It’s not just a perception: Consumers are getting more cynical.
According to a 2019 poll of Internet users, 61% believe that too many brands use societal issues as a marketing ploy to sell their products or services.
At the same time, 59% said they were more likely to be loyal to brands that support causes they care about.1
What’s happening here?
The simple answer is that marketers have discovered that their brands need to grow a conscience. They’ve recognized the equity that some brands have built by caring about social and environmental issues.
Once a brand surges to the forefront thanks to their charitable or missional stance, others crop up to match or exceed their effort. And consumers have gotten wise to it.
One example is TOMS, which began by donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold. (As of this writing, they donate $1 for every $3 earned.) Founder Blake Mycoskie took a trip to Argentina and noticed that too many children didn’t have shoes, which caused a number of preventable issues for them.
He created TOMS (short for “Tomorrow’s Shoes”) to solve the problem, and the signature TOMS shoe was based on an everyday slip-on he saw the locals wearing. The One-for-One® donation model made TOMS stand out, and a surge of popularity followed.
But so did the copycats. Skechers came out with BOBS, which looked nearly identical to the TOMS slip-on. After all, features can be duplicated. But that wasn’t the only thing they imitated: They donated two pairs of shoes for every pair sold.
As it happens, even your commitment to a cause can be copied — or worse, outperformed.
TOMS sold their signature shoes at an arguably high price for a canvas slip-on. For a time, especially when their message felt new and urgent (and unrivaled), customers didn’t mind paying this price because they knew they were technically paying for two pairs of shoes (theirs and the one to be donated).
But when BOBS came along at a cheaper price, donating two pairs instead, the pricing of TOMS shoes came into question. Why pay more for TOMS to donate one pair when you could pay less and do twice as much good with BOBS?
At this point, TOMS might have gotten clearer on the reason for their prices (if they weren’t going to change the cost of their shoes), upped their donations, or even expanded faster beyond their signature canvas shoe in order to differentiate themselves once more.
But when they sidestepped those things, even though their product line grew, they lost relevance and market share. A lack of transparency and innovation diluted their cause.
While TOMS remains a well-recognized brand right now, they went under new ownership in late 2019 due to debt.2
Customers have to understand the value of your unique method, and much of that comes from being honest about what’s driving your business. It isn’t simply about why you solve your chosen problem, but about why you solve it in your specific way.
Customers often benefit from knowing what’s in it for you, your context, and the rationale behind your particular method. Being candid about your “why” can help your business retain and build upon customer loyalty.
One company that stands out for its transparency is Buffer, an organization that helps its customers grow their businesses through social media.
Buffer has gone to extreme lengths to establish an authentic relationship with both their team members, customers, and potential customers. They don’t simply communicate; they communicate nearly everything.
Buffer posts every team member’s salary publicly online, and every internal email sent can be read by the entire team. Anyone on the Internet can view Buffer’s financial dashboard in real time and find out where each customer dollar that is spent (down to the cent) goes to support the organization’s operations, mission, and product development.3
Why does Buffer do this? Because they believe that transparency fosters better relationships. Being a social media company, Buffer is demonstrating its investment in relationships through this practice.
Transparency is naturally copycat-resistant. Some marketers even seem to be allergic to it. Attempting to mimic Buffer’s model in the same industry would appear painfully disingenuous. Buffer has carved out a philosophical niche for itself, and as a result, it has earned its share of loyalty with customers.
When you are clear about your motives, especially when it comes to things like pricing, quality, and the nature of doing business, you reduce the customer’s inherent skepticism through your own vulnerability and generosity.
And the truth is, you need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing as much as your customers do. When you answer the question of why you solve the problem in the following exercise, some of your statements may include your private motivations and others may be more fit for public consumption — but it would serve you to articulate them both so that you’re fully aware of them.
It’s likely that you have multiple reasons for why you set off down this path. Some of them may have to do with your personal story (your inciting incident and initial passion for this endeavor) and others may be more practical (like the desire to achieve certain goals or make money).
You know what problem your business is solving. Now it's time to define why you're solving that problem. Make two lists:
Here are some prompts for both of your lists:
Your lists do not have to be articulate, polished, or user-friendly right now. They simply need to be true to what you’re thinking and feeling. Later, you can choose which of these reasons to communicate to your potential customers and find a way to word them that is appealing and compelling.
This is an edited excerpt from my book Mission, Market, Message: The Actionable Guide to Marketing for Small Business Owners, which you can purchase on Amazon.
1. Lipsman, A. (2020, March 26). Direct-to-Consumer Brands 2020. eMarketer. https://content-na1.emarketer.com/direct-to-consumer-brands-2020.
2. Kim, I. A. (2020, May 16). How Toms went from a $625 million company to being taken over by its creditors. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/rise-and-fall-of-toms-shoes-blake-mycoskie-bain-capital-2020-3.
3. About Our Company. Buffer. https://buffer.com/transparency.
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