The building of brands has defined business activity across the world for the better part of the last 30 years. When you ask people to define a brand, you will get a plethora of bright-eyed answers because of the prolific influence that brand building and brand management has had on business.
We invest in brands, we protect them, we evaluate them; we even give them monetary value and put them in our financial statements to demonstrate company worth. In truth though, the definition of a brand is the perceived value that a consumer places on a product or service that allows the purveyor to charge a premium for it. Brands are what drive profits.
So when I attended the Yellowwood white paper presentation on Social Innovation last week I had a moment of heart palpitation when CEO David Blyth blithely said brands were no longer enough for business. I calmed down seconds later when I realised what he meant. It’s not that brands don’t matter to consumers anymore, it’s that their expectations of brands are rising steadily. For a consumer today, it’s not enough to wear a brand and act as a walking billboard for the lifestyle concept that it sells. The tables have turned.
What a brand does, not what it says
Now the consumer considers carefully whether they will put their own brand, their name and profile, on a product or service because of what it holistically represents. Increasingly that is about what the brand does rather than what it says. To satisfy consumers and retain their loyalty, brands have to act more and more like people with multifarious interests that re-invest in their communities and uplift them.
This presents rather a challenging problem to business. There are a handful of organisations, predominantly those that have small employee bases and direct control over each member of the team, that truly embody the spirit of social innovation. Usually the ‘do good’ side of the business is just that, a small group of junior individuals who occasionally put the company’s name on a few happy projects that marketing will try and communicate as widely as possible to generate some warm and fuzzy PR for the brand.
As Blythe pointed out, social innovation is something that has to be understood, integrated and operationalised business-wide. How this looks at business level is that instead of making CSI the responsibility of the marketing team or forcing your employees to attend an annual team-building where they paint houses or work in a soup kitchen, each and every member of the team needs to have a KPI related to social innovation. How will they aid in providing solutions for systemic challenges in society utilising their position within the organisation?
Innovation drives profit
Yellowwood defines social innovation as, “A sustainable and profitable way of solving existing systemic challenges or needs in ways that benefit the public or society, regardless of their social class.” The next question is how this style of innovation drives profit for business. That’s the higher-grade version of social innovation. The winning CEOs of the near future are going to be those that can stand firm on their commitment to invest in social innovation, creating space and applying resources for all employees to implement ways of solving these systemic challenges and using the skill set and influence that their particular business has, while still delivering profits to the board.
The sensibility is that social innovation will pay back to the business. Consumers will purchase brands that demonstrate their drive to uplift communities. They will be critical, they will speak their minds and they will be unforgiving of mistakes and missteps but they will be the most loyal of unpaid brand ambassadors to those businesses that truly deliver social value. And so the cycle of profit and contribution turns.
Brands were the saviour of business 30 years ago. Today and tomorrow it is social innovation that is going to bring consumers back for more and build the communities that businesses need to sustain themselves.