Opinion: Brands That Survive Will Be The Brands That Make Life Better


A new study of consumer engagement finds that companies that aren’t making a difference—to the world and to consumers—aren’t going to be around much longer. Instead of just making your product incrementally better than the competitor, you need to create impact.

We interact with brands almost every moment of our day. From the moment we wake up, we’re being bombarded with logos, advertisements, and products, all designed to make our lives easier but also to make us feel a connection to companies. But most of that work is totally meaningless: most people don’t care about brands, and think that only a few positively impact their lives. More importantly, brands that are perceived as irresponsible or just creating products with no meaning are in danger of being severely punished by consumers.

The state of brands and how they affect well-being was measured by media consultancy Havas Media. Umair Haque, the director of the Havas Media Labs and Harvard Business Review blogger who writes frequently on how business can create real value, says that the study is about discovering how people are interacting with businesses in a world where many people feel that institutions are crumbling: “In an age where institutions are failing and contracts are broken, and people are clamoring for more—pounding their fists for better—we’re asking: What is the role for a brand? And how is the relationship between people and boardrooms changing? People are beginning to say: ‘What you’ve been able to give us in the past isn’t good enough.'”

How is the relationship between people and boardrooms changing? People are beginning to say: ‘What you’ve been able to give us in the past isn’t good enough.’The most tangible outcome of this is that the Meaningful Brands survey—which spoke to 50,000 consumers in France, Spain, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, China, Japan, India, and the U.S.—found that only 20% of the brands they interact with have a positive impact on their lives. And they feel that 70% of brands could disappear entirely without them noticing.

What’s the trick to making a brand meaningful? Focus on outcomes, not outputs. The criteria, says Haque, are simple: “Did this brand make you fitter, wiser, smarter, closer? Did it improve your personal outcomes? Did it improve your community outcomes? Did it pollute the environment? We’re trying to get beyond “did this company make a slightly better product” to the more resonant, meaningful question: Did this brand actually impact your life in a tangible, lasting, and positive way?”

Haique cites Nike+ as a prime example. “Instead of putting up another campaign of billboards with celebrities saying ‘Buy our shoes, they’ll turn you into a master runner,’ Nike+ actually helps makes you a better runner. That’s a constructive way to build a meaningful brand.”

But the 10 most positive brands aren’t necessarily the do-gooding corporate entities you might expect: The top 10 are:

  1. Ikea
  2. Google
  3. Nestlé
  4. Danone
  5. Leroy Merlin
  6. Samsung
  7. Microsoft
  8. Sony
  9. Unilever
  10. Bimbo

There aren’t a lot of companies on that list that you might associate with anything but outputs, and certainly none that would be on any list of major companies giving back (though company founders like Bill Gates have, of course, become hugely important in terms of personal philanthropy). But that’s starting to shift. More than half (51%) of consumers want to reward responsible companies by shopping there; 53% would pay a 10% premium for products from a responsible company. And they want companies involved: 85% of consumers want companies to be engaged on global issues, but only 22% think they’re getting enough. Haque says that if companies don’t start responding to these trends, they’ll be punished:

“If you have a company where a small but significant number of people are saying this is beginning to negatively impact us—I think for companies that face that challenge, unless they take the idea of difference seriously, those numbers are going to grow. We don’t see intensely negative feelings [for companies] at the moment, but my guess is that for companies that don’t get their acts together over the next decade, we will see those numbers begin to shift.”

Want to make sure your company doesn’t fall into that category? It may sound simple, but it’s difficult to execute: “Impact people’s lives. Focus on well-being from your product. That’s tough. You have to have that right from the get-go.”