Never before has purchasing power mattered as much to consumers, affecting personal belief systems and influencing identity. Today, increasingly consumers affiliate themselves with brands that epitomize values and lifestyles they believe in. Products and brands have thus garnered strong identity loyalty among consumers, who in turn, have often become brand ambassadors and brand stewards.
A new era of belief-based consumption has arisen. “People want to do business with companies that believe what they believe,” said Ujwal Arkalgud, a design anthropologist and marketer with Sonic Boom in Toronto. “Brands that are honest about who they are will get a competitive advantage because it will allow them to create an authentic connection with their audience.”
Belief-based consumption influences how consumers buy products and how companies promote, produce and sell their products. A demand for transparency in corporations has arisen among consumers.
Consumer Empowerment Through Digital Tools
How did this shift occur? The primary reason for the spread of belief-based consumption is consumer empowerment. Digital tools for communication (websites, blogs, social media and the like) have empowered consumers to openly discuss concerns, conduct product and brand research and form their own opinions about companies, products and services apart from branded messaging. They also are engaging directly with brands and in several cases, sharing feedback and shaping product and brand development. Audiences have gone from passive engagement to actively questioning, engaging and defining the meaning behind brand messaging. This can range from associations with youth culture that foster identity loyalty (examples ranging from Starbucks to American Apparel) or from messages about social issues. In fact, market perceptions today consist of both brand content and audience-generated content. This meaning in turn, drives identity loyalty.
Activism and Social Issues
Many companies promote awareness of social issues through their marketing platforms. They have publicly affiliated themselves with ethical behavior, accountability and eco-friendly efforts. Examples include Mountain Equipment Co-op, Kashi, Toms, Lululemon, Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s and many more who have created strong identity loyalty to their brands through their activism and stance on social issues.
Many consumers strongly identify with these companies through social issues and activism. Professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Americus Reed points out that, “if you can make a connection not just on the basis of what your product does but on what your product stands for, then you’re creating the opportunity to have stronger loyalty.”
At the same time, some companies have alienated customers when they have publicly announced their values. For example, when GoDaddy.com supported the Stop Online Privacy Act, numerous customers (often Reddit users) left and moved their domains. To recover from the public outcry, GoDaddy.com reversed its stance, going from supporting SOPA to denouncing it.
So how do brands acknowledge the need for transparency and share their values without alienating customers? Americus Reed, Wharton professor, offers a solution. He says that brands that want to go public with their values should espouse and promote values that relate to what they do, whether it is social (wages) or ecological (ethical sourcing) and avoid discussing how they vote.
“Choosing to alienate people who’d normally be attracted to your brand just doesn’t make sense,” says Reed. “If you want to do good, do good. You don’t necessarily have to use it as a marketing strategy.”
Organizations today have to choose between influencing brand perception and consumer relationships by clearly expressing their values and beliefs through content and experiences or they can leave it up to consumer interpretation.
Building a Core Community
Every brand has its own community of people who passionately engage with the brand and advocate on its behalf. As a marketer, it is important to identify who your audience is and your core community so that you can engage them and build strong relationships. These consumers who form your core community must mirror values and beliefs that support your brand.
In summary, by understanding the values and beliefs of your audience and how they align with your company’s values, you can build brand advocacy and identity loyalty for your brand, product and services in the marketplace.