The new stakes in a Belief Economy

People vote with their values and wallets, and in a digitally connected world, they can let friends and brands know what their values are via their purchases, says Baldwin&'s CEO.

The topic of advertiser advocacy has been on the minds of brand marketers lately. When Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus stopped selling Ivanka Trump–branded clothing this past February, sales of Ivanka’s clothing lines skyrocketed in the following weeks. Brand marketers publicly expressed surprise about research showing many customers have positive associations with President Trump. They needn’t have been surprised.

People vote with their values and wallets, and in a digitally connected world, they can let friends and brands know what their values are via their purchases. More than ever, purchases are statements of values and beliefs, and these are the new stakes in the marketplace, and in what I call the Belief Economy. 

Companies always have had mission statements, however, these didn’t always align with the separate marketing mission, which typically focused on getting results no matter what. Values be damned if it meant making your quarterly earnings. 

The Belief Economy demands that brands have a clearly defined purpose, an authentic belief system and behave accordingly. Brands without those will be left behind as the economic impetus of millennials and the digitally connected-since-birth, iGen, continues to grow. 

Millennials and iGen are civic-driven generations. Both are idealist, adaptive and tribal, and most important, highly influential. They aren’t asking for brands to take a stand; they’re demanding it. For this reason, marketers already have been exposed to the idea of the Belief Economy, whether they know it or not.

We see examples on a seemingly daily basis. Something happens that either is at odds with, or reinforces, a specific belief system, and the market responds.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish founder of Chobani yogurt, got involved in the refugee crisis by hiring hundreds of them, resettled by the U.S. government and representing 19 nationalities, to work in the brand’s U.S. yogurt plants. He even helped them physically get to the plant, and he put translators on the manufacturing floor to help make it all work.

Ulukaya thinks it is important to live his values through his brand, and since founding his company in 2007, also has made a point of hiring immigrants. Any anti-refugee or anti-immigrant sentiment among the yogurt-buying public didn’t hinder Chobani’s sales in the least, and it remains the number one Greek yogurt brand in the U.S.

Moreover, people patronize Starbucks not just for its coffee. Values have always been baked into Starbucks’s business model.

In 2017, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that in response to President Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks would be hiring 10,000 refugees across its stores worldwide, it wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, and it certainly didn’t have any adverse effects on the company’s sales.

The first brand value listed on the Starbucks website is, "Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome." That sounds great, of course, but it doesn’t mean much if you aren’t walking the walk.

Back in 2012, the CEO of Chick-fil-A expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, which drew strong reactions from those for, and against, same-sex marriage. There were protests and boycotts of the fast food chain, but interestingly, the Belief Economy came into play. In the immediate aftermath of the CEO’s remarks, the fast-food chain reported that sales were up significantly

In the Belief Economy, marketers must engage people with a story and a system of values rather than simply try to convince them to buy their products and services.

Too many marketers get overwhelmed by values-driven advertising and say, "This is too much. I just need to sell my stuff. Sell, sell, sell." 

That is a flawed, outdated way of thinking. You’re not trying to sell your product once or twice. You’re trying to build devoted fans (maybe a better word is "co-creators") who want to connect based on a deeper level of values and beliefs.

Does this mean brands must wade into controversial political issues to be successful? Far from it. Instead, they must make their belief systems known, walk the walk, and create products and behaviors consistent with their stand in the world. 

The difference now, of course, is the stakes are higher than ever when you factor in digital media, which has enabled a "many-to-one" system of expression through which people can say whether or not a brand aligns with their own personal values.

We are emotional beings. If we only made our purchase decisions based on rationality we’d only shop at The Dollar Store. Our emotions often rule us.

Brands must have their belief systems clearly defined and communicated. Companies that don’t may be left behind, because engaged people are paying attention.

David Baldwin is founder and CEO at Baldwin&.