'Must have' brand love (and how to lose it)

If we've learnt anything in 2018, it's that brands need to stand for something more than just their products and services.

But putting your neck out, and standing for something, comes with great risk. So it’s not surprising that this year we’ve seen a plethora of brands miss the mark when it comes to communicating what they stand for.

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Marks & Spencer is the latest culprit, by taking an ill-judged step in their marketing.

Many of you will have seen the retailer was attacked for one of its Christmas window displays (main image), which positioned women posing in 'fancy little knickers' next to men in suits.

Both were labelled 'must have' items.

However, there is a strong subliminal message here about what ‘dressing to impress’ means.

Although it was almost certainly unintended, this contrast between the sexes sparked outrage.

What has surprised me about this unintended slip is that M&S has a strong track record as a purpose-driven business. And people should be talking about this, not it’s failed window display.

I would go further and say that in some respects M&S can be held up as a model of business being a force for good.

They implemented their Plan A programme ten years ago with the aim of having "a positive impact on wellbeing, communities and the planet through all that we do".

What this, and the long list of other brands that have made mistakes in their marketing and communications this year has highlighted, is the absolute need for meaningful integration of the brand’s value and what it stands for across the whole company.

This means the sustainability or purpose teams, and broader business functions, need to be closely aligned to ensure that the entire business understands what this means for the people the company cares about.

It seems obvious and simple, but this can be the hardest part of executing your strategy – aligning all the different functions that bring your purpose to life.

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Having clear targets to drive business performance and address the big social and environmental issues that are a concern to all of us is hugely commendable.

But this is not enough.

The way a brand interacts with consumers, employees and broader society is equally important in demonstrating your real commitment to promoting a positive change in society – including attacking gender stereotypes.

M&S has a commitment to help people live happier, healthier lives. This needs to encompass every aspect of operations – including the tone and style of advertising and marketing.

Even if it was only one store that made a mistake on the juxtaposition of stock, the negative media coverage has the potential to hurt the whole business.

We live in an information-driven world where mistakes no longer pass under the radar and inauthentic marketing efforts can ultimately hurt your bottom line.

We also know that consumers want to engage with brands that take a stand on the issues that matter to them.

The rise in ‘belief-driven’ buyers is well-documented.

However, these conscientious consumers are both discerning and critical. They look for chinks in your armour and are cynical of failure.

It is only by getting your brand purpose right – consistently – that a business will generate trust and loyalty.

Purpose is no longer an added extra, but an essential foundation to how a business operates.

If you are not crystal clear on the values that underpin your brand, you’re at risk of losing the love you have fought so hard to win.

Andrew Wilson is executive director, Purpose at Edelman

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