In today’s post-pandemic world, the average consumer’s digital literacy is on the rise, and at any given time, through devices they carry around everywhere, they can stay up-to-date on local and international issues they care about the most. Now more than ever, consumers choose brands that can hold themselves to a higher standard. With the COVID-19 pandemic just being one of many recent events that brought social issues into the limelight, research from McKinsey saw 61% of participants claim that they would continue buying from a brand based on how they respond during a crisis.
So why is a strong brand identity important in 2022? Because consumers are all eyes on an important facet of your brand: its character as reflected by its actions.
You can see how impactful this is for brands with positive stances on LGBTQ issues, for example—even as far back as over a decade ago. The more prominent, present, and larger scale the issue, the more significant it is for brands to reflect their character through their actions. Case in point: as of March 2022, over 300 major international businesses have made their stance on the Ukraine war publicly known, many to the extent that they pulled out of multi-million dollar operations in Russia.
Even for issues that are not as world-changing, but just constantly saturating media, a brand’s actions can result in big wins or losses. The luxury fashion house Dior, for example, through staying in its contract with Hollywood star Johnny Depp, came to reap massive rewards throughout and after the recent and highly discussed defamation case Depp brought against ex-wife Amber Heard. Google searches for Dior’s fragrances, such as Sauvage, soared throughout the proceedings, for example, and viewership on TikTok increased by nearly 63%. Ultimately, Dior’s sales reportedly skyrocketed.
Branding and brand strategy have always been important. In 2022, however, where audiences are pickier and information—both good and bad—spreads at the speed of a click on social media, you need to hold yourself to a higher standard.
From a high-level perspective, imagine your brand in the center of three concentric circles, each of which defines how loosely your brand is perceived by audiences. The closer the circle, the stronger and more complete the perception. Moving from the outermost circle inwards, the degrees of perception are recognition, awareness, and reputation.
Let’s walk through why each of these circles is important in terms of how they impact your brand.
The first stage of the buyer journey is need recognition, where a buyer recognizes the need for the product or service that a brand offers. This is where a consumer’s buyer journey begins, or in other words, where they can then be encouraged to find out more until they decide they need to purchase the service or product, and that they need to purchase it from you. The thing is, even before the buyer journey starts, brand recognition might come first.
Brand recognition is the outermost concentric circle that leads to the core of your brand. Simply put, it’s what people recognize and what is top of mind about your brand. Usually, these are your products, services, symbols, and colors. Think of Apple with its internationally recognizable and irreducibly simple logo; or Coca-Cola with the red and white color scheme that has even revitalized figures like Santa Claus, who was originally depicted in many different ways, commonly in brown and green.
So you see, even before audiences can recognize their need for your products or services, they may recognize something else about your brand first. And if what they recognize tells them you’re on the wrong side of an issue, they may not even want to recognize the need for what you’re selling—or will at least consciously exit their buyer journey.
The newer generations understand that one of the most important ways they can let their voices be heard is through their purchasing power. In 2017, 81% of Millennials surveyed worldwide expected brands to publicly declare their stance on environmental and social issues. They wanted messaging that was positive to causes they believed in, and actions to back that up. Fast forward to Generation Z, and 93% of them agree that they would be loyal and motivated patrons and employees of brands who prove themselves to be socially and environmentally responsible.
Newsflash: these two generations are due for a takeover—they currently comprise over half of the US population, for instance, and are sure to influence the younger generations to follow. They’re setting the outlook for brand recognition in the future, and their perception of brand involvement in societal causes will drive them to decide with their wallets.
Brand recognition was an important point for Alfred24, a delivery-technology company that offers a cutting-edge concept with a focus on sustainability. We helped them develop a tech vibe with an organic look and feel, combining the company’s tech-forward approach with the Earth-friendly values it wanted to communicate in its branding. For Alfred24, regardless of whether their audiences realize their need recognition first or see the company’s branding first, they’ve got both bases covered.
The next concentric circle of branding is brand awareness, or very simply: how familiar your audiences are with your brand overall, and your products and services. A step further in from simply recognizing the symbols, colors, and causes you support, brand awareness includes associations and social vetting, i.e. audiences now know your brand from what you offer and not just as a logo supporting social or environmental issues important to them. They know your products and services and are receptive to what other people say about them.
Generally speaking, in the awareness circle, what’s important for consumers are follow-through and authenticity. In other words, what you want your audiences to be aware of is that you’re consistent and that you let your products and services speak for themselves.
A brand’s consistency is established through aligning its actions with its marketing messaging, which means following through on promises and meeting the standards you set in your campaigns. Brand consistency is the loudest in social causes, as you can see from the examples of LGBTQ support, pull-outs in the Ukraine war, and brand contracts in the Depp vs. Heard defamation case. And you can be sure your audiences will amplify the noise your actions—or inaction—will make.
A brand’s authenticity is best represented by letting its products and services speak for themselves, albeit via social proof. Naturally, if you simply reiterate your value and unique selling propositions, you’re just marketing. But if you use testimonials and feedback on social media—social proof—then you’re letting the quality of your offering speak for itself.
Brand awareness was a focal point for the rebranding of the prominent educational organization Yew Chung Yew Wah, which pioneered international schools throughout Hong Kong and beyond. Established over a century ago, Yew Chung needed to take its historic legacy with all its existing brand associations and reshape it for its future plans. By identifying competitive advantages and understanding how to communicate the brand’s vision to its stakeholders—the students and their parents—we developed a brand strategy that highlighted key areas for differentiation while putting a vibrant, future-forward visual identity at the forefront.
Yew Chung’s brand awareness has a wealth of history to draw from, and with its rebranding, more timely values and missions with which to attract its next generations of students.
Finally, the innermost concentric circle: brand reputation. A company’s reputation is analogous to its branding; after all, brand reputation refers to the public’s perception of a brand as a whole.
So what’s in a brand, anyway? What is brand strategy? So far the discussion about brand, branding, and brand strategies has been abstract, but a brand is a collection of both concrete elements as well as less quantifiable factors.
A brand is its logo and its slogan. A brand is its hashtags, its visuals, and its fonts—all of the specs indicated in its brand guide. A brand, most prominently, is its products and services, how useful and reliable these are, and how well they solve the problems with which their customers are faced.
At the same time, a brand is its values, its principles, and its actions. A brand is reflected in how sales and support reps speak to customers, how a complaint is handled, and how nonchalant exchanges on social media are approached. These are the abstract factors that brands can only measure through turning feedback into metrics such as the Net Promoter Score for customer service or Share of Voice in social media.
So you see, branding and brand reputation management starts from the innermost circle and ripples outwards. The question is not how to increase brand awareness and recognition, it's how do you galvanize the elements that make up your brand into a cohesive whole that when structured into branding and marketing campaigns, projects authentic, consistent values that align with what your target audiences find most important.
That’s why branding your business is important in 2022. It’s not that it forces you to arbitrarily pick a side in a relevant and timely social issue. It’s that it forces you to go deeper into these concentric circles of recognition, awareness, and reputation, and consider not only the concrete elements of your brand, but the abstract ones as well.
What authentic values and principles will you be consistent with, and how do they translate into your perceived role as a brand?