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Even before the unforeseen events of 2020, brands recognized the need for more authentic relationships with consumers. Now, the pandemic and historical social movements are reinforcing the meaning of the deeper meaning brands have in the world, including the connections they make with those they serve.
In the recent past, frivolous attempts to make connections have led companies to reactionary communication. Efforts to appear outwardly in contact actually left her looking untouched. Take the poorly-received Pepsi commercial "Social Justice" from 2017, which did more harm than good.
With the rise of lively capitalism, consumers are less forgiving of such branding mistakes. They demand a new level of authenticity. This means companies need to have a real position – rooted in their primary purpose – with customers and the causes that matter to them.
The customer at the core
A corporate purpose is more important today than ever before. But not just any purpose – one that focuses on the customer. And if it's not rooted and worked on, it falls flat.
In fact, 92% of executives believe that having a customer-centric business purpose, according to recent research, provides better business benefits than a non-customer-centric purpose. Unfortunately, only 38% say their company has a customer-centric purpose that is deeply embedded in the mindsets and actions of employees.
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To be effective, a company's purpose should manifest itself beyond marketing – in employee experiences, customer experiences, and products. It should be treated as a timeless truth that every decision points to. And when brands unconditionally stick to their reason for existence, brands benefit from clarity, trust and meaningful customer relationships, regardless of the climate.
Who is doing it right?
Predicting what the purpose-driven companies of the future will and should be like is not a clairvoyant. This archetype has been illuminated by the actions of countless brands that consistently navigate with a customer-facing North Star.
Take Patagonia, for example. The company is not only oriented towards ecological sustainability and courageous activism – topics that are of great importance to the customer base – but also actually implements these goals. For example, they only use organic cotton and have created an entirely new supply chain to make this possible. Fittingly, they also took a stand against President Trump, suing the government for reducing the Bears Ears National Monument.
Toms is another example of a company with a customer-centric purpose. Their one-to-one sales model is a real realization of their reason to be: to make life better. Since 2006, they have given nearly 100 million pairs of shoes to people in need. In response to the 2020 US election, Toms also set up a portal that customers can use to review voter registration and request postal ballot papers.
Subaru also exemplifies a deeply ingrained purpose that keeps the customer first. Their mission reflects efforts to achieve global sustainability, be it in relation to the environment, human rights or other social issues. The company has also taken exceptional measures to protect employees physically and financially during Covid-19 despite a loss of profits. The care of the employees is of course inextricably linked with the care of the customers.
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To meet changing consumer expectations, brands must invest in the ongoing pursuit of customer understanding and use that insight to fulfill their immutable business purpose in a way that is appropriate to the moment. It is no longer enough to just post a statement on social media or run an impactful commercial.
How can this mandate be fulfilled?
Build the customer into your purpose. While a business can determine its purpose based on brand synergies and core values, it is important to determine how the customer exists for that purpose. After all, if you don't have a customer, you don't have a business. In a time of lively capitalism, companies need to be awake to see their people transform into their ground of being. When educating organizations about current events, any action they take should be based on the perspectives of the customers and the employees who serve them. Understand customers and understand them holistically. In order to find the customer for corporate purposes, one has to know who they are. What results do you value? Did you save time? Did They Improve Wellbeing? Do they protect the less fortunate? To answer these questions you have to listen. However, ears are not enough. A deep empathy for their needs and aspirations as humans is required, and to get there, ears and eyes must be paired. It means a combination of customer presence, asking questions and not making assumptions. One way to do this is to take an ethnographic approach to understanding by not just asking but also observing. The pursuit of the goal is lifelong – and the consumer's perspective is constantly changing – but getting and collecting that insight lengthways and consistently is key. Connect the why of each team with the results of customer value. A strong goal that is woven with deep customer empathy is pointless if it is not anchored across the company. Businesses should clearly and consistently communicate the why of their business based on their commitment to the customer. Help each team figure out how their unique roles will adapt. Assisting employees in translating the emotional, functional, and social outcomes customers value into actions they can take every day. And remember, getting people involved means modeling expected behavior beyond written and verbal messages. Celebrate employees who put the purpose into practice. Beyond communication, creating and maintaining a culture that serves its customer-centric purpose requires investment. When team members practice purpose-oriented or customer-oriented behavior, reward them sensibly. Rewards, which can range from recognition to bonuses, encourage positive behaviors in the future. For example, socializing desired actions by employees for the entire company, regardless of their level, not only motivates them personally, but also sets a good precedent for their peers. There is no single approach to reward structures. Hence, it is important to make sure that your approach fits the fabric of the existing culture or reinforces the change you are trying to create.
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Customer-oriented from the start
Refreshing an existing corporate purpose to better reflect customers is not an easy task. To erect an entirely new purpose around them is an even greater one. However, entrepreneurs are in an advantageous place to partner with consumers and create a customer-centric purpose from the ground up. After all, they are not burdened by a long legacy.
The principles of listening, understanding, and purpose in life can be built into their foundation and systems and propagate the ongoing iteration. Change is a given and the future will not be linear progress of the past, but these organizations will have a bright, directional light to look at. Your actions are driven by a strong, customer-oriented goal that reflects relevance and resonance for the whole world through authenticity.