By Scott Hughes, Vice President, Insight and Planning, Critical Mass, and Scott Radford, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, Haskayne School of Business

It seems as if nearly every consumer brand has a social media presence – some more successful than others. Some of the most successful examples are when brands are playful, fun, and reflect some sort of personality. Brands like Oreo, Arby’s, Clorox, and Denny’s have created amusing, quirky, and witty social media that engages in conversations with their followers. As a consequence of engaging in this conversation, consumers begin to personify the brands and expect them to react the same way as other members of their social feed.

A glance at our own social media feed will often show a varied level of response to cultural events. Just as we expect our friends to respond to these cultural moments, we expect brands to respond as well. It is no longer enough for brands to stand on the sidelines when these cultural moments galvanize into a larger cultural movement, whether this is the #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, or marriage equality.

The 2017 Edelman Earned Brand Study shows that consumers are increasingly considering ideology as part of their purchase decisions. This “buydeology” means that consumers will switch from, select, or even boycott brands that align (or don’t align) with their own ideological position. While younger audiences tend to be more belief driven, it is not just restricted to millennials. Buydeology is rising across a variety of verticals from food products, to financial services. And, as consumers make buying with their conscience a priority they become strong loyalists of the brand: advocating for brands and even paying a premium.

The challenge for brands is to decide how to respond to these cultural movements. We propose 7 steps that a company should consider as it enters the cultural conversation. Below, we will describe these with reference to a company that successfully used these steps: AirBnB.

Incorporate cause and purpose in your brand’s DNA

Firms need to move beyond social responsibility end begin to think about social purpose. While many firms have Corporate Social Responsibility programs, these programs are not always aligned with the ideals of the organization. A firm must be clear about its purpose and what it believes in. In order to mobilize employees and customers, the cause must be something that is not peripheral to the brand, but something that is a core part of the brand’s identity.

AirBnB provides an excellent example of this in practice. The company’s vision is of a world where “Anyone can Belong Anywhere.” As a core value, AirBnB believes in removing bias and discrimination and building inclusion.

Identify resonant moments

Brands must continually monitor the environment and pay attention to the cultural movements that are occurring. But, perhaps just as important, to recognize that cultural moments are only resonant if they matter to the customer. Because inclusion, removal of bias, and anti-discrimination is central to AirBnB’s DNA, when President Trump announced the travel ban for several predominantly Muslim countries, the company was compelled to action. The company responded by providing free housing to refugees and anyone affected by the travel ban.

Lead from the top

In order for social purpose to become a part of a firm’s DNA, top management must believe in it and must embed this into the mission, vision, and strategy of the organization. While grassroots initiatives within firms will often take hold on a small scale, for a firm to orient around social purpose, top management must be leading the initiative. When the above-mentioned response was made by the company it did not come from a press release, but instead from CEO, Brian Chesky’s twitter account. Not only did he post it, he invited anyone affected by the ban to contact him personally if they needed help.

Operationalize your values and beliefs

It is quite easy to create and ad or make a statement to the world, but if the organization itself does not actually embed it into their own policies and practices they risk being inauthentic. In June 2016, AirBnB reviewed all aspects of the company and invited outside experts to consult with it to ensure that they were not only talking about these values, but were operationalizing them in the business. The result of this was that AirBnB now expects all hosts to agree to a detailed non-discrimination policy, provides alternate arrangements for guests who feel they have been discriminated against, and made anti-bias training available to their hosts.

Learn the language and understand the community

Opening a conversation with a community, requires the brand to learn the language and learn about the community. Simply appropriating imagery or terminology from a movement without understanding the movement is at best tone deaf and at worst could be insulting. AirBnB actively worked with experts to ensure that it was using appropriate and respectful language in all of its communication.

Demonstrate some action towards the cause

Words alone are not enough. It is crucial in the modern marketing context that brands engage in communication with their customers. This means that communication should not be seen as a one-way broadcast without meaning behind it. While a brand may support a cause in principle, if they are not already supporting it either by operationalizing values or demonstrating action towards the cause, then the words become meaningless. As noted above, AirBnB did not just speak out against the travel ban, it provided free housing to those affected, it provides free housing for people on humanitarian efforts, and it committed to contribute $4 million to support the needs of displaced populations through the International Rescue Committee.

Build or Join the community

If the community does not exist then the brand can take an opportunity to build it and if it does exist then it is important to become a part of the community, engage in the conversation, participate in the discussion, learn the language, and contribute to the cause. Central to AirBnB’s mission is to create a global community of people who are hosting and travelling, but more importantly a community that believes in the company’s vision of inclusivity.

Want to learn more? Scott and Scott presented at Haskayne Hour on January 24. Watch the video.

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