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Can corporate citizenship influence people's behaviour?

Fred Birt
Corporate Business Director
Interbrand

Tom Zara
Executive Strategy Director and Head of the Corporate Citizenship Practice
Interbrand

At Interbrand we’ve always contended that brands drive behaviour or ‘choice’, and the nature of customer choice, whether B2C or B2B, is changing.

There are a number of factors influencing this, and one is the increasing awareness around the business ethics behind the brands we choose.

We’ve seen an increase in brands trying to define and express themselves in terms of their corporate citizenship – often described as their ‘purpose’ – in response to the changing nature of choice. Corporate brands in particular are looking to articulate their purpose, their ‘why’, in an attempt to create a more relevant basis for engagement with their constituents.

The commitment to corporate citizenship is all well and good, but the true measure of its value is in its ability to influence choice, because this in turn leads to economic value. So in 2012 we fielded research around corporate citizenship that asked: does the customer care about brands that have strong corporate citizenship claims?

The answer was consistent across the six countries and the ten categories we surveyed.

The fallacy in conventional thinking is that articulating a compelling brand purpose results in a game-changing uplift in business for the brand owner. It doesn’t. Customers may say it does, but their buying behaviour suggests otherwise.


The people behind the brand need to know what's expected of them.


However, there are gains to be had, and here we saw differences across the categories. Automotive buyers, for example, were more likely to be loyal and also advocate for a brand if the brand’s corporate citizenship credentials were strong. As these are both post-purchase behaviours, it would suggest auto brands need to be gearing their corporate citizenship initiatives to existing customers, and less at pre-purchase communications.

While these gains may seem to be incremental, let’s not forget that a 3-4% uplift in market share is a marketing director or CMO’s dream.

But as more brands start to wrap themselves in the clothes of purpose and corporate citizenship, we need to look forward to a point where being purposeful is commonplace. Think of the energy sector for example. The opportunity is huge for brands to lead us away from energy consumption of finite resources and to encourage us to behave in more sustainable ways, whether as consumers using smart meters or as businesses generating our own energy through solar panels on our buildings. But which energy brand worth its salt isn’t talking about sustainable energy? It’s become expected, undifferentiating and is highly unlikely to drive behaviour (loyalty, switching, consumption behaviours).

So the requirement now is to frame the corporate citizenship story in a more distinctive way. What’s the specific role that your brand plays in addressing the issues in your sector? How is your brand uniquely equipped to do so? In what way are you investing in this capability to make it even more relevant in the future? How can this form the basis of a narrative that explains your value in more relevant and engaging ways to your customers? What do you stand for, what are you prepared to defend, what do you say no to?

But this requirement raises the stakes for businesses, as the brand strategy has to intersect much more directly with the business strategy. If the business isn’t prepared to act in the right way, then the minute the customer looks behind the communications, the pretense will be exposed.


Customers will only 'behave' in a way that's useful for a brand if that brand 'behaves' in a way that's relevant for the customer


And of course this translates into culture, and to an extent this is where the hard work lies. The people behind the brand need to know what’s expected of them to turn the promises a business is making into a reality. An external brand claim centred around corporate citizenship becomes an internal cultural imperative if it’s to be credible to the outside world, and actually matter enough to the customer to drive his or her behaviour.

Ultimately, the concept of behaviour becomes mutual. Customers will only ‘behave’ in a way that’s useful for a brand if that brand ‘behaves’ in a way that’s relevant for the customer. The more that companies embrace the fact that their brands start from inside their business, the more successful they will be.


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