Branding in our Trumpian Times
Unless your brand is at the wrong end of a tweet directed from our president, as a business owner, you have likely made peace by now with how your brand navigates in a solar system with Donald Trump’s brand as the sun. Few can honestly doubt the Trump brand’s gravitational force and ability to dominate news cycles (positively or negatively) or its ripple effects on many industries spanning defense, healthcare, technology, finance, energy, housing, sports and retail. I hear consistent requests from CEOs: how can we better adapt a brand for these highly polarized times? And even more challenging, in a post-fact world, how can brands resonate and remain authentic?
As a start to answering these questions, let us review this past year and some of the incredible brand failures we witnessed. The following are a few that stand out.
United Airlines dragging a passenger off a flight stands out both for its egregiousness and the surprising lack of effect it had. A few months after this incident, United shareholders were pleased with the airline’s financial performance, and leadership remained intact—unlike any of the examples that follow.
Uber’s tone-deaf leadership and cavalier attitude began to rot the company from its core. The values that helped aggressively build the company and culture began destroying it.
Perhaps the most notorious examples are the downfalls of personal brands. These collapses affected multibillion-dollar enterprises in the entertainment ecosystem. Of course, we are talking about the brands known as Mario Batali, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and several others.
Central to all these examples is the role that the bonds these brands form with stakeholders (i.g., employees, investors, consumers, partners and suppliers) are fundamental and in constant flux. Nurturing, enhancing and protecting those bonds should be a top business priority. Here are three key areas to keep in mind as we enter the new year.
- Know your value chain.
Too often we see CEOs treat their audiences in a very binary way: buyers or influencers—period.
In today’s interdependent and interconnected world, you need a more nuanced view of all your stakeholders and the role they play in delivering value for your company. Think about the bonds you are forming with each major stakeholder group and how to better nurture or enhance them.
- Treat technology as a means.
Brands that don’t fully embrace technology will struggle to survive. A notable example of this comes from our Brand Intimacy Study of twelve thousand consumers. Brands that exist within the smartphone ecosystem (e.g., manufacturers, service providers, app developers) outperform those outside it. This means that the technology and enhancement features of the smartphones many of us carry actually deepen the bonds with the brands that we use in concert with them. As clear an example of the benefits of technology as this is, we urge CEOs to keep in mind that technology is purely a means to an end. Focus on the end goal of building or enhancing the bonds with your stakeholders, and the investments and choices you make with technology can help you achieve them.
- Think about the gender balance
In this past year, we’ve witnessed a watershed moment for women in the workplace. The numerous high-profile cases of sexual harassment, pay equality and discrimination have shone a much-needed light on the need for more equitable business practices. Expect these trends to trickle down from the headlines to positively affect every company and work environment. Any brand that misses the mark in perception, communication or performance will pay a hefty price.
Remember, brands perform best when thought of as a relationship or bond between your company and all of its stakeholders. The more intimate or the stronger the bonds, the better the brand will perform in almost every measurable way. Because today’s biggest brand force—Trump—will continue to keep us guessing, we urge all CEOs to remain committed to building their brands through strong emotional bonds. These bonds are our best defense against the unpredictable as well as forces like commoditization, disruption, or the challenge of accelerated growth.