Brands and “cause marketing”: How much is too much?

cmWhen brands conduct attitudinal studies of their customer base, the research often finds that people respond favorably to so-called “positive” or “progressive” causes.

The ALS “Ice-Bucket Challenge” is probably Exhibit A for the potency of such an initiative — including its fantastically successful viral component.

So it’s only natural that brand managers would think in terms of tying their brands to high-profile events such as Earth Day or popular health causes such as efforts to cure cancer or heart disease.

Perhaps the activity is doing a highly publicized community initiative … hosting a well-publicized 5K run or similar event … or donating funds for the cause in a new and attention-grabbing way.

But here’s the rub: With so many national brands doing precisely these sorts of things, it’s become something of an echo chamber.  What once was fresh and novel now seems decidedly ho-hum.

Besides, with so much breathless “cause activity” happening, it’s little wonder that many consumers are seeing through all the hype and attaching near-zero attribution to the brands involved.

The situation is even more problematic when there’s little or no connection between the brand’s products or services and the cause being supported.  The problem is, when brands start vying for attention — especially allying with causes that have nothing at all to do with their core business — “authenticity” goes out the window.

In the process, the brands may telegraph something even worse than irrelevancy; they look desperate for attention.

Of course, all of this evidence doesn’t mean that major brands aren’t continuing to try to attach themselves to the positive vibes of social action. Some recent examples are these:

More problematic than these campaigns was the Starbucks initiative last year in which its baristas were encouraged to start conversations about race relations, interacting with customers waiting in line for their espressos and muffins.

Let’s just say that the idea looked better on paper compared to how it panned out in real life — with more than a few Starbucks customers finding the initiative awkward, intrusive and off-putting (and taking to Twitter to vent their feelings).

Thinking about the good and the not-so-good of “cause marketing,” it appears that the more successful of these initiatives are ones which hew more closely to a brand’s own essence.

Patagonia is a good example of this. Its mission has always been to design and manufacture quality products in an environmentally responsible way, and it promotes proper stewardship of the land and of material possessions through many initiatives that just “feel right” for this particular brand.

And in the realm of apparel and cosmetics, a whole bevy of brands have jumped into conversations about “positive self-image.” While to some people it may seem self-serving for brands like Dove® soap, American Eagle lingerie and Lane Bryant plus-size apparel to become active in such causes, one can also see the logical connection between the products these brands sell and the themes they are spotlighting in these campaigns.

Authenticity and genuineness: Not only are they the hallmark of successful brands, they’re the acid test for successfully grabbing a share of the “social good” pie.  Who’s doing it right … and who’s missing the mark?  Let us know your nominations.

Who are the World’s Most Reputable Companies in 2016?

I’ve blogged before about the international reputation of leading companies and brands as calculated by various survey firms such as Harris Interactive.

RI logoOne of these ratings studies is conducted by market research firm Reputation Institute, which collected nearly 250,000 ratings during the first quarter of 2016 from members of the public in 15 major countries throughout the world.

The nations included in the company reputation evaluation were the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil in the Americas … France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and Russia in Europe … India, China, South Korea and Japan in Asia … as well as Australia.

Approximately 200 leading companies were rated by respondents on a total of seven key dimensions of reputation, including:

  • Products and services
  • Innovation
  • Workplace
  • Governance
  • Citizenship
  • Leadership
  • Performance

In the 2016 evaluation, the top-rated companies scored “excellent” (a rating of 80 or higher on a 100-poinst scale) or “strong” (a rating of 70-79) in all seven reputation categories. 2016’s “Top 10” most reputable firms turned out to be these (ranked in order of their score):

#1 Rolex

#2 The Walt Disney Company

#3 Google

#4 BMW Group

#5 Daimler

#6 LEGO Group

#7 Microsoft

#8 Canon

#9 Sony

#10 Apple

Different companies scored highest on specific attributes, however:

  • Apple: #1 in Innovation and in Leadership
  • Google: #1 in Performance and in Workplace
  • Rolex: #1 in Products & Services
  • The Walt Disney Company: #1 in Citizenship and in Governance

VAt the other end of the scale, which company do you suppose was the one that suffered the worst year-over-year performance?

That dubious honor goes to Volkswagen.  In the wake of an emissions scandal affecting the brand internationally, VW’s reputation score plummeted nearly 14 points, which was enough to drop it out of the Top 100 brand listing altogether.

It’s quite a decline from the VW’s #14 position last year.

The complete list of this year’s Top 100 Reputable Companies can be accessed via this link. You may see some surprises …

For authenticity in advertising … perhaps it’s time to stop making it “advertising.”


Take a look at the interesting data in the chart above, courtesy of Nielsen.

Among the things it tells us is this: If there’s one thing that’s universally consistent across all age ranges – from Gen Z and Millennials to the Silent Generation – it’s that nothing has a more positive impact on buying decisions than the recommendation of a family member, a friend or a colleague.

Not only is it true across all age ranges, it’s equally true in business and consumer segments.

The chart also shows us that, broadly speaking, younger people tend to be more receptive to various advertising formats than older age segments.

this isn’t too surprising because with age comes experience – and that also means a higher degree of cynicism about advertising.

Techniques like the “testimonials” from so-called “real people” (who are nonetheless still actors) can’t get past the jaundiced eye of veteran consumers who’ve been around the track many more times than their younger counterparts.

Someone from the Boomer or Silent Generation can smell these things out for the fakery they are like nobody else.

But if friends and colleagues are what move the buy needle the best, how does advertising fit into that scenario? What’s the best way for it to be in the mix?

One way may be “influencer” advertising. This is when industry experts and other respected people are willing to go on record speaking positively about a particular product or service.

Of course, influencers have the best “influence” in the fields where they’re already active, as opposed to endorsements from famous people who don’t have a natural connection to the products they are touting. Such celebrity “testimonials” rarely pass the snicker test.

But if you think about other people like this:

  • An industry thought leader
  • A prominent blogger or social networker in a particular field or on a particular topic
  • A person with a genuine passion for interacting with a particular product or service

… Then you have a person who advocates for your brand in a proactive way.

That’s the most genuine form of persuasion aside from hearing recommendations from those trusted relatives, friends and colleagues.

Of course, none of that will happen without the products and services inspiring passion and advocacy at the outset. If those fundamental factors aren’t part of the mix, we’re back to square one with ineffective faux-testimonials that feel about as genuine as AstroTurf® … and the (lack of) results to match.

In case you’re wondering … consumers don’t really care about brands all that much.

branding“I don’t want a ‘relationship’ with my brands.  I want the best products at the best price.” — Jane Q. Public

In the era of interactive marketing and social media, there’s often a good deal of talk about how certain brands are successfully engaging their customers and creating an environment of “brand love” — or at least “brand stickiness.”

It’s not only consumer brands like Chipotle and Under Armour, but also B-to-B and hybrid brands like Intel, Apple and Uber.

As a person who’s been involved in marketing and advertising for well over a quarter-century, I tend to treat these pronouncements with a little less open-mouthed awe than others.

I get how when a brand is particularly admired, it becomes the “go-to” one when people are in the market for those particular products and services.

But the idea that there’s real “brand love” going on — in a sense similar to people forging close relationships with the people in their lives — to me that’s more far-fetched.

The marketing research I’ve encountered appears to refute the notion as well.

Case in point: In an annual index of “meaningful brands” published by the Havas MarComm agency, the research finds that very few consumers cite brands they “can’t live without.”

The 2015 edition of the Havas Meaningful Brands Index has now been released … and the results are true to form. Among U.S. consumers, only about 5% of the 1,000 brands evaluated by Havas across a dozen industries would be truly missed if they were no longer available.

It’s a big survey, too:  Havas queried ~300,000 people across 34 countries in order to build the 2015 index. Broadly speaking, the strength of brands is higher in countries outside the United States, reflecting the fact that trust levels for leading brands in general are higher elsewhere — very likely because lesser known brands or “generics” have a greater tendency to be subpar in their performance.

But even considering the brand scores globally, three out of four consumers wouldn’t miss any brands if they suddenly disappeared from the market.

What are the exceptions? Looking at the brands that scored highest gives us clues as to what it takes to be a brand that people truly care about in their lives.

Samsung is ranked the #1 brand globally. To me, it makes perfect sense that the manufacturer of the most widely sold mobile device on the planet would generate a strong semblance of “brand love.”

Even in the remotest corners of the world, Samsung has made the lives of countless people easier and better by placing a powerful computer in their pocket. It’s only logical that Samsung is a brand many people would sorely miss if it disappeared tomorrow.

The second strongest brand in the Havis index is Google. No surprise there as well, because Google enables people to research and find answers on pretty much anything that ever crosses their minds. Again, it’s a brand that most people wouldn’t want to do without.

But beyond these, it’s plain to see that nearly all brands just aren’t that consequential to people’s lives.

With this in mind, are companies and brands spending too much energy and resources attempting to get customers to “care” about them more than simply to have a buying preference when the time comes to purchase products and services?

Brand-LoyaltyRelated to that, is adding more “meaning” to a brand the answer to getting more people to express brand love? Or does it have far more to do with having products that meet a need … work better than competitors’ offerings … and are priced within the means of more people to purchase?

Havas — and common sense — suggests it’s the latter.

Do that stuff right, and a company will earn brand loyalty.

All the rest is just froth on the beer … icing on the cake … good for the psychological bennies.



Which brands are America’s most “patriotic”?

patriotismWith the 4th of July holiday nearly upon us, sharing the results of a recent brand study seems particularly apropos.

Since 2013, Brand Keys, a branding consulting firm, has conducted an annual evaluation of famous American brands to determine which ones are considered by consumers to be the most “patriotic.”

In order to discover those attitudes, Brand Keys surveyed nearly 5,500 consumers between the ages of 16 and 65, asking them to evaluate American brands on a collection of 35 cross-category values – one of which was “patriotism.”  (The number of brands included in the evaluation has varied somewhat from year to year, ranging between 195 and 225.)

Of course “patriotism” is a hyper-qualitative measure that’s based as much on emotion and each individual person’s own point of reference as on anything else.

Brand familiarity and longstanding engagement in the marketplace helps, too.

So it’s not surprising that the American brands scoring highest on the patriotism meter are some of the best-known, iconic names.

For the record, listed below are the “Top 10” most patriotic American brands based on Brand Keys’ most recent survey – the ones that scored 91% or higher on the patriotism scale (out of a possible 100 percentage points):

  • Jeep (98%)
  • Coca-Cola (97%)
  • Disney (96%)
  • Ralph Lauren (95%)
  • Levi Strauss (94%)
  • Ford Motor (93%)
  • Jack Daniels (93%)
  • Harley Davidson (92%)
  • Gillette (92%)
  • Apple (91%)
  • Coors (91%)

The next highest group of ten patriotic brands scored between 85% and 90% on the survey:

  • American Express (90%)
  • Wrigley’s (90%)
  • Gatorade (89%)
  • Zippo (89%)
  • Amazon (88%)
  • Hershey’s (87%)
  • Walmart (87%)
  • Colgate (86%)
  • Coach (85%)
  • New Balance (85%)

[As an aside … the only entity to score a perfect patriotism rating of 100% was the U.S. Armed Services.]

To be sure, “rational” aspects like being an American-based company whose products are actually made in the United States affect the patriotism rating of individual brands.

But other attributes — such as nationally directed customer-service activities and highly publicized involvement in sponsorships and causes that tie to the American experience — are attributes that add to a general image of being patriotic.

Robert Passikoff, Brand Keys’ president, expanded on the idea, stating,

“Today, when it comes to engaging consumers, waving an American flag and actually having an authentic foundation for being able to wave the flag are two entirely different things — and the consumer knows it. 

“If you want to differentiate via brand values – especially one this emotional – if there is believability, good marketing just gets better.” 

This is the third annual report issued by Brand Keys that’s been focused on brand patriotism – one of 35 brand values comparatively surveyed.  Over the three years, there’s been some change in the patriotism rankings, with Colgate, Wrigley’s and Zippo falling out of the Top Ten and being replaced by Jack Daniels, Gillette, Apple and Coors in 2015.

What I find intriguing about the findings is that there isn’t a very strong correlation between the perceived patriotism of specific American brands and whether or not most of their products are made in the United States versus offshore.   Of course, foreign production is more the norm than ever in the global economy.  What’s important is how the consumer reacts to that reality.

jeep patriotismWith that point in mind … what about Jeep?  Now that it is part of the global Fiat organization, should Jeep no longer be considered an American brand?  Whether it is or not, the brand has the distinction of achieving the highest patriotism score outside of the U.S. Armed Services.

The bottom line is this:  Brands, what they “mean” and what they stand for are based on the emotional as well as the rational – with the emotional aspect being the trump card with consumers.

Jeep, with all of its associations with winning  wartime campaigns (particularly World War II), likely will always be a beloved “patriotic” U.S. brand, regardless of its recent Italian parent company ownership.

Are there brands not listed above that you would consider to be “highly patriotic”?  If so, please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Companies behaving (not quite so) badly: Financial services firms continue their slow reputation recovery.

Financial services industryBack in 2009, no industry in the United States took such reputation beating as the financial services segment.  And to find out how much, we needn’t look any further than Harris survey research.

The Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study of American consumers is conducted annually.  The most recent one, which was carried out during the 4th Quarter of 2014, encompassed more than 27,000 people who responded to online polling by Harris.

In the survey, companies are rated on their reputation across 20 different attributes that fall within the following six broad categories:

  • Products and services
  • Financial performance
  • Emotional appeal
  • Social responsibility
  • Workplace environment
  • Vision and leadership

Taken together, the ratings of each company result in calculating an overall reputation score, which the Harris researchers also aggregate to broader industry categories.

Most everyone will recall that in 2009, the U.S. was deep in a recession that had been brought about, at least in part, by problems in the real estate and financial services industry segments.

This was reflected in the sorry performance of financial services firms included in the Harris polling that year.

Back then, only 11% of the survey respondents felt that the financial services industry had a positive reputation.

So it’s safe to conclude that there was no place to go but “up” after that.  And where are we now?  The latest survey does show that the industry has rebounded.

In fact, now more than three times the percentage of people feel that the financial services industry has a positive reputation (35% today vs. 15% then).

But that’s still significantly below other industry segments in the Harris analysis, as we can see plainly here:

  • Technology: ~77% of respondents give positive reputation ratings
  • Consumer products: ~60% give positive reputation ratings
  • Manufacturing: ~54%
  • Telecom: ~53%
  • Automotive: ~46%
  • Energy: ~45%
  • Financial services: ~35%

So … it continues to be a slow slog back to respectability for firms in the financial services field.

Incidentally, within the financial services category, insurance companies tend to score better than commercial banks and investment companies when comparing the results of individual companies in the field.

USAA, Progressive, State Farm and Allstate all score above 70%, whereas Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, BofA and Goldman Sachs all score in the 60% percentile range or below.

Wendy Salomon, vice president of reputation management and public affairs for the Harris Poll, contends that financial services firms could be doing more to improve their reputations more quickly.  Here’s what she’s noted:

“Most financial companies have done a dismal job in recent years of connecting with customers and with the general public on what matters to them.  Yet there’s no reason Americans can’t feel as positively toward financial services firms as they do towards companies they hold in high esteem, such as Amazon or Samsung, which have excellent reputations because they consistently deliver what the general public cares about …  

[Individual] financial firms have a clear choice now:  Prioritize building their reputations and telling their stories, or let others continue to fill that void and remain lumped together with the rest of the industry.”

Here’s another bit of positive news for companies in the financial services field:  They’re no longer stuck in the basement when it comes to reputation.

That honor now goes to two sectors that are Exhibits A and B in the “corporate rogues’ gallery”:  tobacco companies and government.

Both of these choice sectors come in with positive reputation scores hovering around 10%.

I suspect that those two sectors are probably doomed to bounce along the bottom of the scale pretty much forever.

With tobacco, it’s because the product line is no noxious.

And with government?  Well … with the bureaucratic dynamics (stasis?) involved, does anyone actually believe that government can ever instill confidence and faith on the part of consumers?  Even governments’ own employees know better.

Native Advertising, Sponsored Content and “Truthiness”

There are just a few slight problems with sponsored content:  Readers consider it less trustworthy … and value it less.

Lack of trust in sponsored content
It’s really not that interesting — and I don’t trust you, anyway.

Here’s a behavioral statistic that should be a little disconcerting to marketers:  Only about one in four readers scroll down on sponsored content (native advertising) on publisher websites.

Compare that to ~70% of those same readers who scroll down on other types of news content.

That’s what the chief executive officer of Chartbeat, a developer and purveyor of real-time web analytics software for media publishers, has contended, leading others to try to probe these attitudes further and try to find out more about the dynamics that are at work.

One such effort is online field research conducted this past summer by Contently, a freelance writing services clearinghouse.  It discovered that the difference in engagement levels relates to “trust.”

Generally speaking, readers trust sponsored content a whole lot less than they do “normal” content.

More specifically, here’s what Contently’s research, which targeted ~550 U.S. adults ages 18 to 65, found in terms of trust attitudes:

  • I generally don’t trust sponsored content: ~54%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the brand already: ~22%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the publication: ~19%
  • I generally trust sponsored content:  ~5%

It gets even murkier when we consider that not all readers agree on the same definition of “sponsored content.”

While the largest proportion of people consider “sponsored content” on a news website to be an article that an advertiser paid to be created as well as had input into its content, it was only a plurality of respondents:

  •  A sponsor paid and influenced the article: ~48%
  • A news site wrote it, but a sponsor paid money for it to run: ~20%
  • A sponsor paid for its name to appear next to news content: ~18%
  • A sponsor wrote the article:  ~13%

And here’s a real kick in the gut:  More people in the Contently survey would rather be served “bad ol’ banner ads” than encounter sponsored news and other posts:

  • Would rather see banner ads:  ~57% of respondents
  • Prefer sponsored posts because banner ads are annoying: ~26%
  • Prefer sponsored posts because they’re more interesting than banner ads: ~18%

The findings aren’t much different based on the age or education levels of respondents, either.

If anything, more highly educated people (those with graduate degrees) are most likely to prefer banner ads over sponsored posts.  The reason boils down to concern over the issue of deception:  A large majority of respondents reported that they have ever “felt deceived” upon realizing an article was actually sponsored by an advertiser.

Considering the disapproving numbers collected in the survey, it’s not surprising that Contently also found that respondents are far prone to click on a piece of sponsored content compared to other content:

  • Less likely to click on sponsored content: ~66%
  • More likely: ~1%
  • Equally likely: ~33%

credible sourceLastly, publishers should take note that their credibility is being diminished in the eyes of many, based on the practice of publishing native advertising.  The Contently survey found that nearly 60% expressed the view that publishers lose credibility when they run such sponsored content.

Of course, native advertising and sponsored content isn’t going to go away.  It’s too wrapped up in today’s business models for successful publishing and successful brand engagement.

But it’s clear that publishers, advertisers and the brands they represent have a bigger hurdle to clear in order for their content to be considered worthy of their readers’ attention and engagement.