NEW YORK — It’s fast approaching do-or-die time for brand marketers in a post-9/11 world.
So says designer and brand-image consultant Marc Gobé, whose latest marketing missive, “Citizen Brand,” is due to hit book stores today. The 250-page volume, published by Allworth Press, advances ways in which Gobé believes brands can and must make the transition from the awareness they achieved with 20th century consumers to the establishment of an ongoing dialog with customers during the new millennium.
In this manner, successful brands of the 21st century will find ways to respond to the broader concerns of consumers — concerns beyond obtaining well-designed products at a good price. As Gobé sees it, brands that fail to do so will die. “If the 20th century was about technology, then I believe the 21st century will be about humanity,” Gobé offered over lunch at one of his downtown haunts, Time Cafe. With a perfectly straight face (in between bites of salmon and spinach), Gobé contended that, in the not-too-distant future, the way companies operate their businesses will become almost as important as their products are to consumers. While conceding that “it’s going to take some time” for this shift in values and it will require “an open dialogue” between private enterprise and private citizens, Gobé nonetheless maintained the evolutionary process is well under way.
The brand-image consultant doesn’t expect the changes to stem from some newly found sense of corporate altruism. Rather, he sees them being fomented by a consumer who’s been increasingly empowered during the past 12 years — and whose priorities have been rearranged by the terrorist attacks and raft of corporate scandals. “Those events have lifted the veil from corporations,” Gobé asserted.
At the same time, he noted, “Consumers’ expectations of brands have risen dramatically. The 21st century will bring ‘partnerships’ between people and corporations; they can team up to affect change. People may not feel they can make an impact as individuals, but they may feel they’re able to help power responsible companies to do so.”
The foundation on which these links between consumer and marketers would arise, according to Gobé, is the emotional tie he perceives between people and their favorite brands — the basis of his book “Emotional Branding,” published last year. “Pepsi is preferred, consistently, in blind taste tests of colas, yet Coca-Cola remains the brand most often chosen when people are simply asked to name their favorite,” reported Gobé, who is president, chief executive officer and executive creative director of Desgrippes Gobé Group, a Manhattan-based, brand-image creation firm. “Not all brands are created equal.” (Coca-Cola has been a client of D/G Group, as have Starbucks, Ann Taylor, Victoria’s Secret, Reebok, Godiva, Gillette, and Air France, among others.)
Brands with the strongest emotional connections to consumers, Gobé has found, share three traits: a corporate culture focused, above all, on people, both in the company and the public; a communication style and message that stands apart from the clutter, underpinned by language and visual imagery that is consistent with that message, and an emotional hook that reinforces a brand’s ties to its audience. Gobé ticked off Target Stores, Tommy Bahama, Chico’s, and Apple Computer as among the brands that consistently strike these chords with their customers.
Increasingly, however, it will take more than the emotional links people feel with various brands to prompt purchases, Gobé asserted. To support this notion, he cited data from the just-released 2002 Cone Corporate Citizenship Study, a project that found 78 percent of Americans say companies have a responsibility to support social issues, up from 65 percent in March 2001, six months before the terrorist attacks. And in light of the corporate scandals that have surfaced this year, 89 percent of Americans say it is more important than ever for companies to be socially responsible.
When at least half of a brand’s emotional connection with consumers is associated with its social presence, a marketing message can be tied to that presence, Gobé projected. How to get there? For one thing, Gobé believes brand marketers need to name a chief citizenship officer, one who would listen to what customers want from an emotional and ethical viewpoint. In addition, the cco would retrain employees to instill a sense of pride in the company they work for and present opportunities to engage in volunteerism and the establishment of an ethics policy. A favorite of Gobé’s is the volunteer effort of Home Depot, whose Orange Blooded program enables employees to visit disaster sites around the country, where they provide aid repairing and rebuilding homes. “It can’t just be about making lots of money,” Gobé emphasized in stating what is perhaps his most persistent theme.
When he set out last March to write Citizen Brand, Gobé intended to explore the role played by a corporate culture in establishing a brand’s emotional content and impact. After the events of Sept. 11, however, the author found the notion of brand citizenship had risen to the forefront for many and he changed the book’s emphasis accordingly. Particularly at a time when brands are struggling to survive, he said, the consumer’s clout is climbing.
What’s more, Gobé cautioned, “A company can be wrong with a product but not with its values. There is no need for a false message. If people feel manipulated, the company will lose them. It is an interesting time to market a brand — there’s a new layer in the drama.”