How does your brand behave?

By Tim Glister on Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The opening months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been tumultuous. From confusion over immigration policy to the defunding of scientific research and the rise of fake news, many sectors have experienced an upheaval of the status quo. Businesses are feeling the ground shift beneath them too.

For the last few years companies have been expected to have a clear brand purpose, a set of guiding principles that underscore their reason for being, that hopefully align with the worldview of their customers.

But now, in an environment of heightened, unstable politics and social media domination, it isn’t enough for a brand to simply say it believes in something, it must act on these beliefs too – and be prepared to be held to account.

From an idea to a behaviour

Our recent whitepaper, Purpose in Action, showed how consumers were starting to judge brands more and more on their actions. And the political events of the last month have only broadened and deepened this desire. It seems that, where people feel unable to affect politics or see their own political beliefs reflected in the actions of their governments, they are now looking to brands to fill this gap.

Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United State’s from seven (and then six) predominantly Muslim countries was a catalyst for both widespread public outrage and action by a number of brands.

Businesses from Ford and Apple to PriceWaterhouseCoopers and JP Morgan spoke out against the ban. Others went further, doubling down on the purpose and principles that first attracted customers to them (in some cases a long time ago) and turning them into action.

Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees, while Amazon led a legal challenge against the travel ban. Some brands seized on public sentiment to score easy brand points with immigration-themed Superbowl advertising. Airbnb went further, turning their #WeAccept Superbowl ad spot into a real brand action, committing to provide temporary housing for 100,000 displaced people over the next five years.

It doesn’t always work out

Naturally, not all action will be either well-received or understood as intended - like when Uber suspended surge pricing to JFK airport in the evening of a major protest against the travel ban. It was seen by many as an attempt to profit from a service stoppage by NYC cab drivers, despite the surcharge being suspended after the cab protest had finished. The social media backlash was abrupt (and fanned by ride-hailing competitor Lyft), prompting people across the globe to delete their Uber accounts.

The danger of actions being misinterpreted and falling foul of hashtag activism or worse is particularly high for financial services brands, which may go some way to explaining why many have not been particularly vocal in response to recent events.

A unique challenge for financial services

FS brands are ahead of the pack in certain areas, like developing products and services tailored to fit unique customer needs, or championing diversity both internally and externally, such as with Lloyd’s For Your Next Step and ANZ’s #HoldTight campaigns. But these all reflect the long-term trajectory of society rather than sudden or temporary change.

Jumping on fast-moving bandwagons or trying to respond to extremely changeable situations can leave any brand flatfooted as public opinion shifts around them. For financial services this risk is compounded, because FS brands have to balance appealing to customers’ emotional desires in the present with their long-term needs for security and stability that can extend beyond the length of a presidency.

In many territories the financial sector must also navigate a uniquely close relationship with government. Whether particular societies believe business and politics should be kept far away from each other or very close together, financial services are constant fodder for politicians. From regulation to sanction, drawing too much attention from political regimes can be disastrous for FS brands – and, therefore, their customers.

Which battles should you fight?

So, what can financial services brands do in response to unstable political climates and the sometimes conflicting desires and expectations of their customers?

The first thing is to have an authentic purpose that can guide you and behaviour. The second thing is to clearly communicate this purpose to your staff, customers and consumers in general, so they fully understand who you are, what you stand for, and what they should expect from you. Then, you’ll be in a strong position to take action that reflects your purpose when you feel that you should or when your staff, customers or the public demand it.

Of course, it’s important to still be selective with this action in order to avoid becoming better known for your media profile than for the actual services you provide. A good rule of thumb for taking action might be to only fight the battles you are willing to both win and lose. And if you can’t find any, it may be time to revisit your guiding principles and purpose.

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