Q&A with branding expert Simon Mainwaring


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‘There has been a fundamental shift in the way that brands relate with their customers,’ says branding consultant and author Simon Mainwaring.

When it comes to understanding brands and how they market themselves, Simon Mainwaring is pretty close to being in a class by himself.

Mainwaring began his career in Australia as an advertising creative and brand consultant, working with clients like Nike and Motorola. But in 2008, after hearing a speech by Microsoft founder Bill Gates on the need for “creative capitalism,” Mainwaring shifted gears. He developed the concept he calls “We First” capitalism, which is based on the idea that businesses and consumers should become partners in social transformation. The way that can happen is by businesses rethinking how they view their self-interest and include purpose, sustainability, and values in their business practices.

Today, Mainwaring is CEO and founder of We First Branding and the author of “We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Renew Capitalism and Build a Better World.”

He will be delivering the keynote address, "The Future of Sustainability Storytelling," at NH Businesses for Social Responsibility’s annual Spring Conference, to be held on Tuesday, May 10, at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord.

Q. Your premise is that social media has changed the relationship between businesses and their customers.

A. There has been a fundamental shift in the way that brands relate with their customers. For decades, they pushed their messaging out to their customers as a monologue through traditional media channels. Brands used to be in control. But social media has changed this by empowering consumers to talk back to brands.

In the past, consumers could write a letter complaining about something or tell their friends. Now they can post on their Facebook page or share on whatever platform they use and say negative things or positive things about a brand.

Q. How can businesses adapt to this change?

A. This presents an opportunity for brands, whether it’s a large company, a startup or social enterprise or a nonprofit, to clarify the definition of their purpose. Consumers are demanding that brands be more meaningful to their lives by demonstrating greater social responsibility because they are fully aware of the compounding social crises we face, like climate change.

That means a brand’s purpose, vision and mission are critical if it hopes to connect with its social customers. It also means they are faced with the challenge of being social, and this has huge implications for leadership, employees, customer service and advertising.

Q. That doesn’t sound like the classic way companies used to market themselves.

A. This is a fundamental, seismic shift, and it’s a function of forces that are much larger than the marketplace or the brands themselves. It’s a shift in technology, how we treat the planet, major demographic shifts and a generation that is exponentially more aware about the role that business plays in society.

It’s recognizing that business has an individual and collective responsibility to behave differently because they’re having such an impact on the planet. The lack of access to clean water, climate change have a direct impact on business. The reality is that brands can’t survive in societies that fail.

Q. How does social branding work?

A. First, a company must define what it stands for, what it cares about, so it can connect with customers around shared values and a common purpose.

Second, it must integrate that story within the company and its employees, to make sure there’s no disconnect between what a company says it stands for and the customer’s experience.

Third, social media has made marketing into a two-way dialogue because customers today want to talk to companies about their brands, products and services. More than that, they want to play a role in the marketing.

Another way of putting it is, in order to share a story that others are going to want to amplify, you use your core values and share them at an emotional level so they want to share and amplify your story.

Q. How should a company approach social media?

A. First, a company should not just look at social media as an end in itself. It’s just another platform that allows people to connect emotionally. But by doing so, companies can build loyal customers that generate word-of-mouth advertising that ultimately impacts their bottom line. With that in mind, the most effective thing they can do is define what they stand for, articulate their core values and, most important, act on the basis of those values and then communicate such efforts consistently. So social branding at its heart is a type of relatedness that’s peculiar to the connected technology we have.

By doing that that, you tap into the expectation of all demographics, but especially young demographics, and leverage the new dynamics of social media that allow you to have new, relevant and meaningful conversations with consumers.

Q. Isn’t there the risk that consumers can think of communication like this cynically?

A. One of the main fears that brands struggle with is the ability to be authentic, transparent and accountable. That means companies need to define their purpose and bring it to life in meaningful ways and be accountable for those practices.

A lot of companies view this it in a self-reflected way – they talk about themselves, and it falls on deaf ears. Instead, a company should become the chief celebrant of its customer’s community instead of being the celebrity. It’s moving from a “me first” focus to a “we first” focus.

Q. So it’s no more telling people “we’re the best” and leaving it at that?
A. There are always many facets of the relationship between a brand and its customer base. Instead of talking about how great they are, they should talk about what their support can do to improve their customers’ lives.

On the other hand, if there’s a bad relationship, you have to acknowledge and be accountable for it and value a long-term relationship with the customer.

Q. Another strategy could be to stay away from social media.

A. It’s impossible to ignore social media – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The only thing more dangerous than doing something is not doing something. Some people are fearful of it because they’re afraid something can go wrong, but that’s part of the price of admission.

Q. Could you give me an example of how this works?

A. In terms of a small brand, Thrive Farmers International, a coffee supplier, has a unique sustainability model where they return 50 percent of profits back to the farmer. That is a very compelling story, both about the state of the industry and in telling a story to consumers. We worked with them to helped them tell their story. It not only brought them to the attention of industry but also to consumers.

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