Think of the last big purchase you made. Did you research the brand that made that product to discern the company’s values? Did you weigh which retailer to buy the product from based on what it represents?
If you’re like most people, the answer is probably yes. Roughly two-thirds of consumers expect companies to take a stand on issues such as environmental stewardship and fair labor practices, and they will reward the ones that align with their beliefs, according to Accenture. As technology gives individuals greater power to stand up for their beliefs, they are doing so in many ways — including through their purchasing decisions.
Asserting brand values comes naturally for some companies. The footwear brand TOMS, which prominently displays an “impact” tab on its homepage that details its activism, launched 15 years ago with a model to donate a pair of shoes for each pair sold. Evolving from there as it grew, TOMS is now a Certified B Corporation, which means it has demonstrated its commitments to purpose, people and the planet and is being held accountable to them by an independent body. It also commits one-third of its profits to projects aimed at what it calls “grassroots good,” such as supporting Centrepoint, a UK-based nonprofit that helps youth who are homeless.
For other brands, adopting values into their messaging has been more challenging. That’s especially the case for longstanding brands that grew up in an era when “organizations focused their energies on changing customers’ minds to fit the product,” as a 1991 Harvard Business Review article noted back when the era of customer-driven marketing first took hold.
Even iconic brands are evolving with the times and in the face of customer pressure. Victoria’s Secret, whose chief marketing officer resigned two years ago amid controversy, has canceled its televised fashion show and signed on transgender and plus-size models for the first time in its 44-year history.
The jewelry brand Tiffany’s is also showcasing a stronger commitment to diversity than ever. The company founded nearly three decades before slavery was abolished recently launched the “About Love” campaign with Jay-Z and Beyonce, making her the first Black woman to don the brand’s legendary Tiffany diamond. As part of the campaign, Tiffany’s is committing $2 million to scholarships and internship programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which Beyonce has elevated through her own advocacy and art.
Though consumers are quick to call out brands that make token attempts to align with societal values through “woke washing,” even retailers that have not always been values-driven in their marketing can pivot effectively. Doing so requires commitments that are imbued throughout the company’s structure and that are driven by transparency, justification, compliance and enforcement, Erin Dowell and Marlette Jackson wrote in a Harvard Business Review post during the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
“Fostering organizational justice will require a deep institutional commitment at the industrial, executive and individual level,” Dowell and Jackson noted. “Consumers not only hold the power of demand but are increasingly demonstrating that they also have a powerful voice in deciding the manner in which companies meet those demands — and organizations need to be mindful of how this dynamic is becoming part of the new normal.”
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