From Brand Management to Stakeholder Management

When Darwin talked about “natural selection”, giving rise to Herbert Spencer’s coinage of the term “survival of the fittest”, he wasn’t saying that it’s the strongest who thrive over time, but those who are most adaptable. A crisis, or a major event that changes the natural order of things, is the test that determines adaptability. We are living through a COVID crisis that may be the first of many major pandemics we experience. As humans, we are increasingly encroaching on the natural environment and triggering new animal viruses that cross from animal to human. With large swaths of the population unwilling to heed science, it is not looking good for how we as a species deal with the looming crisis of climate change, a crisis of our own making.

II have been teaching marketing at the MBA level for a couple of decades. Over the past five years, I’ve also taught an ethics and social responsibility class in many partner universities around the world through the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands. It may seem like a capability stretch, but if you think about it, good marketers are experts in understanding human behavior and responsible for developing strategies to impact that behavior – typically to switch from buying one brand to another.

Marketing Evolution

The evolution of marketing has already begun to shift from an almost solitary focus on the relationship between a brand and its customers to a much more complex and holistic set of brand value relationships. The COVID crisis has been a huge test for businesses to demonstrate a broader concern for the world we all share. Customers are watching more closely than many of us realize and will remember how we deal with our employees during the crisis that turned the work environment upside down. They are watching and taking note of how we deal with the crisis in our communities.

I recently saw a public service commercial stating that we can tell a lot about people by the type of masks they wear.

The commercial went on to say that we can also tell a lot about people who refuse to wear masks. This is just the opening shot of a new level of consumer activism that will impact your brand, one way or the other.

Just as we are watching and taking note of those around us, we are becoming increasingly sensitive to the role of the businesses we frequent and the brands we buy.

Where was your company and brand during the crisis?

Did you step up and find a way to help the community? Fifth Generation, makers of Tito’s Vodka in Austin Texas, discovered that they could convert their packaging and production process to produce hand sanitizers early in the crisis, while Jimmy John’s, a nationwide sandwich shop in the USA delivered free meals to first responders and hospital staff.

Consumers are acutely aware if your brand is contributing to finding solutions through its actions or is part of the problem we are all facing as a society: waiting for politicians to lead the way. How is your company taking care of its employees during this difficult time? Is your company looking upstream to help its supply chain deal with the crisis? Is the local bank offering solutions to customers who can’t make their mortgage payments? The customer knows and they are grading your performance with their purchase decisions…or not.

Integrated Values

Many customers will still buy your brand for the same fundamental reasons they have always bought any brand – because it provides meaningful value to their lives. But there is a new dynamic shaping customer purchase intent. Marketers should be leading the charge on social responsibility and stakeholder management. We are seeing a direct correlation between the value the brand provides to customers relative to the value the brand and the company as a whole provide to communities, employees, and the planet, which certainly puts stakeholder management within the scope of brand management.

The same human-centric approach brand managers use to understand and deliver meaningful brand value to their customers is the same human-centric behavioral approach that business leaders can and should apply to better understand employees. You can use this approach to provide both functional and emotional benefits to increase the value employees receive by working at your company. You can use it to understand the need states of your supply chain to make your brand the one they not only want to ensure they service during a crisis but the company they come to first with new ideas on how they can help you add value to your customers and all the other stakeholders you are now managing in your brand value relationship.

Stakeholder Management

Stakeholder management theory

David Packard from Hewlett Packard famously said that Marketing is too important to leave to the marketing department. He was right. But it can also be said that stakeholder management is too important to the success of a branded business to leave marketers out. It’s a new world out there, a more complex world of multiple stakeholders with changing needs. As marketers, we’ve been training our entire academic and professional careers to construct value propositions to make an impact on what people buy. That’s what we do best. As marketers, we understand what motivates people to buy. Let’s expand the impact we can have on human behavior relative to how we live and work with each other on this planet, as well as on the products we promote.

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