Bar Bands and Chicken Sandwiches: Protecting Your Brand in an Age of Social Conscience

Scott is a musician. Scott’s band isn’t getting enough paying gigs. He thinks he has a marketing problem, but he’s wrong. He has a focus problem.

Scott came to me to help him sell his band’s services to club owners. I pointed out that 40 years ago bands got $700 a night; 20 years ago the going rate was $500. Today, a local band playing a local club can expect $275-$300 a night. I wondered if competing for a greater share in this dwindling market was a wise move.

A Critical Question

I asked, “Do you get enough personal satisfaction from performing songs you like in small venues that you’re willing to do it for free?

Scott opined that he’d prefer to be properly compensated for all the years invested in refining his musicianship.

This is a key factor. If a musician’s desire is to play his music his way is his most important consideration, how much money he makes becomes secondary. But, if he wishes to run his band as a real business, he’d be better served to examine the market.

Customer Focus Is Good Strategy for Musicians (and Every Other Business)

Any service provider can study the market and provide services people are willing to pay more for. Alternatively, should he not consider the desires of his customers, he can provide the services he wishes to offer.  Of course, he’ll then be forced to accept whatever engagements come his way.

Satisfy his own desires?  Satisfy his customers? Common sense, and thousands of case studies indicate that customer-focused businesses make more money.

Scott’s next step will be to identify well-paying niche markets, and to explore the kinds of music most wanted by that niche.  Will it be private parties for local businesses? Grand openings and customer events? Events hosted by fraternities and sororities? Meetings and conventions?  In that order, each pays progressively more money.

Which Market has the Greatest Number of Profitable Opportunities?

How will he know what to choose? Through their previous purchases his potential niche will have indicated their willingness to pay a premium.  If he stays focused on delivering exactly what his customers want, I predict he’s going to do well. In fact, the longer his focus remains unwavering, the resulting word-of-mouth will make it progressively easier to sell his services.

In this era of YouTube, the 24-hour news cycle, and this country’s current political climate it isn’t only musicians who need to keep fulfillment of their personal gratifications secondary to unwavering customer focus. It’s also critical to companies that produce ice cream, chicken sandwiches, coffee, snacks, clothing, and even fitness services and cancer treatment.

Social Responsibility Complicates the Messaging

Some socially responsible actions reinforce a company’s brand.

Starbucks commitment to Fair Trade coffees complements their image as a producer of high priced gourmet coffees.

And Patagonia’s insistence on selling only eco-friendly products rings true with the company’s obvious love of nature.

These are the core values each of those companies has communicated to its customers, and upon which each company has grown.  Every successful brand is built upon principles. Those it stands for.  Those it stands against.

Not everyone will care about a company’s passions (or even its products), but there’s no better way to attract a loyal customer base than to say, “The values you believe to be important are our values, too.”

Ben and Jerry’s support of Occupy Wall Street seems to be a natural outgrowth of their well established counter-culture values. Customers will likely understand, and may even approve.

Merck and Company’s development and free distribution of Mectizan to treat river blindness in Africa, Asia, and South America is a brilliant positioning of Merck as a developer of drugs to help people.

But what about Pagagonia’s contributions to Planned Parenthood? The tie in isn’t so obvious. Customers may see the connection when the company explains that slowing population growth is completely in line with its commitment to preserving the planet, but without the explanation, it’s less likely.

Not all social values resonate in harmony with others which the company, or its customers embrace, and as a marketer I can tell you how difficult it is to make a simple message stick in people’s minds.

Two messages? Too confusing. A second message which requires explanation? Waaaay too confusing.

In my experience, a confused mind always says, “NO.”

Confused Marketing is Bad Marketing

It’s also bad business practice.

The list of advertisers that seem to have let social issues divert their attention from focus on their own customers is long, and growing. A handful of examples of this discontinuity include:

  • Starbucks support of Washington State’s proposed Marriage Equality law does not reinforce its image as a producer of high priced gourmet coffees.
  • Chick Fil A’s contributions to groups which oppose that law have nothing to do with serving fried chicken sandwiches.
  • Nabisco’s creation of the Rainbow Stuffed Oreo could be considered a natural outgrowth of their other recent creamy center options. Not making it available in stores makes it clearly about something other than manufacturing snacks.
  • At best, these moves confuse the message. Worse is the danger they alienate customers who embrace different values.

    The Greatest Danger is Damage to the Brand

    Susan B Komen For the Cure‘s withdrawal of funds for Planned Parenthood’s cancer screenings contradicted it’s brand image of being for women and against cancer. The public uproar which resulted wasn’t assuaged by the restoration of those funds.  In hopes of mitigating the damage, founder Nancy Brinker has stepped down as CEO.

    GoDaddy’s support of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have allowed Internet service providers to shut down sites accused of infringing intellectual property (and do so without a trial) looks suspiciously like censorship to small website owners. Amid the backlash, GoDaddy withdrew its support.

    Should Companies Take Positions on Social Issues?

    Absolutely. When the issue is aligned with the company’s core values, it will resonate with the beliefs of like minded consumers. If taking a side reinforces the company’s brand, responsible companies take sides.

    But when that social issue contradicts those core values, or confuses the messaging, there will be negative repercussions. And a CEO who uses his company to promote contentious social issues instead of focusing on the products and services his customers expect is as foolish as musicians performing for their own enjoyment. They each send a clear message that what’s important to customers doesn’t matter. What matters is what the company wants.

    These Are Potentially Big Decisions

    Many of these issues are tied to current politics. Conventional political wisdom is one third of this country will consistently vote Conservative, one third will always vote Liberal or Progressive, and the final third (the “Undecideds”) will choose on an issue-by-issue basis. So, for political issues brought to the front by companies such as Starbucks or Chick Fil A, one third of potential customers will automatically embrace their values, and another third won’t care.

    Of that final third, not many will feel strongly enough about the issue to discontinue shopping with them.  Perhaps that number is only one out of three.  That works out to one third of one third (roughly 11 percent) of existing customers and potential customers avoiding future business with those companies.

    Eleven percent.  That’s a lot. In some markets its the difference between the top seller and number two or three.  In this economy it could be the difference between profitability and cutbacks.

    If I were a shareholder in your company, I’d want you to protect and nurture my investment. Act like a musician who only wants to play his favorite songs, pissing off 11 percent of our customers in the process, and you’ll find me working to get you fired at the next shareholders meeting.

    Your focus has to be unwaveringly on what customers want.

    So, Companies Should Avoid Controversy?

    Hardly. Controversy is an easy way to promote top-of-mind awareness, and share of market is closely aligned with share of mind.  A controversy which reaffirms the company’s image may well create more, and even more loyal, customers.

    However, when the CEO’s social conscience doesn’t align with the core values upon which his brand has been built, he should contribute directly, and leave the company out of it.

  • The late Carl Karcher’s donations to the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, came from his checkbook, not from Carl’s Jr.
  • Curves founder, Gary Heavin, has given generously of his personal money to organizations which promote abstinence-only programs for teens.  No bad feelings among Curves members.
  • Jeff Bezos’ recent $2.5 million contribution to Washington’s Marriage Equality law came from his own pocket rather than from Amazon.
  • All followed their consciences, while never wavering in their respective customer focus.  None experienced any negative customer backlash.  Whether or not we agree with their positions, business people who separate their companies’ actions  from their personal agendas tend to be admired for their integrity.

    The Issue isn’t Abortion, Abstinence, or Marriage

    The issue is branding.

    Your company’s brand is it’s professional reputation. It’s the sum of customers impressions, and the feelings they get when they use your products or services. Your core values drive your brand, because at its core, your brand is a promise to consumers that their realistic expectations of your company will be met at every dealing.

    The CEO’s job is to make that promise simple. His job is to make sure that every communication and every interaction with customers and potential customers delivers on that brand promise.

    When the very things customers admire about your company are the reason you’re taking a political stand, they will proudly recommend you to their friends.

    But, if you gained loyalty by providing great products or services while remaining socially neutral, do not change your brand promise. That only confuses customers, and makes them angry.  When a customer buys ice cream, or coffee, or chicken sandwiches, she wants the best tasting ice cream, or coffee, or chicken sandwich available. When she opens her purse for a book or a cookie, or she donates money to your cancer research fund, she wants to buy your products, your services.  To support a cause she believes worthy

    She doesn’t want to be forced into a situation in which your recently announced ideology doesn’t align with her values.

    You shouldn’t want that either, when you’re fishing for customers.

    Your Guide,
    Chuck McKay

    Marketing consultant Chuck McKay</a>Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

    Could aligning with a social issue benefit your company? Drop Chuck a note at ChuckMcKay@ChuckMcKayOnLine.com and start a conversation.  Or call him at 760-813-5474.

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