By Marjorie Benzkofer
Among the most significant sources of corporate disruption over the past five years has been the convergence of the concepts of brand and reputation. Companies are gradually coming to realize that for their various stakeholder groups—now made much more powerful and united by the Internet and social—there can no longer exist two diverging messages about what businesses sell and who they are.
From this revelation has come a cascade of others, including the need to merge the disciplines of communications and marketing and, most notably, the imperative for companies and their brands to strive for a level of authenticity inconceivable just a few years ago.
Before extending their loyalty as customers and employees, the public wants to know who companies are and what they stand for. Consumers now expect brands to do more than simply sell them products and services; they now look for businesses to serve them—and their communities.
FleishmanHillard’s 2014 global Authenticity Gap study interviewed expert consumers—those familiar with not only a company, but also its industry and competitors — representing three continents and seven countries: the U.S. and Canada; the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany; and China and Indonesia. The consumers were quizzed on more than 700 companies from 50+ categories.
While there were many eye-openers about individual industries and companies, overall global themes emerged that reinforced findings from our 2013 research, which was limited to only three countries. If companies see consumers as merely self-interested beings, looking for the best bargains and the most customized service, they would be selling them short.
While admittedly 48 percent of consumer expectations for a company or industry are set by how value, service and innovation are provided for the customer’s benefit, a full 52 percent is based on management behavior, when it comes to credible communications, consistent performance and doing right, and societal outcomes, when it comes to the treatment of employees, communities and the environment.
While one-fifth (21%) want companies to tell them more about what they believe in, almost half (44%) said they were more interested in seeing the brands be more transparent about their practices and policies, and nearly the same percentage (43%) expected companies to make things easier for them to solve problems.
There was a thirst for more innovation from companies and industries in the U.S. (49%) and the U.K. (44%). The demand actually helped tip the scales in favor of customer benefits versus societal impact and management behavior in the U.S. where the split was 57 percent vs. 43 percent , and in the U.K. where the importance of customer benefits garnered 58 percent. To the expert consumer, innovation translated into fresh-thinking and new ways of problem solving as opposed to bringing out the latest gadget. Technology or state-of-the-art design may facilitate these different ideas, but there needs to be an ideal behind the technology aimed at making things better for the consumer and society, not just being cool.
These are high aspirations that consumers have for companies, and all industries fall short in one category or another. But getting a handle on what is expected is the first step towards fulfilling the need.