In the CPG space, we have been trained to believe that there are limited levers a brand can pull during the consumer decision making process. Brands try like crazy to build up brand equity to justify their price premium, while also trying to make you forget you’re paying for it. However, the idea that cutting prices is the easiest way to gain market share haunts us like a song from the 1960s we can’t get out of our heads.
But the times “they are a-changin’”. As consumers become more invested in what they buy, the number of possible levers expands to include points of difference that relate to consumers’ personal views.
The Case for Social Brand Equity
One such point of difference that is gaining importance is social brand equity, the ability for a brand to project itself as conscious of its place in the world. Yes, the traditional approaches to brand building still hold (price, product offerings, advertisement, etc.), but for a growing segment of the market, a brand’s alignment with its customers’ beliefs can act as a multiplier for the factors that we conventionally believe bring about customer loyalty.
This thesis was corroborated by a recent BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, where a survey with over 2,000 respondents brought back the finding that the majority of Americans readily self-identify as “conscious consumers”, “socially responsible” and “environmentally-friendly”. No longer a niche segment, consumers are increasingly using their beliefs to make purchasing decisions.
The Social Brand Equity of Ben & Jerry’s
One brand that it would be difficult to define as anything other than socially conscious is Ben and Jerry’s, whose latest health-related policy calls for eliminating all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from their products by the end of this year.
This GMO-free policy would set a precedent for food retailers and manufacturers of its size, and shows one of the many ways Ben and Jerry’s uses their views as a point of competitive difference in brand-building. Doesn’t mean everyone will like it, just that they as a company have committed to it. As a point of comparison, Whole Foods does not plan on eliminating GMOs from its products until 2018 (even though it wants to), and Chobani has no intentions of making a switch (which is an equally acceptable, though less differentiating, decision).
This is not to say that there aren’t some Ben and Jerry’s customers who might not know the difference between GMOs and the General Motors Company, but in an increasingly socially-conscious marketplace, the social ideology that Ben and Jerry’s subscribes to surely does more to help than harm their bottom line.
Not only does it give them a loyal customer base of those who are actually concerned about GMOs, but it also gives them a clear point of difference and maybe even a defense for their bad behavior (like how they are able to dodge the general calorie-laden Armageddon that’s approaching for the ice cream category – see the Vermonster for an example).
Social Brand Equity, Not Corporate Equity
Perhaps the most clear cut evidence that this policy passes muster with even the bean counters of CPG companies is the fact that Ben and Jerry’s manufacturing operations are now owned by Unilever which reportedly has lobbied against GMO-free propositions, yet saw the benefit of Ben and Jerry’s new policy. This show’s Ben and Jerry’s purported “double bottom line” (profit and people) approach can work in reality with all areas of the business buying into the branding strategy.
And for a brand that already has staked out a super-premium positioning (e.g., north of $4.50 for a small cone), what’s another nickel or two tacked onto the MSRP for something you believe in? The freedom to innovate in this super-premium space has got to be liberating, with the only constraint being no GMOs.
John Mellencamp (I liked it better when he was Johnny Cougar) once sang, “You’ve got to stand for something. Or you’re gonna fall for anything.” Many others have expressed the same sentiment in similarly eloquent terms. This increasingly true message should guide business leaders in understanding the potential of social capital to be a driver in the growth of their brand as consumers value not just the taste of their ice cream, but also all that went into that ice cream.