efforts.
Again, profit and purpose.
Power of a brand
Thompson delivers an enjoyable and inspiring read. This is an excellent book on brand management.
Readers can gain insight through the use of real-world examples from diverse industries and client segments— including SunTrust “onUp Movement,” a financial wellness program*—and by the lessons on making a brand real, which are interspersed throughout the book.
If you already understand the power of consistently being able to deliver on your brand promise, read this book for the inspirational stories of people and companies that are making a positive difference for society and the communities they serve.
If you don’t understand the power of brand and brand alignment, or you are unsure how to achieve brand alignment within your organization, then you need to read this book.
* Regarding the SunTrust program—which claims over 2 million members—part of what Thompson has to say is that she has consulted with multiple financial services firms and conducted multiple types of research. “I don’t recall many people trawling through traditional financial services collateral or websites to find the information they were seeking with any gusto. The ‘Real Stories’ tab of the onUp website, for example, encourages just this.”