The word audacity comes to mind when I think of the fine line brand leaders must walk. Audacious actions can mean bold and courageous, which will build brand awareness and positive feelings. Audacious can also refer to impudent or cheeky, detracting from the brand’s image.
Financial considerations create the fine line for brands. Strong brands generate price premiums, leading managers to ask, “How do we grow this brand?” But you do not want your growth strategies to muddle your brand’s image, hence the challenge for moving forward.
Showing us the right way to be audacious in its brand strategy is Dove Soap’s advertising, using “real” women in its commercials. They are a sharp contrast to the picture-perfect models most often used in the health & beauty industry marketing. Dove broke ranks by showing women of all sizes and complexions. It also offered a compelling TV advertisement in which an illustrator captured a woman’s image in two ways: as she described herself and as he saw her. The ad demonstrates the contrast between women’s true beauty and their self-identities, which often (and sadly) focus on their flaws. Dove’s advertising was an audacious statement that resonated with consumers and earned deserving accolades.
Outdoor apparel and equipment manufacturer Patagonia Inc. is another example of the right kind of audacity. Patagonia is known for its reliable, cool and sustainable clothing. On Black Friday last year—a peak times for holiday shopping—the company asked its customers to refrain from buying new products but instead to embrace repair. Patagonia partnered with iFixIt, a website of free repair manuals, to help its customers learn how to stretch the life of clothing, luggage and gear. Patagonia also runs a repair store of its own, another proof point for its brand.
For each good example of audacious, however, there are a dozen or more examples of leaders whose impudent-type audacity has led them down the wrong path, and their brand is paying the price.
Take Amazon, for example. Perhaps through over-confidence fueled by its growing e-book monopoly, the company curtailed the pre-publication sales, delayed shipments and removed the “buy button” for some authors. The reason? A pricing dispute with publisher Hatchette. The fight is hurting Amazon’s brand image with readers and especially writers. TV comedy show host Steven Colbert, himself a Hatchette author, showed that he could match Amazon’s publicity engine. By talking about the dispute on his TV show and asking viewers to pre-order Edan Lepucki’s upcoming novel ‘California’ from independent booksellers, he catalyzed the book’s sales. (E.g., it placed #1 on the largest independent seller Powell’s Books list.) Every action has a reaction, a principle that Amazon forgot.
Or how about AIG, the 2008 recipient of a US government bailout investment over twenty times AIG’s then market value? The company that “protects us” had the audacity to recently sue the US over terms on its loan. AIG, in my opinion, joins the ranks of Goldman Sachs who sold assets to clients that it itself had bet against.
Whole Foods’ initial dominance in the organic food market gave it the audacity to charge prices that earned it the reputation of “Whole Paycheck.” It is now trying to earn back market share with lower prices as organic food goes mainstream.
The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal apparently are so confident that they can do anything they want that they are letting their editorial perspectives determine what goes on news pages, through their choice of headlines and what to include or exclude from stories. Trust in their journalistic integrity is falling. (And please don’t get me started about Fox “News.”)
And Uber’s form of audacity—deciding to “take on government” versus work with regulatory bodies from the start—created its public relations and regulatory mess. Uber could have offered its services to cab companies as well as independent drivers, securing more of the market in the process. Sure, the social media buzz might have been less notable; but its fight with government has given rise to many stories that, at least for this consumer, reduced trust in Uber drivers and their insurance coverage. At a minimum, its actions have given rise to a competitor offering women drivers for women passengers.
My take is that brands are a sacred, hard-earned trust with customers, which is why we refer to their value as “brand equity,” not “brand margin.” As in any relationship requiring trust, consistency in behavior is vital. Mistakes require apologies. And managers’ should be careful about thinking through actions that will build equity not risk it.
How is your brand being “audacious”?