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Have You Practiced Brand Citizenship Lately?

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When asked about the role of corporate social responsibility (CSR), people tell us it begins with helping “me,” the individual consumer, before it can credibly expand outward into CSR-like initiatives.

To contribute to brand development efforts, corporate citizenship should first integrate values that are important to people in their daily lives and, only after that is done, then connect people to something bigger than themselves---their communities, their country, people across the world, and the planet.

That’s what we call Brand Citizenship.

This is particularly true when your brand is targeting Millennials, that large and much-studied generation also known as Gen Y. Millennials have a strong need to reinvent the future, make it more positive and life enhancing for themselves and the communities they belong to, and they expect the same from brands they advocate for. But don’t take my word for it. According to recent research from CultureQ, where Millennials (as well as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers) were asked to identify brand leaders, their favorite brands, and brands they’d label good citizens, the brands that fulfill multiple roles in people’s lives are most often favorites.

Few brands achieve equal status as a leader, a favorite, and a good brand citizen. And some that have achieved that status are rather surprising. Take Apple, for example. While we all recognize its leadership status and can easily explain its position as a favorite, given the negative press it’s been receiving about its suppliers you wouldn’t expect it to rank as a top brand citizen. Yet, it does. Why? Because people see it as having transformed and simplified the way we communicate with one another. Lesson learned: Brand citizenship begins with helping “me” and enriching “my” life before it extends out to improving the community and bettering the world and society at large.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps. So here’s a bit more about what we mean.

A Close Look at Brand Citizenship

To implement brand citizenship into brand development, first you must understand what it means for your brand to be a good “citizen” based on how your target audience---not a textbook, government regulation, or even industry expert---defines this. A relatively new concept, brand citizenship is ultimately about how a brand can effectively connect us to something bigger and more meaningful than ourselves---not only what many people label “do good” initiatives, which often sit apart from marketing and brand management in a corporate structure.

This is not to say CSR initiatives are a waste of time. Indeed, they are not. While brand citizenship begins with making our lives easier and helping us manage our day-to-day lives more effectively, it then spans out to be more about the personal enrichment and fulfillment that is derived through positive contribution to society and the betterment of humanity. Building good social policy into business operations and strategy will clearly enhance people’s lives in the long-term and can simultaneously make them feel more positive about the brand.

Why Should Marketers or Communication Managers Even Care About Brand Citizenship?

The blending of brand leadership with favorite brands is creating a new psychology for leadership, one that must incorporate a more effective dialogue with audiences about a brand’s ideology and, in turn, the behaviors and values it embraces. Importantly, a brand leader must now project an identity that simultaneously mirrors its stakeholders’ identities while also helping to shape them. As consumers’ relationships with favorite brands grow more intimate, the brands they choose become extensions of themselves. And similar to the way they choose friends---through judging behaviors---people seek not only qualities but also actions that align with their individual interests and principles.

In many ways, the basis for brand leadership today represents a return to the basics. Brand leadership is developed first and foremost through product quality and service excellence. Attributes such as product durability and reliability, customer service, and value for quality are decidedly the most important. Interestingly, according to CultureQ data, a large number of top brands named as leaders are also cited as favorites.

So, how do you use brand citizenship to become a brand leader and favorite?

  • Relate to consumers on a personal level. Mirror back their values, and reflect the things that are important to them without being invasive or insincere.

  • Incorporate beauty and an aesthetic reminiscent of a piece of artwork or architecture in a brand. Blend the contemporary with a vision of the future; simplicity with classic, timeless design. Ownership that’s a source of pride facilitates advocacy.

  • Offer opportunities for consumers to be creative. Incorporate attributes into your brand that make the mundane interesting, drive creativity, encourage curiosity, and allow consumers to be collaborative and productive. Integrated digital platforms offer excellent opportunities to do this.

  • Blend customer data with your understanding of motivations to create individualized, intimate experiences. Offer personalization alongside opportunities to help develop products, services, and even the brand itself.

Cultivating faithfulness is now a relevant orientation for marketing and communication teams to rally behind. Millennials talk vividly and passionately about their favorite brands; they instinctively want to covet and protect them. Once Millennials and Gen Xers have invested their trust, time, energy, and resources into their favorite brands, they are less likely than Baby Boomers to break-up or cheat on them. Favorite brands are fast becoming Millennials’ psychological coping strategies; when they are without them, it is as if they’ve given up part of their identity, are missing out on something, or relinquishing the opportunity to be influential or productive. Given all this, and in particular, the influence Millennials have to shape their peers, parents and siblings opinions, it’s the perfect time to practice good brand citizenship.

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Anne Bahr Thompson is founder of Onesixtyfourth, a trend-based, brand and communications strategy boutique that connects brand values with people’s values. Onesixtyfourth specializes in insight, foresight, strategy, and innovation and focuses on making it easier for brands to reach, communicate, and interact with customers.

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  • by Julie Tue Dec 4, 2012 via blog

    This is a very good article, Anne. As I was reading through it, I wished you would provide some concrete examples because there are so many different types of businesses out there to market. For example, I own a Business English company in Houston and I was thinking about what actions that I could take to benefit professional expats who are here for a few years working in the US. I already do the writing to bring more awareness to their situation, but I'm not sure about what positive action to take. BTW, last bullet point - did you mean "blend customer data"? Anyway, great piece with very good ideas. Thank you!

  • by Chad Gabriel Tue Dec 4, 2012 via blog

    My company, Tuthill Corporation, has a very lofty vision statement: Build a Great Company, Grow Healthy Families, Have a Seismic Impact on Our World. We're an American B2B manufacturer of industrial pumps, meters, vacuum systems, and blowers. Where do Millennials fit into a company like ours?

  • by Nancy - Release Liners Tue Dec 4, 2012 via blog

    Well I am now looking into all the brands that I purchase and my company uses to really see what kind of brand I may be supporting, so thanks for that. I just wanted to comment on your incredibly large social media icons on the left. Absolutely love them.

  • by Anne Bahr Thompson Thu Dec 6, 2012 via blog

    Hi Julie! Thanks for your comments. We have examples in the larger report we share with our clients and which will soon be available for purchase on our website. Certainly you can learn from others examples, but we often use the insights as bases for ideation session that develop ideas specific to individual businesses. If you'd like some guidance on how to do this with your own team, don't hesitate to email me with questions. If you have a look at our website, some of our free Thought Pieces and blog entries also may help. We'll be sharing more of this info in open forums over the next few months. Best wishes, Anne

  • by Anne Bahr Thompson Thu Dec 6, 2012 via blog

    Hi Chad! As a brand strategist, I can't resist asking if you've embedded your vision statement into your operations and servicing proposition as well as you marcomms...? We use much of our Millennial research to understand how brands can break-through the clutter in terms of communications and development of their offering and service proposition. Having worked w/many B2B clients I know lessons out of category often help to challenge embedded ways of thinking and evolve the business. With respect to how Millennials fit into your business, they likely work at many of your customers and may soon be the people you interact with day-to-day there, if indeed some aren't already. And, certainly they'll be part of your workforce and the people you're looking to hire. Don't hesitate to get in touch with any additional comments. Best, Anne

  • by Anne Bahr Thompson Thu Dec 6, 2012 via blog

    Many thanks for your kind words, Nancy! Best wishes, Anne

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