On September 15, 2008, the world fundamentally changed. The collapse of banking giant Lehman Brothers set off a global shock wave and an ensuing chain of events that are still being felt today.

Stock markets sank in catastrophic fashion. A global recession followed that spurred political upheaval and has forever changed the relationship between government and business. The economic freefall impacted retirement accounts, housing markets and even an entire generation’s outlook on the future.

The demise of Lehman Brothers also signaled something else: the beginning of a dramatic shift from a world where established brands told us what to think and do to one driven by nimble brands that tailor and personalize customer experiences to our desires and values.

Out with the Old

The evidence of this foundational shift in expectations can be seen in the Harris Poll Reputational Quotient, which tracks the reputations of the 100 most visible companies every year. While not a traditional brand measure, the poll, which has been running annually since 1999, asks Americans to identify and rank companies based on six key factors to determine societal impact and true business value.

When G&S worked with Harris Poll to unveil its findings in 2008, the world was in its predictable order. The top 10 companies were mostly large, established conglomerates known for being the picture of stability. These included icons such as Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Kraft Foods, 3M, The Coca-Cola Company, Honda Motor Company and tech giants Google, Intel and Microsoft.

Fast forward ten years: Not one of those companies was in 2018’s top ten ranking. While many of these stalwarts still have excellent reputational rankings, they were displaced at the top by rising brands that offer a more tailored and emotive brand experience. Not surprisingly, the 2018 list was dominated by Amazon. But look at the other companies that rounded it out: Wegmans, Tesla Motors, Chick-fil-A, The Walt Disney Company, HEB Grocery, UPS, Publix Super Markets, Patagonia and Aldi.

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Grocery stores are clearly finding a place in Americans’ hearts. The more surprising outliers at first glance are Chick-fil-A and UPS. Even though the owner of the restaurant chain takes political stances, the food and experience are so good that it apparently overrides any associated negativity from political stands. As for UPS, while it publicly positions itself as a leader in global logistics, most of us associate the brand as the one whose brown trucks deliver all of our Amazon shipments and holiday gifts — so definitely there is a brand halo effect there!

This Time, It’s Personal

G&S conducted a snap poll of 521 U.S. consumers age 18 and older to delve deeper into this dynamic shift in the brand landscape, away from established stalwarts to the noted preference for brands that “know me and get me.”

The results showed that consumers are taking a closer look at a lot more than the quality of a company’s products and services, which are the non-negotiables of any brand. Consumers are looking for three primary things from a brand:

· Clarity of brand promise

· A seamless brand experience

· Upholding its brand promise by taking stands when necessary

Want proof? When asked what is more important for a brand today than five years ago, 74% said offering a positive experience, 60% that a brand understands individual customer needs, 57% involvement in sustainability initiatives, and 47% that the brand stands for a cause.

These are fundamentally different expectations from what the top-ranked brands of 2008 offered and delivered. What’s more, encouragingly for up-and-coming brands, 38% of today’s consumers say that being well known is less important than five years ago. This means that consumers are more open to experiencing and embracing those new brands that embrace them back.

Brand Killers

The good news is that consumers are more engaged than ever and using vehicles such as social media to experience, promote and talk about brands. The bad news is that consumers are more engaged than ever and using vehicles such as social media to complain, boycott and trash brands.

The other difference from the last decade is that brands and their activities today are far more visible than ever. Consumers have more insight into whether or not a brand is living up to its promise, and news travels very quickly when one is not.

When we asked consumers what attributes or activities in the past year have caused them to perceive a brand more negatively, it was clear that news headlines matter. As one would expect, product quality is at the top of the list, at 64%.

But from there, it became evident that brand responsibility is more important than ever. Half of all respondents (50%) said that poor work environments have made them think more negatively about a brand in the last year. Scandals involving executives also hovered around the halfway mark, with 47% saying that executive behavior has impacted their view of a brand in the last year. Forty-four percent say brands taking a political stance has caused them to perceive the brand more negatively.

What’s interesting, though, is that if a brand consistently delivers on the expected customer experience, the impact of negative issues on the brand is somewhat muted. Amazon still tops the Reputation Quotient, despite having been in the news for its working conditions. Chik-fil-A has received backlash from certain audiences for its political stance, but it also holds a place in the top ten on the Reputation Quotient.

It appears that having clarity and delivering on the core brand promise matters most. If the packages still arrive on time and the chicken sandwiches taste great every time, those tangible, consistent, positive experiences matter more to consumers than the negative blips on the radar.

Is Your Brand Making it Happen?

We are in a new era in the world of branding. So you have to ask yourself: Is your brand where it needs to be? Is your brand built for the next ten years, or is it stuck in the past?

Now more than ever, it is essential to make sure your business and brand strategies are in sync to ensure that the customer experience is seamless and consistent. Expectations have rapidly shifted from a shared mass experience to one that feels more personalized – whether it is delivered by a large conglomerate or a scrappy startup.

Consumers want brands to truly understand what they care about and desire. They want brands that deliver a consistently excellent experience. And they want brands that walk the talk with them.

People are essentially saying, “Speak to me transparently and in my language, and I’ll pay attention. Shout at me from the rooftops and I’ll put in my earbuds and tune you out.”

Your brand makes a promise every day, and you are being judged on it. Your target audience expects your brand to deliver on that promise each and every time. Is it – and are you?


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