Co-Founder & Managing Partner
The First Conversation Brands Should Be Having About Ukraine
In an impassioned address to Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the United States for more. He will get more. While the government will provide a good deal of the weaponry requested, more and more corporations and businesses will show support by leaving the Russian economy so as not to add fuel to Putin’s war machine.
To date, some 400 U.S. and other multinational firms have pulled out of Russia, either permanently or temporarily. Oil companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, along with tech companies like IBM, Dell, Apple, Twitter and Google have led the way, with others like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Airbnb, and Coca-Cola following. Every day there is news of decisions being made, one way or another, by a wide spectrum of corporations and businesses.
And, every day, there are, likely, two predominant conversations taking place in the business world relative to the decision to pull out of the Russian marketplace in support of Ukraine. One conversation has to do with the amount of revenue and profits companies may be giving up. The other, whether the show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people will have enough impact to change the trajectory of this horrific situation.
While these are absolutely valid and critical conversations, my belief is that the first conversation a company should be having relates to what its actions - or inactions – say about its brand values. Consumers, especially younger and more socially connected consumers, increasingly want to do business with brands that align with their values. Be it fighting climate change, or standing up for social issues, consumers look for companies that reflect their personal principles.
While the word may be overused, if not misused, there is strong evidence that “purpose” plays an integral part in a brand’s equity. Neither vision statement nor its mission, brand purpose is a company’s “why” – its reason for being, and the things it stands for. Brand purpose can be political, ethical or moral, but in any guise, it is increasingly providing a choice for people who want to make buying decisions that support a specific ethos or way of life. And, in a marketplace in which there is less and less product differentiation, consumers more and more base their buying decisions not on what a company makes or does, but on why it does it and what it stands for.
That said, as for that first conversation, it’s essential to start from the inside out. The initial audience you must take into consideration in any decision that has major brand impact, as does the one in question, is your employees. In order for them to be fully engaged, in order to help them do their best, they must feel good about the company for which they work. If your employees are not happy, if they sense that corporate values are not in alignment with their values, morale goes down and productivity goes down. Today, everyone is looking for a way to support the citizens of Ukraine. Sharing with your employees that the decision to leave Russia is not about revenue but, rather, about what the brand stands for, is a clear demonstration of its responsibility as a global citizen.
Moving from the inside out, the second audience to consider in your conversation about Ukraine is, of course, the consumer. As I said, consumers today are looking well beyond product differences when making buying decisions. In good part, this is because exponential product differentiation has been declining for years. The incremental differences from one offering to the next are generally not significant enough to influence behavior. Taking its place in buying decisions is awareness of what a brand stands for. Does the brand reflect a consumer’s beliefs? What are the company’s values regarding sustainability, equality, and work-life balance issues? Sure, everybody wants a product that delivers as promised, along with a high level of service, but what strongly influences consumers today is a shared value system with the company they choose, and choose to keep. More than this, shared value systems get shared on social media, a factor that cannot be underestimated in today’s marketplace.
All of us are looking to do whatever we can to show support for the people of Ukraine. Hundreds of companies have joined much of the international community in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion of Ukraine, from pledging to aid in the humanitarian effort to taking their businesses out of Russia.
The conversations about the decision to do the latter are of critical importance to all stakeholders, inside and out. Rooted in your ethos, the decision should be authentic to your brand and consistent with your values. The conversations about short-term revenue loss and other operational issues are certainly necessary and important. I’m not downplaying them.
My belief, however, is that the most important conversation, the first conversation, every brand should have must take into account a longer-term loss. The huge cost of continuing to do business with Russia. The loss of reputation and moral standing. These are aspects of brand equity that are extremely challenging to recover. In other words, peace is more important than profit. Try talking about that.
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