Companies and brands like Natwest and Budweiser have got themselves into trouble by becoming distracted by ideology rather than focusing value and values. How did it go wrong?
Value is at the heart of economics and marketing. We buy things because we believe them to be good value. As far back as St. Thomas Aquinas economists and philosophers have understood that value is both intrinsic and extrinsic. They have also known that it is subjective. Differences in personality and personal situation drive people to assess value differently, not just for products or services within a category but between categories. Coffee might be important to you, to me it might be low interest. So you might value higher priced coffees you think taste better, I might buy the cheapest. In another category it could be the other way around, I buy the premium brand believing it to be great value, you buy the cheapest because you don’t much care. But it all comes down to value.
Somewhere along the way, probably in the 1970’s when TV advertising really took off, an ‘s’ got added to value. Marketers understood that the appeal of a brand increased if people felt good about it which could be for a variety of reasons. Some of these were described as ‘non-rational’ or ‘emotional’ values which was dangerously wrong. There is nothing irrational or emotional about basing choice on affinity but ‘The Laws of Attraction’ are complex. You can be attracted to someone (or something or somewhere) because it is reliably trustworthy or unpredictably surprising, because it makes you laugh or reflects your concerns, affirms your values or challenges you, is like you or different to you, reflects who you are or aspire to be.
I could go on detailing the evolution of how we have looked at brand values – brand personality, brand ideas, brand ideals, purpose etc. There is some science behind this as we slowly understand more about how the human brain works and how a lot of choices are made in the big system one brain that responds faster and more viscerally. We understand more about the power of consistent associations in how memory is formed and accessed to make choices or decisions. This brand is all about fun, that brand is all about sharing, that one is tough and resilient. If I’m looking for fun, in the mood to share or needing protection my brain acts fast to create the connection to brands I most associate with some particular need or desire.
Some people got a bit too carried away with complex brand positioning (explanations) that covered every aspect of a brand idea using complex diagrams with personality, essences, gestalt at the centre. But at least it got everyone thinking and working together to try to make their brand as attractive as possible.
Then in 2004 two things happened. Firstly, Google became widely available. There was a lot more information out there and platforms (facebook also started in 2004) for people, anyone, to share their views. Suddenly, so it seemed, business and brands had to come to terms with transparency. In some cases the business is the brand, in others the corporation tried to hide behind their brands but now everything was in plain sight. Secondly, the Dove Real Beauty campaign launched. It was not the only, or even the first, time a brand associated itself with a cause but the Dove championing of ‘real women, inner beauty’ cut through and was very successful.
Fast forward to the post Covid world and the rise of ‘woke’. Another word for ‘woke’ is progressive. Thankfully we have evolved our views on gender equality, on the freedom to choose who you love, on diversity– not everywhere and not enough but there has been real progress. ‘Woke’ means being aware of, and alert to, prejudice and discrimination, the driving force behind social progressiveness. Access to information and social media allows people, everyone, to support progressive action and call out hypocrisy. We should all applaud that but there have been some unpleasant side-effects – virtue-signaling, militancy, cancel culture.
Business should have steered clear of this but a lot didn’t – values became ideals and ideals became ideology. Purpose became social purpose.
What is the difference between religion and ideology? Nothing other than where they draw their authority from. Religion takes its authority from God, ideology is based on what some people think, people who think they know better. Both religion and ideology seek to convert (most religions and all ideologies). It is not enough that we think this – you have to think this too.
Any business can and should have a point of view about how they want to run their business, in particular who they want employ, how they want people to work together and be treated, their shared values. As noted, these days that will be transparent but to a large extent it always was. In its heyday everyone knew M&S was a great place to work, they treated their people well and it reflected well on them as a business. British car makers back in the day were known to be unhappy places, always on strike, entrenched discord between management and workers, and coincidently most of the cars were badly made.
Whatever they say in the ads, whatever they put in their mission statements nothing says more about a business than how it treats its people (and its supply chain). Any hypocrisy, cant or overclaim will be found out – the golden rule is walk the talk before you talk about it publicly. But if a business is proud of the way it embraces diversity, tackles climate change, creates equal opportunity it has every right to tell people.
However, business has no right to tell people how they should live, who they should vote for and what they should not vote for, what degrees and types of diversity they should accept, what personal sacrifices they should make to tackle climate change. They can lead by example and they can reject customers if they have broken the law. They can champion causes, as Dove did, but they must recognize it is not their primary role.
Business’ primary role is to do what they do as well as they can, almost to the point of obsession – of all the values that is the most reliably attractive. No-one chooses a plumber based on their progressive social views or who they would most like to go on holiday with. If a plumber pitches up on time, is really knowledgeable about plumbing, seems to really enjoy what they do and charges a fair price, that is the plumber you choose. We should care about how banks treat their people because it will affect how a good a service they offer but that service is banking not social engineering.
As for Budweiser, using a trans person in their ads, what on earth were they thinking? It is not the first time they have been caught out trying to hold up a dodgy mirror to their audience. Make great beer and make us laugh – you’re good at that and we like good beers with strong associations around having a good time. We’re not much interested in a beer with an ideological bee in their bonnet.