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Brands Make the World Go ‘Round

Brands have played an intrinsic role in our lives. Some brands have mimicked culture, while others have created and driven it. Brands have lifted the world from poverty with economic growth and human development. In 2017, the world’s 500 largest companies employed over 67 million people, while producing $30 trillion in revenues and $1.9 trillion in profits.

Brands have brought the world to our doorsteps. Brands have taught us about global values and uplifted our spirits. Brands make the world go ‘round. They have poured billions of dollars into our communities. And, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

 

Brands: Force of Good

Can you image a world without brands?  It would be a world made of lifeless commodities and generic products, void of any personality, aesthetic, emotion, or aspiration. Brands have brought us together in joy, happiness, and pleasure (and yes, also in anger, hatred and desperation). Brands have been the catalyst for change and new innovations. They have inspired arts, technology, government and social causes. Brands are the true global consciousness of governance and consistence of quality, regardless of race, geography, politics and religion. They are a true friend that remains loyal, delivering on their promises around the world. Brands have also made a lot of money, having a positive impact on society as the wealth of nations increase around the world. The assumption is that brands understand and respond to the needs of their consumer, and that will in variably deliver value to them and shareholders. Everyone wins.

 

Brands: Force of Evil

Critics argue that greedy global brands, with their huge appetite for natural resources, are destroying forests, ruining oceans, and polluting our environment. Human resources are also being taken advantage of, with low pay and poor working conditions. Brands are seen as the source behind the plastics pollution pandemic and linked to rainforest destruction and the extinction of wildlife. Brands are the motivation behind the endless consumption of society. Brands have created a disposable society of the one use, throw it away mentality.

There is no question that some brands’ ethics and motives aren’t acceptable.  Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster or WikiLeaks to inform the public of any atrocities. Today, unacceptable conduct is quickly responded to with financial pain in the form of boycotts and brand-damaging messaging.

The billion dollar tech brands like Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook have captured unprecedented market share in the new digital world. These brands and others like them all collect large amounts of personal data and, in some cases, misuse this data. Apple’s iPhone, for example, tracks users about 129,000 times each year.  These brands have the ability to map your entire behavior, becoming so accurate and so detailed that they know your next move before you do. Share this information with a third party, and you have a political mess.  Misuse of information will continue to be a threat by unethical brands.  

Good brands will be seen as those that nurture the planet and promote human wellbeing, while bad brands will be seen as those that exploit the planet and its people. At the end of the day, the consumers will decide which brands win.

 

Brands: Drive Prosperity

In 1949, Harry Truman said that “more than half the people in the world are living in conditions approaching misery.” It was around that time that Minute Maid Orange Juice, Sony, H&M, 20th Century Fox Television, Burger King, Adidas, McDonald’s, and Visa made their brand debut. Shortly after, Wal-Mart, Nike, Mastercard, Intel and the Gap made their presence felt around the world. World War II was finally over and the Bretton Woods Agreement had been signed, opening the world to a new global system of free trade.

Poverty rates started to collapse as the world shifted to free markets in the 1950s. The world’s population was around 2.52 billion and more than 70 percent (1.81 billion) lived in extreme poverty (making less than $1.90 per day). Experts attribute two-thirds of poverty reduction to economic growth and the other third to greater equality. By 2015, the world’s population had tripled (thanks in part to the Boomers) to 7.35 billion. During the same period, extreme poverty dropped by 60 percent to less than 10 percent of the total population. Over this 60 years of incredible economic growth, we saw the globalization of brands cover the world.  Even with the explosive population growth we saw illiteracy rates drop and life expectancy increase. This progress wasn’t caused by time but by brands investing in countries, communities, and people. Everyone profited.

 

Brands: Empower Women

World War II was also a turning point for women, especially in North America, where they played a significant role in the workforce and paved the way in breaking down psychological barriers. Julia Kirk Blackwelder, author on the topic of feminization of the workplace, said “the war so profoundly altered labor demands and women’s expectations that women entered the workforce in even greater numbers after the war.” In 1950, 34 percent of women were part of the labour force and by 2016 there were almost 57 percent.

Brands clearly understood the major shift in the consumer landscape. In the 1960s, brands were under scrutiny from feminist groups for how women were being portrayed in brand advertising. Over time, a greater emphasis was placed on the independence of women in owning a car, having a career, and participating in major purchase decisions.  These images of doing “men’s work” helped instill and grow confidence within women who became the target audience of many new brands. However, there is still room for improvement in the area of pay equity, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

 

Brands: Generic Alternative

Generics are copycat brands that are generally cheaper and come with no-frills packaging. In some cases, generic brands offer products of similar quality while in others the difference is much more noticeable. Generic ketchup isn’t Heinz, cola doesn’t taste the same as “real thing” and the Goophone smartphone isn’t iPhone. The generics are all about price with no branding or promotional support.

As with most things, you get what you pay for. The branded version is all about loyalty and building a relationship based on quality, craftsmanship, and supported services. Brands are always anticipating future customer’s needs. They are more expensive, but the added profits goes towards further research and development. Brands care about innovations and continuous improvements to keep them relevant. Generics only care about selling you as much of their product as possible, with no attention to your future needs. Generics don’t invest in communities nor new technology; their goal is to make as much money as possible without spending anything more than the absolute minimum.  

Brands continue to evolve. Generics come and go while brands create new technologies, industries, business models, goods, and services. A new version of the iPhone is anticipated and expected as an annual event. New technologies can make older ones obsolete, shutting down old production systems while displacing workers. These rapid changes can also destroy traditional work and social relationships that once played an essential cultural and economic role in the lives of a community or country. The Apple iPod and Amazon Kindle Reader had a profound effect on the music industry and the book industry, respectively. Currently, Airbnb and Uber are creating havoc in the traditional hotel industry and taxi industry. All of these changes come with serious trade-offs that aren’t necessarily clear if the future is a better place.

 

Brands: Control Commerce

Karl Marx predicted in The Communist Manifesto that local business would be wiped out by large multinational brands and the local culture would be lost forever. Karl Marx’s prediction has come true. Go anywhere in the world and you are guaranteed to find a Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC or Pizza Hut. And thanks to ecommerce you can access almost any brand, with delivery right to your door

The reason multinational brands became mega brands and wiped all the local presence is because consumers supported them.  Customers will line up for days to get the newest model of the latest product, and spend their entire paycheck to proudly display the brand logo. But do brands really want to make the world a better place, or do they just keep us working so we can continue to buy their products and keep them profitable? Through their mammoth marketing machine, mega brands create consumer aspirations and desires that lead people continuously into debt. No local grocer is a match for a large multinational brand like Wal-Mart, with its global resources of outsourcing, data & digital management, and low-margin high-volume sales model. It doesn’t matter how many years the local grocer built their business, one customer at a time, with personalized service.

We have, however, seen a resurgence in local premium products like craft beers, spirits, soda, natural energy drinks, ice cream and coffee. So maybe we are finding the balance getting the best quality at the best price while wanting elevated quality, and supporting local.

 

Brands: Define Culture

People build culture and also brands. More than ever, brands are shaping our lives. We are addicted to our smartphones and the social networks we live on. Thom Braun, author of The Philosophy of Branding, says “…brands and branding are fundamental to the way we experience modern life—and the way we give ‘meaning’ to it.” It’s no surprise our top brands are the ones we interact with on demand.

We can’t live without brands. In some cases, they define who we are. Brands are no longer just objects in our disposable lives—they are giving us meaning, as brands weave their stories with ours. Author Paul Auster said “If we didn’t have stories to tell each other, I don’t think we’d be able to understand the world at all.” In the book Storytelling, Branding in Practice, authors K. Fog, C. Budtz, P. Munch and S. Blanchette state “It is, therefore, no coincidence that an ancient tradition like storytelling should appear in a new form-as a tool for brand building…”

Brands are starting to shape culture to remain relevant and break through the clutter. Brands are trying to champion a societal need and change a social attitude or behaviour, with the ultimate goal of making the world a better place (and selling more product). Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick’s racial injustice cause is a case in point. As the ad said “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

 

Brands: Bigger Responsibility

Thanks to digitization and globalization, popular brands are getting bigger by the second.

While Amazon is on track to collect half of US online sales by 2021, according to an analyst. But the bigger play is still in the brick and mortar, where Wal-Mart dominates the retail landscape with 11,700 locations in over 28 countries, over 2.3 million employees, and annual sales of over $500 billion. With this clout, they can dictate their terms and define the products with a network of 3000 diverse suppliers to keep their 270 million weekly customers happy. If you visit their global website they say “We want to use our size for good.” Let’s hope so, because they are very big!

Coca-Cola consumes about 289 billion of water (a fact on their website) to produce their 40 different products. To put this in perspective, that is about 115,600 Olympic-sized pools, almost one week of the entire water flowing over the Niagara Falls, or almost one year of water consumption by Torontonians. They claim that it takes about 2 litres to produce 1 litre of product. While agriculture accounts for 70% of all water consumption in the world, Coca-Cola recognizes that a sustainable approach to water is essential to its business. Coca-Cola committed to fully replace the water it uses in its finished products across the globe, a goal it set for 2020 and met in 2015. Now they need to tackle climate change!

McDonald’s has more than 36,000 restaurants around the world and serve 69 million people every day. According to Bloomberg, McDonald’s sells four million kilograms (nine million pounds) of fries every day. To feed this appetite, the entire Madison Square Gardens would need to be filled with potatoes to the ceiling just to supply a year’s worth of fries. McDonald’s employs about 1.8 million people in 119 countries and has become so central to global trade that The Economist values foreign currencies against the dollar using the price of a Big Mac. One in eight US workers has been employed by McDonald’s at some point in their career. McDonald’s has helped put a lot of people through college.

 

Brands: The Future

The world’s challenges like climate change, obesity, population growth, and dwindling natural resources are so complex that they require collaborative solutions that go well beyond any one brand or government. The world’s mega brands have a responsibility to address social concerns beyond their own backyards something no government is able or prepared to do. Global brands have the resources and ability to make lasting change with oppression, religions, politics, and social injustices. They can define and uphold universal values that all humans can embrace. Every day they must answer to their customers (and shareholders), because it is the customers who choose to buy their brand and keep them relevant. Every day they must not only keep their brand promises but also nurture the planet and promote human wellbeing. The world would be a very different place without brands who truly are making the world go ‘round.

 

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What Brands Need to Know About Millennials

First, I must disclose that I am not a Millennial. I like to think I’ve helped shape them but they are neither me nor I them. If you are going to successfully build a brand relationship with the next biggest consumer group, you’d better start understanding their needs, wants and desires. I have five key traits that brands need to know about Millennials.

Collectively, they spend about $800 billion annually on consumer goods in United States. And in five years, they will make up 50% of the workforce. In 15 years, they take over at 75%. Pew Research Center defines Generation Y–a.k.a. Millennials – as those born between 1981 and 1996, so today they’re 22-37 years old. By 2020, they are projected to spend over $1.4 trillion annually in United States.

Millennials are a technologically connected, diverse and tolerant generation. They have witnessed and experienced countless world-changing events that have shaped their lives, from acts of terrorism, catastrophic weather and environmental disasters, financial crashes, to international political upheavals – all brought to them in a media-saturated environment.

This group has been researched to death. Everyone is trying to figure them out from every possible business and marketing angle.

After muddling through all the information and misinformation, and Wikipedia was no help, I came up with five traits or trends that brands need to be aware of:

1. Like Me

Millennials have lived most (or at least half) of their life with a cell/smartphone around them, staying connected 24/7 with friends and family. Their ability to consume digital content (emails, texts, tweets, video chats, websites, apps, videos and images) while at the same time producing their own digital content is admirable; but what is truly amazing is they do this sitting in meetings, visiting with friends, eating, running, walking and driving a car. They sleep with their cell phone. Three-quarters of Millennials are signed up to a social network site like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube or Instagram, compared to only half of Generation Xers and less than a third of Boomers (Pew Research Center). They also account for about four in 10 digital video viewers. The Wall Street Journal reported that this is the first generation to also have tech savvy parents, who were always in contact with them via texting and online chat throughout the day.

As they consume services, products, food, beverages and entertainment, they are sharing their experiences, good and bad, via social media as photojournalists, comedians, critics, advocates and just plain participants. Boston Consulting Group reports, “The vast majority of millennials report taking action on behalf of brands and sharing brand preferences in their social groups.”

The top three brands that have millions of Facebook fans are Coca-Cola (107 million), McDonalds (78 million), and Red Bull (48 million).

Social and online reviews have supercharged traditional word-of-mouth and some brands live and die from these reviews. Not only do Millennials like to share but they like to feel informed, involved and in control, not just marketed to.

A great example is the fatal Kryptonite bike lock that was shown on YouTube being opened with a simple Bic pen. According to hotel booking Getaroom.com and ReviewPro, Millennials rely on user-generated peer reviews to help make their travel bookings. A survey by the market research firm Dimensional Research showed 90% of respondents said that positive online reviews influenced their buying decision. On the other hand, 86% said that negative reviews have a direct impact on shifting their purchase choices. One of Amazon’s cornerstones to its brand identity is its customer’s reviews. They even have a collection of the Funniest Reviews.

Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox, the popular file transfer service says “Millennials are a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand, with you. Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge.” Some brands that have figured this out is Uber, Airbnb, VICE, Red Bull Entertainment.

2. Me to We

Brother’s Craig and Marc Kielburger, both Millennials, made the “Me to We” famous with their international charity and youth movement called Free the Children. Their website describe their goal “to empower a generation to shift the world from me to we – through how we act, how we give, the choices we make on what to buy and what to wear, the media we consume and the experiences with which we choose to engage.”

In a survey done by the Intelligence Group, 44% of Millennials try to practice being green in their daily lives. “Millennials view social activism much more as it relates to their overall persona than the generations before them,” says Joe Kessler. “Our research indicates they are significantly engaged, but are less active in [individual] actions. [Their social activism] is insinuated in every aspect of their lives.”

Millennials have high expectations for brands to make the world a better place, like Toms shoes and Soapbox Soaps who have one-to-one giving models, or Starbucks with their C.A.F.E. sustainable coffee production practices, and even Ben & Jerry’s fair trade ingredients and farm sustainability program.

To read more about Millennials and social responsibility check out my article Six Reasons Why Brands Should Care.

3. Love Me

This is the generation that didn’t (or isn’t!) leaving home soon. According to Pew Research (2014), hours spent parenting have increased for both fathers and mothers, tripling for fathers by 180% since 1985 and increasing by 60% for mothers. What this means is parents are spending more time with their kids because they want to and their kids reciprocate that feeling. But there is also an economic reality that they can’t afford to live on their own because of the high cost of living and the lack of affordable jobs. For some, it could be that leaving home means leaving the comforts they can’t afford today. There is also the benefits of home cooked meals, laundry service and maid (mom) service.

Joeri Van den Bergh and Mattias Behrer authors of the book How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y, says that 85% of teens name one of their parents as their best friend, rather than naming a peer. And more than a third of millennials of all ages say they influence what products their parents buy, what shops and restaurants they visit, and what trips they take.

While they love to share they also trust the social online environment to show the world (quite literal) who they are – the good, the bad and the drunken. They share intimate details and show off where they are and where they are going. Millennials see themselves as friends and pride themselves when they have thousands of Facebook friends or Twitter followers – or better yet, when they get hundreds of “likes” on one of their posts. They want to surround themselves with brands they believe are friends, like Nike, Apple, Samsung, Sony and Walmart (based of the 2015 study conducted by Moosylvania agency).

“This is a group that will adopt brands,” says Norty Cohen, founder and CEO of Moosylvania. “If you can create a friendship with these consumers, you really take it to the next level. They will go to great lengths to support you.”

It is not surprising that Nike is a top brand for Millennials. This is a brand that has embraced technology and done a great job utilizing social across all touch points and engagements with its Nike+ digital ecosystem. Even more important, it prioritized selling directly to customers through its own channels, which include physical shops and, increasingly, digital storefronts such as Nike.com, the Nike app, and Snkrs. CEO Mark Parker dubbed the effort Nike Direct.

Millennials want to be loved and appreciated as an individual customer and if they have a problem they want the brand to fix it. In a study conducted by Edelman over 70% of Millennials said they would come back to brands they love.

4. Discount Me

This is a generation that entered the workforce during the most pronounced downturn since the Great Recession. At the darkest period unemployment rate for youth in USA was 13%. Other regions are still battling unseen rates of over 65% in Greece, 57% in Spain and 44% in Italy and 14.5% in Canada (with Ontario reaching 17%). Generally, they are more educated with over 60% of Millennials attending college compared to 46% of Boomers (1946 – 1964).

Millennials have been labeled “the cheapest generation” for their propensity to avoid large-scale purchases such as cars and houses. While this generation might be a price-conscious shopper, technology has allowed them to research every purchase, and has more options and pricing-models than ever before. Before they book a hotel online they generally check out at least 10 sites before booking, reading reviews, gauging price predictions, then cross-referencing hotels between myriad online travel aggregators.

In a survey conducted by Harris Interactive (2011) of Millennials over 77% participated in loyalty reward programs and 44% were willing to promote products or services through social media in exchange for rewards. Ipsos reported in a survey that 92% of Millennials said they use coupons either digital or paper ones. One of the favorite coupon websites for the latest deals is Groupon.

They can also see value in non-traditional business models such as Uber connecting riders to drivers replacing taxicab or Airbnb providing travelers with unique accommodations around the world replacing hotel chains. Other examples of disruptive marketing is the very popular Dollar Shave Club, a monthly subscription service for razors that rocketed to success with its “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” viral ad campaign starring 33-year-old founder Michael Dubin. Netflix has also changed the way movies and TV series are consumed.

I read an interesting posting on LinkedIn recently that stated: “In 2015 Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory, and Airbnb the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate.” Scary times for many traditional boomer brands.

5. Humour Me

Millennials grew up on entertainment starting from the early days of VCRs watching the full library of Walt Disney movies over and over, and sneaking in the odd National Lampoons reel. Then there were the endless Jim Carrey movies and video games. They had instant access to be amazed and distracted. World-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal estimates that a 21-year-old has spent 10,000 hours gaming — about the same amount of time they spent in school from 5th to 12th grade.

Tanya Giles, the executive vice president of Strategic Insights and Research at Viacom Media Networks says comedy is intrinsically intertwined with Millennials identities. A study of 4,000 Millennials by Edelman research confirms that 80 percent of Millennials like to be entertained by advertising – that is, as long as the brand is current and the offering is appealing or relevant.


Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice has been around for 70 years. I remember buying the stuff for my dad for Christmas. I have always thought of the brand as an old man’s product. But that all changed when they launched one of the most successful rebrands to young men in 2010 with the “Old Spice Guy”. Their video “Mom Song” has had over 3 million views on YouTube.

Millennials Are The Future

Boomers have changed the world. The jury is still deliberating on determining their positive and negative contribution. Their children, Millennials have the opportunity to move the world to a better place. Brands must listen carefully to adapt to this new world.

No generation is a homogeneous group and like any customer we are all different in some way. Technology allows brands to provide unique experiences one customer at a time. Millennials want to be treated like “me” – not a group we call “Millennials”!

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Six Reasons Why Brands Should Care

care brands

Building a brand on functional and emotional benefits isn’t entirely good enough today. Beyond the brand promise brands need to be socially responsible. What does this mean? The most common buzz words are sustainable (over used word), ethical, corporate socially responsible or CSR, green, eco-friendly, cause-marketing and community involvement. The sum of all of these terms is doing good or protecting people and/or the planet. Can you buy it?