I saw a post on FaceBook recently about Morning Consult’s brand intelligence service, helping brands to understand where they stand in the consumer’s mind. It’s an impressive display of process, sampling, and data analysis. Brand strategists love these systems when planning and measuring progress against goals, as they provide a great deal of comfort with decimal point precision and ability to identify specific problem areas. But we continue to experience division and distrust, not only between ourselves but in the brands, systems, and institutions that have long been the foundation of our society. A brand may be thought of as cool one minute, but then vilified the next for a cultural or social faux pas, with little forgiveness.
The historical way we have thought of brands, being positioned in a certain way vis-a-vis competitors (brand positioning), has served us well over the years. But there’s been a shift in how people are making decisions about what and how they consume. In addition to the logical and identity-based reasons for the brand choice, the fit with cultural and social mores has risen as an equal if not more powerful influence, particularly among younger consumers. As a result, brands that focus on building social capital, as well as economic returns, are establishing the foundation for long-term sustainability.
What is social capital? I like Dictionary.com’s definition as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively”...as good a description as any academic one that I’ve seen. It sure sounds lofty and noble, but is it possible or feasible for an organization to think this way, mainly if it has shareholders?
It is, but it’s not easy. It requires an organization’s leaders and owners to think differently about how they approach strategy and outcomes. Rather than focusing primarily on the return on economic investment, an equal if not better measure is going to be the degree of social capital a brand can establish and grow, based on the positive impact that brand has on the communities where it exists. Yes, economic returns will still matter, but in the context of broader social returns.
I do sense a shift in this direction by some companies as they report success. Hopefully, our future of branding will be this measure of social capital rather than just profits. As my friend and colleague Christina Keibler recently stated, wouldn’t it be nice if companies operated with a goal of action or positive impact? Profits balanced among different stakeholders (not just shareholders) and oriented toward doing things like providing excellent health care, education for employees’ children, or increased time off, to name a few examples. What a wonderful world that would be, indeed.