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Once upon a time, not really that long ago, commerce was relatively simple: you made a product, people bought it and you made money. Sell more, manage costs and you could grow into a more substantial endeavor. Consumers based their purchase on product utility: did they need it and would they use it? At the time, the psychology that drove branding wasn't nearly as accepted as it is now. Consumers didn't give as much thought about the company in terms of what it stood for, who was running it, etc. - or so many marketers thought back in the day.
Consumers - marketers believed - understood that companies were in business to make and sell products, and people either bought it or didn’t often based on celebrity endorsements, ad copy and visuals. It was simple, really. Then, along came the Internet and everything changed. Now I'm saying the internet changed everything because its emergence coincides with the availability of consumer behavior data in the form or web analytics was now widely available. Previously only the most sophisticated brands and agencies did the indepth research to understand consumers were motivated by far more than surface level attributes.
It was something of a perfect storm: 24/7 access to information occurring in real time, greater social and environment awareness. Soon after, the development of social media enabled consumers to observe, critique and comment on anything they felt needed to be known. Suddenly, there was no place to hide and companies were caught in the crosshairs of a more informed, judgmental and critical audience. It was no longer simply about a product, but what you did as a company for the greater and common good, that became part of the a potential customer’s purchase consideration.
Brand has always been about people buying products that reflect who they are or aspire to be. Many marketers just didn't realize it was emotion driving the purchase choice not rational thinking. Whereas this previous bond between consumer and product was on a more superficial level – I just feel good wearing this brand — the Internet has now provided people with the ability to know a company as well as they know a close friend. Brands then became statements of consumer beliefs - “This product comes from a company that represents exactly what I believe!” As companies have grown and their influence on consumer's lives have become more apparent, they’re under more scrutiny than at any time before.
What are their labor practices? Are they making jobs here or in another country? How much do they impact local issues? Are they run by people I respect and admire? How do they give back to the community and society? Once upon a time, John D. Rockefeller gained a reputation as someone who cared about the less fortunate by handing out nickels to children on the street. Of course, that would be a bit less effective today.
Today, the traditional bottom line has evolved into the following: People, Planet, and Profit. Nicknamed the “three Ps” or the “three pillars of sustainability”. Beyond the financial, consumers measure performance in terms of the positive social and environmental impact your company/products/brand has on the world.
So, as you form your company, in addition to product features and benefits, think of what you do in a holistic sense: How can you reveal the heart behind what you do in terms of having a social and environmental agenda? Remember: people will want to know and they will find out. And the choices you make – your business practices and ethics – will either fit what they look for in a brand, or they won’t. It’s up to you.