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Brands are ‘constructs of trust’—they must become more political

Christian Köhler is the managing director of Germany's Brands Association. The organization, which he will continue to lead until the end of February 2024, represents the interests of a brands from a diverse range of industries in the political realm. He has previously spent many years working in the food industry and trade: after working for Mars, he held leadership positions at Kraft Foods, CSM BakeMark, and Tchibo, whose coffee business he ran. Köhler, moreover, works as a consultant and entrepreneur.

What does it take to have a strong brand, generally speaking?


The core concern of the Brands Association is to secure the future of our members' brands. In addition to good public positioning, brand management involves three important elements: firstly, there must be a good communication strategy; secondly, the brand's products, be they goods or services, must reach its target groups effectively, i.e. they require distribution; thirdly, and I would like to emphasize this point in particular, those responsible for the brand must demonstrate a willingness to innovate. In this context, I am reminded of Jacqueline Mars-Vogel, who, as the owner, had a great influence on brand management when I started at Mars in 1986.  Her motto "You need a healthy level of dissatisfaction" does a good job of summing up the necessity of innovation.


I also think it is important for companies to view brand management as a ‘construct of trust’ with each individual consumer. According to the principle of ‘self-similar brand management’, brands should remain true to themselves despite change, they should not promise anything fundamentally different from what they promised a few years ago.  "Future needs origin", otherwise the constructs of trust will be disrupted. This is also relevant for politics, as can be seen from the example of Germany’s SPD and its difficult relationship with the Hartz reforms.


Familiar brands help us consumers through our daily lives by creating instant recognition. This is because humans have two decision-making modes: the autopilot, in which we make nearly all our decisions based on constructs of trusts, and a mode in which we have to think for ourselves. The CDU has had great success with "autopilot election campaigns", using slogans such as "No experiments" or "You know me". However, this approach did not work in the last general election, as the retirement of Angela Merkel removed an important element in activating the autopilot. But why do brands need to innovate at all? Innovation is fundamental to achieving and securing a competitive edge. What is important here is that large consumer brands must continue to develop in step with general societal trends, in order not to lose significant parts of their customer base.


To what extent is the socio-political dimension of the brand gaining in important?


I find the debate about a company’s purpose to be old wine in new bottles. After all, companies have always had to demonstrate added societal value to be commercially successful. In the 1960s, the American cigarette brand Virginia Slims ran an ad campaign aimed at women with the slogan "You've come a long way, baby". In this way, they managed to take up the contemporary emancipation discourse and profit from it at the same time. However, brands need not endorse each and every societal development, and even brands with a wide reach can hardly initiate processes of change in society as a whole. But they can certainly make a contribution within their own target group.


I tend to see a business case when a brand represents a cause that fits in with its existing brand essence. A chocolate manufacturer such as Ritter, for example, can credibly campaign against child labor. However, a brand does not necessarily have to be identical with its company: a conglomerate like Nestlé assembles numerous brands under one umbrella and can represent different things as a company than the brands can individually. I believe that when it comes to the topic of diversity, it is fundamental for companies to point out the positive experiences they have had with diverse workforces and use this to take a stance for a colorful society.


How do brand managers view their public role?


You might call their situation a "bell tower phenomenon": CEOs have the greatest reach within their company and should therefore start their socio-political activity there. As people generally place a great deal of trust in their employer, a clear internal communication should take precedence over external discourse.


Companies often seem to shy away from political debates because they want to avoid being seen as having a partisan bias.


Yes, but politics is much more than we think: all kinds of things are the result of discursive processes that must be strictly separated from party politics. Our society as a whole must find solutions to the important issues of our time and ask itself what the social agreement of the future can look like. At present, the most important task is probably to find a common approach for the transformation of the economy. This concerns all members of society - including companies.


How can brands that are active in countries with different forms of government act in a politically coherent manner?


Two elements seem important to me: firstly, brands should position themselves in such a way that they can be relevant for different markets, but secondly, they should avoid representing different values abroad than in their home market. The example of the Green Button, which labels socially and ecologically produced textiles, shows that standing up for our values can only succeed if politics and business pull in the same direction. First, the political framework must be put in place; only then can companies work to ensure that regulatory standards are adhered to abroad. Ultimately, this constellation may mean that a brand cannot be relevant to a particular market without abandoning its values. I find it difficult to shift political responsibility in this area onto companies. The case of China makes it clear that the approach of using the importance and activity of German companies to improve human rights standards is workable on a pragmatic level but will not bear fruit without political support.

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