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Becoming an Awe-Inspiring Brand

Why shared purpose is a must to restore trust, build loyalty and succeed with today’s consumers

Several years ago I wrote about the “5th P”: the Purpose that companies needed to embed within their brand’s value proposition to complement the classic 4 P’s. Today, that idea is more relevant than ever, but the consumer climate has changed. Loyalty is at a low, trust in corporations is on the decline, and cause marketing is so ubiquitous that consumers barely notice it any more. It’s time for brand managers to reach higher and do better with their brand purpose: to inspire awe.


Consumers have experienced a dramatic proliferation of product choices and loyalty programs in recent years, and the effect is that they now show less brand loyalty, not more. Whether you’re selling soap or sedans, price and quality alone are no longer enough to earn repeat purchases, much less long-term loyalty.


According to Edelman’s 2015 Trust Barometer, consumers’ trust in business, media and even NGOs has suffered over the last year. Trust in business faltered for the first time since the end of the Great Recession, signaling the end of an era of recovery for business and serving as a red flag for all of us.


In the past, enabling consumers to be more productive members of society and contributing to the greater good could be accomplished by attaching a cause to a product, providing consumers with a feel-good reward for their purchase (buy one, give one) and taking the burden off the consumer to do much work at all. Then along came Cause Fatigue: In a November 2014 Mintel Cause Marketing study, more than 44% of respondents said that because there are so many companies that support causes and align with non-profits, they don’t pay attention to cause marketing campaigns anymore.


Perhaps one reason for the decreased interest in cause marketing is the decrease in consumers’ dependence on “consumption offsetting” to feel good. Consumers are taking on more personal responsibility rather than depending on companies to do good on their behalf. According to the 2015 Cone Communications/EBIQUITY Global CSR Study,  consumers’ expression of conscious and conscientious living is going beyond purchasing behaviors: 62% say they would take a pay cut to work for more a responsible company, 61% would let go of owning products to share or borrow instead, and 57% would purchase a product of lesser quality if it was better for the environment and society. This represents a big shift in the past decade: In the early 2000s, only a small group of consumers were willing to make that sacrifice; in 2015, consumers are so interested in improving society, and so frustrated by many companies’ lack of meaningful action, they are once again willing to sacrifice to stand up for their values.


Half of Edelman Trust Barometer survey respondents attribute the potential for increased trust in a business to the fact that a business enables them to be a more productive member of society, and nearly half (47%) attribute the potential for increased trust in a brand to evidence that the company contributes to the greater good. People want to be perceived as partners with the companies producing their products. They want to feel like their personal values are explicitly reflected and demonstrated by the brands they buy.


In the midst of cause-marketing overload, consumers are gravitating toward companies that don’t just gesture at goodness or talk a good game but truly share their values. This purpose is, according to Matthew Gardner of Droga 5, “the reason a brand exists beyond making money and … the only thing that will get brands to break through."

Even if your expressed values discourage people from buying your product (see Patagonia) or overstep bounds (see Starbucks’ recent — and short-lived — Race Together campaign), as long as your values are meaningful and differentiated, your company will improve its ability to provide “Velcro points” for a well-aligned segment of customers. Motista’s research shows that such emotional connection positively influences and increases customer spending. If your company can express its core values with true transparency and sincerity, consumers will engage with your brand(s) in a deeper and more meaningful way.

How do you get next-level commitment from your consumers? What if marketers seized this time of distrust and cause marketing ubiquity as an opportunity to aspire toward something more? What if we wanted to express our values in an authentic, holistic manner that reached for something even bigger, that inspired some form of awe?


So what exactly is awe? According to Dr. Jonah Berger, it’s “the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might.” The exciting news for marketers is that brands can offer this level of pleasure by engaging with consumers through shared, closely held values: a shared purpose. We’ve seen companies that express their values overcome heated and even hateful reactions and bring people together in challenging times. We’ve observed people behaving differently around those we admire, aspiring toward goodness. And we’ve seen movement toward more heart and less shock and a consumer interest in the bigger picture.

recent psychological study focuses on how humans experience awe. I believe that the findings may be connected to the challenge that companies face today in creating authentic, lasting connection points with consumers. The study, from two University of California psychology professors (Keltner and Piff), argues that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, motivating people to do things that enhance the greater good. The study also examines why awe arouses altruism, concluding that it imbues people with a different sense of themselves — one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. I have posited for several years, particularly with post-recession consumers who are hyper-connected but not connecting at all, that our culture is awe-deprived as people have become more individualistic, more self-focused and less connected to others.


I have also examined several brands that have expressed their values in a way that inspired their consumers to do the same. How is it done? There must be a level setting - why does your company exist and what is the ultimate purpose for your company (or brand) that reflects both shareholder and stakeholder vision and beliefs? Getting at these truths requires reflection and a shift of focus for companies that are used to talking about their values as part of an internal employee exercise or in the About Us section of their website or marketing communications. It requires earnest efforts to not just identify but exemplify values that map to your employee and consumer base. It means letting go of product attributes - table stakes for most product categories and implicit expectations from consumers- as top-priority messaging  and instead aligning values, actions and outward expression of what really matters to your company.

Honey Maid demonstrated their values and collected aligned awe with their “Wholesome” campaign, which inspired people to talk about how they define family. Panera began running a tagged “Live Consciously, Eat Deliciously” campaign in 2013 highlighting their values, and recently has taken out full-page ads (among other channels) with their new tag “Food As It Should Be” as a way to conduct conversations and inspire their consumers and communities. Chris Hollander, Panera’s head of marketing, explains, “We simply want to say, ‘Look, this is what we believe ... If you share our values and share that philosophy, then yeah, come on in. We have some great options for you.’” Even Gravity Payments founder Dan Price decided to reduce his own salary to the exact same amount of his lowest-paid employee. While the skeptic might question Price's motives, in a climate of over-compensated CEOs and general distrust of business it was a powerful example for all of an executive putting people first. Within weeks, his move inspired online writers to describe his company as "awe-inspiring" for its commitment to employee compensation parity.

Companies seeking to win repeat purchases and loyalty today need to demonstrate willingness to make empathic decisions, to create a compelling company culture and to pivot toward consumer interests by expressing values consistent with their most highly valued customers. In a society where we often feel connected but alone, where trust is on the decline, where cause marketing is ubiquitous, and where the pace of technological change has led us to expect constant novelty, speed, efficacy and product excellence, consumers are experiencing a deficit of awe. And it’s just this daunting climate that presents a huge opportunity for smart brands: to bring people together, to renew trust, to eclipse competitors and create a loyal, connected consumer following — to inspire awe. 

Mandy Levenberg is the founder and President of LEV Strategies, a consulting firm that she opened one year ago. You can contact her directly for speaking engagements and consulting projects: She also runs a small granola company that donates all of its profits to charity,

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