How brands can thrive in a world ruled by the power of the #hashtag

Rhea Patten

By Rhea Patten, Olivia Thomas

The retail landscape continues to shift as brands navigate multiple sales channels including brick and mortar, online stores, social ecommerce and most recently, the metaverse: a virtual world where users can interact with one another in real-time. Each of these channels has its own strengths and complements one another as part of a complete consumer journey. Digital channels in particular are dominating the game thanks to their interactive consumer engagement model. With the growing adoption of the metaverse giving consumers the opportunity to interact and engage in immersive experiences, this trend is only expected to grow.

In these digital channels, however, brands no longer control the narrative. Instead, they participate in and sometimes lead ongoing conversations. Consumers have more power than ever as they influence others to build brands up or break them down in the flash of a hashtag.

Delivering authentic experiences is more crucial than ever

The key to success on digital channels is the same as it is offline – being authentic and remaining true to your purpose. Brands that stand up for and deliver on their values deepen consumer loyalty and build positive social capital.

Patagonia is a great example. The company takes impressive action to live up to its mission statement, “we're in business to save our home planet.” A high proportion of its products are made from recycled fabrics, and its business model rejects fast fashion by creating high-quality, long-lasting products, offering a repair and reuse program.

It even goes so far as to discourage consumers from purchasing too many of its products. The brand’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign was designed to tackle the issues of consumerism head on. Patagonia recognizes that buying less is one of the major steps shoppers can take to reduce their own environmental footprint. While it’s debatable whether the campaign fulfilled its purpose – sales rose 30 per cent following the ad – it did raise awareness of the resources that go into each article of clothing. It also showed that consumers want to support brands that aim to do better in the world.

Instilling a culture that reflects your brand’s purpose is key

Brand leaders must create an authentic culture that relates to their audiences. They need to listen to their consumers, take ownership of their actions (and missteps), and deliver on brand promises.

1. Listen and engage

Brands need to listen to their consumers and act on the feedback they receive. It starts with first-party data, which is collected directly from customers and offers a window into what they’re looking for. The challenge for those working in retail or professional channels is knowing how to access this data and understanding how it can add value to the business. With tightening restrictions on the collection and use of customer data such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act), it is crucial to develop a holistic and comprehensive first-party data strategy. The future of first party data will involve creating compelling, multi-faceted value propositions that engage consumers, channel partners and brands in authentic, non-transactional ways that make people want to contribute.

Having a wealth of data from various sources allows brands to gain valuable insights into what’s working and what isn’t – affording them the opportunity to change for the better. Consumers need to be brought into every stage of operations, from the design of new products to incorporating feedback and encouraging continued dialogue. This lets them know they’re being heard, while allowing the brand to better meet their wants and needs.

2. Take ownership

Be honest and own your mistakes. If there is a disconnect between what people expect and what they receive don’t try to minimize the situation or make excuses.

In 2020, many corporations got involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement on social media to show support for racial justice while adopting more inclusive policies in their own businesses. However, audiences were quick to point out mismatches between messaging and brand behaviour.

L’Oréal, for example, received a targeted response from a former brand ambassador who had previously been dropped from a campaign after speaking out about racism. Rather than shying away from the criticism, L’Oréal’s leadership brought her on as a consultant to learn how they can better live up to their values as a company.

Consumers demand transparency, and they will ensure that promises (and apologies) are followed up by meaningful action. When a brand makes a mistake, they need to own that mistake and show audiences that they care about their experiences and are working to do better. Brands need to go beyond words and ensure that their every action reinforces their values as a company.

3. Deliver on brand promises

People want to work with and support those they can trust. When brands make promises and commitments, they must be able to follow through.

Right now, sustainability is on many people’s radar. Consumers are more conscious of the impacts their purchases are having on the world at large and are counting on companies to offer sustainable solutions. To do this, brands need to set specific, action-oriented targets that can be measured and tracked over time. What is the carbon footprint of a particular product or service? How much water is used in production each year? These are the types of questions that brands need to start asking and answering if they want to make a tangible difference – and maintain public favour.

For beauty brand Glossier, the launch of a plastic-based eye glitter faced criticism from customers who want more sustainable options. The brand issued an apology as well as working on a new formulation with more eco-friendly materials. The brand also offers customers the choice of Limited Packaging for their orders, and packages items in recycled cardboard boxes to further live up to its commitments.

Consumers can be forgiving if brands can demonstrate how they’re working to improve. Criticism happens, and a brand’s response to that criticism has lasting impacts. Getting an early read on dissatisfaction (both inside and outside of your company) enables proactive action rather than reactive panic.

Purpose feeds authenticity

As consumers hold brands accountable for more than product offerings and their quality, companies need to think about what they believe in and want to be known for. How are they really helping consumers? What impact do they want to have on their communities, and the world?

By aligning to a purpose in everything they do, leaders naturally create an authentic brand experience online and offline. In everything you do – from communication and partnerships to supply chain and culture – think about how you are delivering on your brand’s purpose and being true to your values. If you are authentic, purpose driven and genuinely engaged with your consumers, you can relinquish control of the messaging, embrace the power of digital channels and trust consumers to return the favour.

About the authors

Rhea Patten
Rhea Patten PA personalisation and consumer expert Rhea is one of PA’s leading consumer products and retail innovation specialists, focused on developing and accelerating must-have new products and ventures that exploit opportunities in digital, personalisation and connectivity to drive growth.
Olivia Thomas PA consumer products innovation expert Olivia helps major consumer beauty brands grow ideas from early concept to scalable business, while designing and implementing innovation frameworks that empower these brands to be more creative, sustainable, and successful.

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