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customers are not your only stakeholders – except if you’re only chasing money

at the make sense academy, we have identified eight different groups of stakeholders that you should keep in mind when designing your brand strategy. if you thought the only one that mattered was your potential future customers, don’t be surprised if your brand doesn’t go anywhere. you might sell products on a short-term basis. but you will not build a strong brand in the long run. at the end of the day, a brand should be designed to relate to humans. not just to their wallets. so while a product marketing strategy aiming at selling inventory (or another way I like to call it: moving boxes) is usually designed for a specific audience at a specific point in time in a specific context; a brand strategy should be timeless and relate to those eight different types of brand stakeholders.

group 1: your customers

obviously, your brand needs to appeal to your customers. that’s a no-brainer. now, don’t forget that you should not just define them as a stereotypical persona, but as real people with complex emotions and irrational reasoning. understand their intent, their motivations. it’s definitely easier to let data tell you what your customers like to do over the weekend, for example. but it’s much more complicated to understand why they do it, and why they do it the way the do it. oversimplification can lead to superficiality. only looking at the surface. if you want a longer-term relationship with them, you’re gonna have to dig deeper. so be careful about how you try to connect with them. and again, don’t only target their wallets.

group 2: your fans

what is very interesting is that your fan base might not coincide with your customer group. especially if your products are expensive, for example. some people could really love your brand and products, but might not be able to always get the latest version or even buy one of them. e.g. luxury brands or a kid being a fan of a specific car brand, but not allowed to drive one yet – let alone buy one on his/her own. that doesn’t mean the kid can’t dream about working for that company and designing the next model. what makes a fan is their emotional investment in your brand. not their financial potential.

so don’t only look at fans within your customer base. go broader. and once you’ve identified them and captured their attention, they will be your best ambassadors. in some cases, your best sales force.

group 3: your employees

very often, this audience is taken for granted, overlooked and forgotten. remember that just because someone works for your company, it doesn’t mean they live and breathe it. it doesn’t mean they are fans or that they even like your brand or product. they might just be there for the paycheck.

your employees should be fans. they should also know what they are talking about when they refer to your company or your products. they should have all the tools they need in order to represent your brand and tell your story. I’m a strong believer that brand training should be part of the new employee onboarding program. I used to do that in one of my previous positions and we saw a huge increase in long-term retention of employees and customer acquisition in only a few months. and not only did we have more customers knocking at our door, they would also understand better what the organization was truly standing for and how it aligned with their purpose and values. eventually, this deeper understanding also allowed us to innovate on the type of partnerships that would exist between us, our partners and our customers. finding new ways to collaborate. creating new products and offerings together. increasing the impact our current portfolio could have.

sounds nice, right? well… get your employees on board!

group 4: your partners

partners can increase your reach, add features or capabilities to your product, bring other stakeholders to the table, etc. but they can also probably do that with your competition or with other companies. so how can you make sure they will favor you over someone else? that they will promote your solutions over the ones others provide? you can for sure create incentive programs. but that usually does the trick as long as the incentive is higher than what they can get somewhere else, or as long as the incentive lasts. however, if they favor you for more intangible reasons like being a better partner, being more reliable or trustworthy, appealing more to your common audience, aligning better on values, etc., they might even disregard the financial short-term incentives that a competitor could give them and stick with you.

group 5: your influencers

your ecosystem of partners and customers, and even your employees, are often influenced by other parties. sometimes, those can be friends or relatives. sometimes, they can be “random” people on Instagram that your stakeholders look up to or personally relate to. sometimes, niche pockets of your customers can influence the others. very often, you will find early adopters that would be the first to buy and test your products, influencing a group of people that might act as followers. of course, “easy” influencers would be groups like the press or specialized blogs, etc. however, those seem to have lost a lot of their credibility. and obviously, you can’t have influence without credibility. understanding those influence streams will allow you to dramatically increase the effectiveness of your marketing spend. and making sure that those influencers connect deeply with your brand will even make it a long-term strategy, not just a short-term box-moving investment.

group 6: your regulators

just as a brand is part of the four necessary evils of business, so are legal and privacy, and finance. and those are definitely part of your regulators – internally and externally. so establishing a good relationship between your brand and those regulators, building a strong positive reputation, can get you involved in some of the regulatory discussions. this would allow you to inform the decisions and act as an expert in your field. providing valuable input for your business, your partners, and your customers. especially since regulators are often not experts in the matter they are discussing, nor do they always understand the business realities, or the way customers use your products and services. it’s not only about lobbying for your own benefit. it’s about making sure that all the angles are looked at before a new law or directive is implemented. it’s about explaining the impact of a potential change in policy can have on all stakeholders, and laying out the implementation plan defining the deadlines. and as with many other stakeholders, the health of your brand will give you a voice in the discussion – or not. if you are perceived only as a greedy company making money on your customers with whatever mean is necessary to generate profit, you will probably not get a seat at the table – hopefully, but one regulator is not the other. but if you are a company that tries to have the right impact in the world, putting your stakeholders first, working for them, not for the bottom line or the end-of-year bonus of your executives… the probability of you getting an invitation is much higher.

group 7: your competitors

I strongly believe that there are two ways of looking at competition: either you see them as an evil force that needs to be annihilated, or as an opportunity for your growth or potential partnerships. and too often, companies look at their competition through an “evil-boogey-men” lens. of course, regulators can have an impact on how you may or may not engage with your competition. but still, whether your competition will respect you, laugh at you, patronize you or openly criticize you, depends on how they “feel” about you. how they relate to you. it will indeed not only be based on business and financial considerations. and it will also probably be based on how the rest of the world “feels” about you and about your competition. bashing someone else can very quickly and very easily backfire.

group 8: your society

call me naïve, but I somehow believe that at the heart of most businesses, there is a will to have an impact on the world, usually for the better, in big or small ways. it does happen though that this original purpose gets forgotten or fades away in the day-to-day craziness and short-term deadlines. but it’s usually worth regularly getting back in touch with that higher purpose. reminding yourself why this all started in the beginning. what you want to leave behind. how you want to impact the society around you.

so… does your strategy take all these stakeholders into account? have you analyzed how they interact and relate with each other? somehow, for me, the best strategy is customer-centric, yet fan-first, bettering society. Empowering your employees to learn and take part. leveraging the strengths of your partners. partnering in the right way and with the right influencers. Keeping an eye on regulators and making sure they have all the information they need to take the right decisions. and differentiating from competitors, or turning them into partners.

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