It’s not hard for a brand to be aligned with certain values. Being aligned with the right ones can give a boost to customer loyalty. Values are the things a brand stands for. Customers are generally savvy enough to perceive a brand’s values through the behavior of its corporate parent; actions speak louder than PR. Values should be fundamental to a brand’s self: they are precisely what keep a brand from being superficial or trivial. Nonetheless, it is not always apparent to customers just what values a brand stands for.
Integrity is commonly espoused, but not always adhered to. Companies can spend years building up an image of integrity, only to see it torn down by a single act of foolishness—for example, knowingly shipping customers a shoddy product, mistreating workers, hiding financial malfeasance, or polluting the environment. Hypocrisy makes any PR disaster all the more damaging; brand stewards, from the CEO down, must take care always to act on their values, rather than just talking about them.
A commitment to excellence is something else companies talk about, though fewer seem to know how to make excellence a cornerstone of their brand. Tom Peters, the management expert, defined excellence as (among other things) a never-ending quest for improvement in processes and results, being close to customers, allowing employees to use their own smarts, and developing a culture of innovation. All of the companies that Peters discussed in his book In Search of Excellence had exceptional achievements, but for various reasons, not all have survived. Excellence is not a simple formula; it also takes luck, and perhaps more of a focus on brand dialogue than Peters and his coauthor, Robert Waterman, realized at that time.
Customer responsiveness means never having your customers feel that you don’t care about them. How are customer complaints handled in your company? Are problems solved quickly and satisfactorily? Unfortunately, many big firms see customer service as a cost—a necessary evil—rather than an opportunity to build lasting, lucrative relationships with thousands of loyal customers. The lack of a corporate culture of responsiveness leads to a higher rate of “churn,” in which customers come and go, which is costly. A company like Amazon, com, which is built on the compulsion of its founder, Jeff Bezos, to provide the best customer care, can boast of customers who have been loyal to it for over 10 years. In Internet time, this is literally forever.
The founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream felt strongly that social responsibility and the good treatment of workers was important. So important that, for the first several years, the highest-paid employees (Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield themselves) limited their pay to five times that of the lowest-paid employee. The company, despite now being owned by multinational giant Unilever, still adheres to values such as social responsibility and support of environmental causes through its use of natural ingredients. In 2006, Ben & Jerry’s was criticized for using eggs from caged hens. This was never an issue with other ice-cream makers, but because of the values espoused by Ben & Jerry’s, customers felt such practices were at odds with the brand. Ben & Jerry’s responded later that year by announcing a “total transition” to egg suppliers who raise cage-free hens using humane methods—an excellent example of brand dialogue.