Brands in the social age of transparency

05 May 2014

The uncomfortable truth for some is that brands are made differently now.

In the past, brand teams could carefully craft their messages, pay to influence their audiences, and control their prized assets. It was what you said, not what you did, that mattered. Because customers couldn’t compete with TV adverts or billboards – they had no voice.

But today it’s the individual that has the power to make or break a brand in real-time – toppling years of hard earned reputation, or building a loyal following overnight – sometimes with less than 140 characters.

All this means that the brand is what the brand does – consumers are looking for promise keepers not promise makers, authenticity of purpose, and ethical thinking in the enterprises that they support. Whether that’s with their hard earned cash, or with their social currency.

So how did we get here? Two things have played a big part – the social age of transparency, and a new post-crisis mindset.

The social age of transparency

We live in the social age of transparency – where consumers can now see inside a brand and a business like never before – sharing what they find at frightening speed. It’s digital, social, and the last time you trusted strangers on TripAdvisor.

The walls have come down – turning brands inside-out – consumers are acting like employees, and employees can directly influence customers. They see the way a business treats its people, study its partners and supply chain for ethical practice, and scrutinize its tax team and bonus strategy.

In this context, a company's internal culture and customer service experience become more important than ever. Employees become trusted brand advocates, and customers build peer-to-peer brand loyalty. In the social age of transparency – the best brands have nothing to hide.

A new post-crisis consumer mindset

The second thing is that brands have become more democratic than ever – platforms like Kickstarter have led the way, allowing consumers to back their choice of business, product or services – shaping and investing in the kind of brands they want to see more of. It’s open, collaborative, and made by many – cutting out the middle-man and helping to accelerate the new ‘sharing economy’ led by Airbnb (now worth $10billion).

This has accelerated post-crisis – evidencing a marked change in consumer behaviours and attitude that we all feel and see everyday. In the financial sector we’ve witnessed large-scale rebranding globally and here in the UK, defining new values and purposes to rebuild trust. 

But the real brand is in the culture of the organisation and the decisions organisations take. Using the brand values as a guide for individual behaviours means large-scale internal transformation – changing the brand from the inside out. It’s already underway in the financial sector, but expect others like the energy sector follow suit in a big way – or else.

So who wins?

The brands we want to. Because transparency turns authentic brands and businesses into big winners. Take Toms for example – set up for $5,000 in 2006 by a founder with a vision of giving away one pair of shoes for every one bought (‘one-for-one’), it now turns over $300million and counting. Why? Because buying a pair of Tom’s shoes isn’t about the old notions of brand, it’s about individuals making a statement about the kind of business they want to see win.

Branding has grown up and got real. The future belongs to businesses that use their brand as a compass for behaviour, and a filter for decision-making – because only those will earn our trust in the social age of transparency.

By Doug Hewett, People-Made, London

Doug Hewett
Before co-founding People-Made, Doug was Associate Director, Brand Image of Doug HewettEngagement at Interbrand, and previously a Partner at Engage Group, responsible for the strategy, creative, and client management teams. A passionate advocate of collaboration, his specialisms are brand culture, brand engagement, and brand-led service experience. He’s worked with a wide range of clients, including: Diageo, DWP, Ernst & Young, Freshfields, Hays, L’Oréal, O2 Telefonica, RBS, Topshop Topman and Williams F1.