Amidst the day to day pressures we all face… looming deadlines, budget constraints, business results, people performance and market share growth it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental role that brands play for both our customers and our organisations.
At their very core brands are created to attract an audience to our company’s products or services. Within the competitive fields in which we operate a strong brand helps our company to be noticed, remembered and understood.
At their best brands represent an ideal or a purpose of which those who work for the brand can be proud and to which your audience can aspire. In short, brands provide an emotional short cut for our busy brains; the stronger this emotional connection the more likely business success will follow.
We all have our own favourite examples of ‘purpose-led’ brands that stand for something fundamentally human and certainly bigger than the category in which they operate. It has been well documented that as humans we care more about the ‘why’s’ rather than the ‘what’s’, and customers are interested more in what we stand for rather than what we sell.
Consequently as brand leaders we occupy a very privileged position. Our actions and messages have the potential to change the way people see the world, to impact popular culture for better or worse. Research suggests that this is particularly true for Asia where many societies still hold more traditionally conservative views, and groups within society feel held back in comparison to some western markets.
As a leading global brand there is a responsibility to authentically represent and stand up for an idea that truly matters in the lives of our customers. Fulfilling this responsibility requires us to be bold and brave.
This responsibility can take many forms from acknowledgement and celebration, to advocacy and action towards a more diverse and inclusive society. Some brands (such as Nike’s ‘Da Da Ding’ and ‘This Girl Can’ campaigns) choose to fulfill their purpose and responsibility by showcasing positive role models, in this case for women, which can over time change cultural and sub conscious norms.
Other brands go one step further and prompt social debate by advocating a position that is reflective of the diversity of their customer base and stands for something that can inspire both customers and staff alike thereby creating stronger emotional connections.
Two such campaigns that have recently started to ask the difficult questions that will hopefully lead to positive change are State Street’s ‘Fearless Girl’ campaign on International Women’s Day and closer to home HSBC’s ‘Rainbow Lions’ in support of LGBT and HSBC Pride.
Both of these campaigns chose to repurpose the power of an iconic corporate symbol (The Wall Street Bull and The HSBC bronze lions statues in Hong Kong) to shine a light on the diversity and inclusion agenda. In so doing, both brands chose to act bravely and certainly caught the public’s attention.
However both brands also laid themselves open to criticism as to the motives behind such an activity and were being asked why it was the role of a financial services firm to bring forward these issues (similar to the current debate that is surrounding recent Pepsi and Heineken activities).
Many critics argued that the Fearless Girl activity was little more than a clever marketing stunt and not backed up with any true commitment or action but also received praise for raising gender equality as an issue.
The 'Rainbow Lions' also received some negative comments but the overwhelming social media response was positive, while the activity was backed by numerous corporate-wide diversity and inclusion policy commitments that were true to HSBC’s purpose and reflected the values and beliefs of the organisation.
As chair of The Marketing Society in Asia my purpose is to inspire bolder marketing leadership and challenge our members to think differently. I would argue that whatever your point of view on the HSBC and State Street campaigns they are both examples of boldness, bravery and inspiration in action.
The positions taken by these companies have not been easy and may, in the short term, have come at a cost. Undeniably these activities had a positive and inspirational effect both internally and in the broader communities they serve. In sharing a fresh perspective on a cultural issue, these brands (and many more) are provoking important discussions that will ultimately lead to stronger emotional connections in the hearts and minds of customers.
While it may make many of us and our stakeholders uncomfortable, this is the area in which we as inspiring marketing leaders need to operate. This is both the power and responsibility of great marketing.
Tricia Weener is chair of The Marketing Society, Asia and global head of marketing at HSBC Commercial Banking.
She will be speaking at the PR360 event at the JW Marriott in Hong Kong on June 6th on "The Role of Activist Brands in an Age of Declining Trust"