Consumers have never been more engaged with the brands, services and products they use. From social media interaction, to the sheer volume of information they have at their disposal, any company currently underestimating just how informed the public's purchasing decisions now are needs to consider the following.
Customers now have power over brands, meaning they need to treat them with the respect they deserve. It's always been the case that businesses are nothing without someone to sell to, but in today’s marketplace it’s never been easier to go from having a vast and global customer base, to having nobody.
Falls from grace happen for multiple reasons. Becoming outmoded, outsmarted and generally bettered is an obvious reason. Less clear though is the relationship between loss of income and ethical/moral oversights, or, worse still, infringements. For the majority of consumers the idea of contributing to the world's problems by dealing with brands that have poor environmental, social, or political records is about as appealing as skydiving without a parachute. Where possible, they will opt to buy from firms who aim to make the planet a better place, or at least avoid worsening things.
This means that phrases like "corporate social responsibility" have never been more important. Being able to prove that brand initiatives actively benefit humanity is an asset that cannot be overstated in terms of value. The same can be said for charitable giving and outreach projects. Unfortunately for some MDs, though, it's not enough to simply make grandiose, headline grabbing gestures with one hand while acting in the opposite way with the other. The truth has a habit of coming out in the end, be that via press investigations or word of mouth. In an age of ultra-connectivity, this is now almost guaranteed to happen.
Those familiar with the website Greenwashingindex.com will have seen this in action regularly, with the domain looking to expose lies peddled by businesses large and small. Putting businesses who claim to have positive environmental records, but are actually causing more harm than good, under the microscope. It also ranks and lauds companies that can legitimately label themselves as green-friendly, giving credit where credit is due.
Although this sounds very specific – the kind of example where firms that have little to no environmental impact don't need to show much interest – nothing could be further from the truth. At some point in the supply chain every business has an effect on some aspect of day-to-day life, trying to mask when that impact isn't positive is tantamount to commercial suicide.
Petroleum giant Shell offers an eyebrow-raising example. In April of last year international media giant, Vice, investigated a campaign by the global oil behemoth that centered on people producing 90 second films to "challenge preconceptions that fossil fuels, especially natural gas, have no part in our future lives". Creatives were apparently briefed on the importance of ignoring the search for fossil fuels in the Arctic, and the devastation this could cause to one of the last largely untouched wildernesses on Earth.
It goes without saying that it's better for brands to avoid behaving in ways that can be deemed damaging. But, perhaps more importantly, where damage itself is unavoidable, the worst option is to try and cover up the damage with a veil of secrecy, distraction or half-truths, all of which have been proved to fail, time and time again.
Transparency is the key to a positive public image, and the moment we forget this we're only a few steps away from serious operational problems, a reputation burnt to ashes and the inevitable loss of profits that comes from self-alienation. Take heed, or risk a very public shaming.