When companies make a statement about what they stand for, it is reflective and encompassing of the brand. How can companies effectively communicate their values and remain consistent with the branding that they have worked hard to cultivate?
A global pandemic, social change, climate change, an election year – with everything that 2020 has served up, people are starting to think about where they fit, what their beliefs are, and how their response affects those around them. This mentality is no different for corporations. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Nike, and many other brands have taken positions on relevant issues and even re-considered decades-old branding to reflect changing attitudes. The fact remains that these brands have all taken stock of their beliefs and core values and how these are communicated to their customers. This moment of introspection is a brand audit.
“If you aren’t thinking about your brand positioning right now, you should be,” said Jack Spaulding, executive director of strategy at Planit, a Baltimore-based full-service marketing and communications firm. “I recommend every brand audit themselves, with everything going on in the world,” he said. This starts with asking the question, ‘what does my brand stand for?’ and then ‘how are we connecting with our audience, and is this reflective of our values?’
Though social disruptors are often a catalyst for a brand audit, Spaulding recommends reviewing your brand at least every year to ensure what you are communicating is reflective of the spirit of the company. He said that any time an organization is ready for change in some way, whether the business is struggling or whether you are launching a new product, ideally the drive for change comes from within—you are willing to transform. “Sometimes the clamor comes from outside, and unfortunately some brands are feeling that now more than ever,” he said.
How to Begin an Audit
According to Spaulding, a brand audit typically starts with a discovery process involving assessing what stakeholders think of your brand. This can include a workshop of opinion leaders in the company with questions about what the brand values and vision are, and is often supplemented with external research like focus groups, surveys and information gathering through social media listening. With these tools, you can uncover what the overall sentiment is of a certain brand, and whether or not influencers are spreading an opinion.
The output from this exercise is often revisiting or creating a brand promise or position, and sometimes developing or documenting the core beliefs and values. The next step involves communicating what is unique about your product or service, deciding how to go about building relationships with customers, then attaching emotions and giving your brand substance. The final step is determining the aesthetic and outward facing messaging. Sometimes this includes a new name, new logo, new colors, new assets for marketing and communications and other tactics.
Should Brands Just Stay Quiet?
When companies make the effort to audit their brand, they may discover that their values align with an important cause, and they might even choose to participate in that cause. This is known as brand activism, and according to Spaulding, “it may seem risky to do, but it’s also risky not to do.” He thinks that many corporations have a responsibility to take a stance on social issues and that “if certain movements are not part of your business DNA, you have to ask why.” He said that companies need to be prepared to make commitments and embed activism into their strategy. “It can’t just be window dressing; it can’t just be a social media post; you have to be empowered to make systemic change and be involved in the cause,” he said.
Spaulding notes that this notion of brand activism is especially relevant to younger consumers. They care deeply about cultural relevance and choose brands that reflect their interests and use their platform to give back. He uses Patagonia as an example. “They are probably even more outspoken about their beliefs than they are about the apparel they manufacture, and they are willing to accept the repercussions,” he said. “It might be disruptive, but they stay fierce in their conviction in spite of losing potential customers. The more they lean into a cause, the better their business seems to do.”
Brands Under Fire
Recently, brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have been criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes. Some could argue that their commitment to change is a knee-jerk reaction to the racial reckoning that has been brewing for several years and has shown itself in the form of protests throughout America in 2020. Spaulding agrees that these brands are indeed playing catch-up as public sentiment has shifted. He stated, “To their credit, they are making change and taking the right steps, but it is late. Had they audited their brands more regularly and proactively, they could have avoided damage to their reputations. It is hard work, it takes effort, and change is challenging, but I would have advised them that it is the right thing to do.”
Adapt or Die
Spaulding notes that not every corporation’s core values will be culturally relevant at the moment, but it is critical that every company find something that it believes in or feels passionate about. He said that companies don’t necessarily have to jump on the bandwagon of a social cause or issue; however, they should be prepared to take a stand on what is relevant to their brand values. He said, “You have to ask yourself if you are continuing to adapt and change with the world. To me, never changing anything about your brand, what you believe in, and how you connect that to consumers you care about is a good way to become obsolete.”