Back then, there was a buzzword starting to pop up in brand positioning, mission statements, and marketing collateral: Empowerment. Like all buzzwords, it spread rapidly; before long, it seemed like every brand was claiming that not only did they offer a great product or service for its customers, it gave them a sense of control and agency.
The funny thing? Until the mobile technology and social media boom of the last decade, brands really couldn’t do much to empower anyone. The prior relationship between brand and consumer was much more one-way: that is, the consumer may have had control over which brand to choose, but once they did, they didn’t have much else of a say.
But the ubiquity of social media gave consumers the ability to constantly interact with the brands they love, and ultimately, some sense of control. Social media became the world’s largest, ongoing review section. People could post their own content where they interact with a product or service. Consumers, especially younger generations, started to see brands less as an overarching force and more as a peer.
And what do we want out of our peers? How do we decide who we surround ourselves with? Generally, it centers around shared values—does the brand see the world the same way we do? Does it care about the things I care about? Does it use its influence to make the world a better place? Does it treat its people well?
Two major happenings over the last year have brought the idea of true empowerment more to the fore than ever: The Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent reckoning over racial injustice. The pandemic has caused consumers to think ever more deeply about the brands they buy into. According to Edelman, 84% of people said they want brands to help solve pandemic-related challenges. “Now is a time to be of service when consumers are focused on the basic needs of health, safety, and family,” writes Laura O’Shaughnessy.
A company today can’t just sell skincare, cosmetics, hair care, or perfume. Good product matters, but what matters more is standing for something, whether it’s being cruelty-free (E.L.F. Cosmetics) or simply being the best version of yourself (like Glossier). Brands can no longer politely sit out seismic cultural moments. There’s an expectation of comment on sustainability, social justice, police reform, and yes, even that classic taboo of politics.
Brands have to be ready to make big decisions based on major social issues that are affecting their customers. Recently, the Georgia state legislature passed a set of laws that many argue aggressively restrict voting, particularly targeted at Black communities. Atlanta is a major market, headquarters to many major brands like Coca-Cola, whose CEO came out and stated his and the company’s disapproval of the law. Major League Baseball was set to have its All-Star Game in Atlanta this year but decided to move the game in protest to the new laws.
These actions have been met with some resistance from politicians – but that was to be expected. Major brands are generally not going to let their CEO come out and make a statement, or move a major event if they haven’t done some of the calculus yet. Brands have seen the importance of living their values and their purpose, and how crucial it is they act authentically. If they thought there was a real chance their business would have been hurt by making these statements, they simply would not have done so.
What happens when a brand doesn’t live its values? If you were on social media or watched the news at any time in January, you certainly heard about the GameStop stock saga. The gist of it is that a bunch of individual, small-dollar stock traders inflated GameStop’s stock price, causing hedge funds who had bet on the stock’s failure to lose a lot of money. The app that many of the traders use, Robinhood, found itself in a tough position. Robinhood claimed to be the platform for the day trader, the little guy who went to battle against the rich and powerful (hence the brand’s name). But Robinhood soon reversed course and temporarily stopped trading on GameStop. This was a major decision and one that seemed like a betrayal by the brand. So much for robbing the rich and giving to the everyman!
In many ways, Robinhood empowered the day trader. It literally empowered them to succeed in the stock market, but it also gave them a sense of control, of comfort, community. Traders were proud to be on Robinhood—it became a way they could self-define. But when push came to shove, Robinhood cracked. It may have felt it needed to in order to survive. But the brand will have a long way to go to earn back its reputation, the trust of consumers, and its claim as a tool of empowerment.
The fictional story of the shoe shopper and the real-world day-trader on Robinhood speak to the sea change that has happened as the younger generations become the dominant consumers. More than any other generation, millennials and Gen Zers care deeply about the brands they choose to buy into. It’s no longer about just a product or service, but what that brand says about the people who choose to associate with it.
This intimate relationship is fruitful for both sides when it clicks, because of the trust factor. The brand trusts the consumer to help evangelize the brand, and the consumer trusts the brand to live its values, the same values the consumer believes so deeply in.
Empowerment is no longer window dressing that a brand can toss up to look good or feel better about itself. It’s a core part of the brand-building foundation. Today’s consumers want to feel like they are making a difference, and one way they are choosing to do that is through their purchasing power. The relationship has changed—like most relationships, the brand-consumer pact is one of give and take, push and pull.
It’s built on trust, communication, and—yes—sacrifice.
Nobody wants to give up control. There’s comfort in thinking that we are the main influence in how our future turns out. When we cede control, we willingly allow outside factors to play a part in what happens. That unknown brings about unsettling feelings. The same goes for companies and brands, even more so than for individuals. With so much investment at stake, it’s understandable that a company would want to keep everything close to the vest—to play things safe and keep everything under the comforts of its four walls.
Brands today are battling for the attention and dollars of connected consumers, not only against their competitors but against every other platform that is available to them. This has placed a premium on fostering a deep, emotional connection with consumers.
Embracing true empowerment leads to a stronger relationship because it is built on trust and shared values. Companies and brands that learn to truly empower their customers are the ones who will be in a position to succeed long into the future.
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