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WHEN CORPORATE AND CONSUMER COLLIDE

There was a time when corporate meant ‘suited and booted’, and consumer meant ‘jeans and T-shirt’ and never the twain shall meet. But that day has long gone and the crossover between the two in terms of audience, messaging and brand is evident all around us. In particular the mediating role of consumers’ perceptions of the congruence between their (real or idealistic) values and that of a company or brand, cannot be underestimated: Lego’s ending of a consumer partnership and £68 million deal with Shell across 26 countries, as a direct result of Shell’s corporate plans in the Arctic (and a truly inspired video by Greenpeace) is a case in point.

Today, smart business is about synergistic practice – the seamless integration of what was once silo’d along the value chain as departments become cross functional, or at least cross communicative facilitated by technology, geographical, office and departmental boundaries are no longer appropriate or conducive to doing business.   And at the helm of the organisation, the CEO’s role is as pertinent to the consumer as it is to the corporate stakeholders. 66 percent of consumers say their perception of the CEO affects their opinions of the company’s reputation. When you consider the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Richard Branson’s personal and company’s reputation you see the point.

In particular, if there’s a word that belongs on every board’s agenda, and every brand’s story, it’s “trust”. Trust has become the aspirational but elusive outcome of consumer brand relationships.  It’s the by-word of success for the organisations that manage to capture it.   “Trust” features heavily in annual reports, and ‘guiding principles’ lists. But consumers don’t give brands their trust blindly.  It must be earned through an organisations’ actions and words …. which is where the communications strategy, both corporate and consumer comes in. A company may produce desirable and consumer-friendly products, but if its corporate practices are found to be unfriendly, consumers will react. Nike is probably still the best example of this, despite the decades that have passed since its sweatshop story days.

Trust’s trajectory can start with the product on the shelf, or the CEO’s comments to the market, and works its way up and down the ebb and flow of the communications in between. The CSR policies directed from senior management, inevitably translate to the shop or factory floor, and ultimately make their way onto the consumer’s radar. Conversely consumers’ views on all things corporate from suppliers to partners, inevitably get heard at board level.

There is now nowhere to hide as stakeholders permeate every on and off line channel related to your company/brand. The internet has levelled stakeholders’ stature giving every group an audience, and at the same time giving them a voice – which may well be of disproportionate volume. Take the instance of the 11 year old girl who sent a letter to DC Comics complaining about the lack of female superheroes which went viral and prompted the organisation to review their plans in this regard.

Brands are not in full control of the message any more, and a larger portion of what gets consumed is not generated by the communications team.  Sponsorship is another example where the crossover happens. The task of finding a suitable partnership may lie with either corporate or consumer personnel, but the impact of the deal will resonate with both audiences, and the fall out of a deal deemed to be inappropriate will also be felt by both – as the Out of Control campaign is proving for Diageo. In Ireland, in particular, the consumer and corporate media environment is blurred. Topics such as ‘fat cat’ salaries, staffing levels, supplier issues and even corporate tax bills, sit as comfortably on the consumer pages as they do in the business section.

The socially conscious consumer should be respected and embraced by companies. Now that the Irish economy is recovering it is likely that we will see a strengthening of ethically motivated purchasing among socially minded consumers in Ireland. The considerations for businesses are two fold, good corporate behaviour, acting with integrity and to the betterment of the society, will have a positive impact on consumers. However, on the flip side, bad corporate decision making will have an impact on consumers who will choose to shop or to do business elsewhere.

Consumers respect companies who act responsibly, however, if corporations are merely greenwashing, consumers will see through this. A company who over communicates or over claims its ethical footprint will truly alienate consumers. While Primark suffered significant criticism in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the company’s response and subsequent support of the local community in creating a real and lasting compensation programmes for the families and survivors, was clearly a meaningful and sustainable response.

So, if corporations and brands want to win our trust and encourage consumers to engage by choosing one product over another then they must convince us that they walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk.

Avril Collins, Director, MCsquared at Murray.

 

Avril Collins.

Director

MCsquared at Murray.

 

This article was published in Marketing Magazine, Volume 26. No 4

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