Villains or heroes? Business needs to tell its story

July 7, 2022

For more than two years, business has kept America and the world running. The pandemic didn’t stop grocery stores, oil companies, or tech firms from feeding Americans, heating their homes, and innovating new ways to educate children. The historic supply chain disruptions that followed did not stop hospitals from taking care of people, packages from being delivered, or cars from being made.

Despite these successes, virtually every segment of America’s influencer class is attacking companies large and small. Gas stations and oil companies are demonized for prices, airlines for delays and cancellations, and real estate and tech firms for layoffs and hiring reversals. These hostile narratives ignore that companies are preoccupied with meeting the demands of inflation, supply chains, and sagging labor participation.

And unless businesses start pushing back, these critiques will likely shift from words to actions – higher taxes, more regulations, and consumer lawsuits.

Small business owners and entrepreneurs especially could be decisive in shaping public opinion about the realities of business. Each of us was raised by business owners, and today we each run a company. James’s mother ran a gas station, where she earned the industry norm of about five cents’ profit per gallon. Dustin lugged shingles up the ladder for his parents’ roofing company and took orders at their inn. Our communities did not look at our parents as distant villains guilty of price gouging — a charge that a number of Washington, D.C. talking heads now lob at service station owners — but as neighbors who fueled their daily commutes and repaired their leaky roofs.

Stores can’t just sell gas, cigarettes, and donuts at a time when politicians are accusing them of price gouging: They need to tell their story to customers to bolster goodwill. Customers may not feel any obligation to go to bat for Exxon-Mobil executives, but they will surely do so for Teresa, the service station manager ready with a pot of coffee each morning.

There are three parts to that story. First, define the value your business brings to the community. Gas stations keep people going to and from work, enabling people to provide for their own families. Airlines provide travel opportunities which were unimaginable 100 years ago, and tech companies have revolutionized virtually every part of our lives for the better. Small businesses will be essential to this narrative’s success; they sponsor Little League teams and participate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Their local and regional earned media, and support from community leaders, will serve as ambassador programs for their individual brands as well as the entire private sector.

Second, share the facts, even the ones which are uncomfortable. Only 40 percent of a barrel of oil hits the fuel pump — the rest is in our water bottles, t-shirts, and jet fuel. Gas stations themselves are not large corporations, but rather small businesses run by families. Airlines’ delays and cancellations are in large part due to pilot shortages produced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The real estate market suffers from the opposite problem. After experiencing a hiring surge as consumers relocated as a result of COVID and other social factors, the market has settled down.

Firms have not been aggressive enough about communicating these difficult truths, and bad faith actors have filled that vacuum. Which leads to step number three: using a surround-sound marketing and branding strategy to ensure that all target audiences hear a business’ story.

Only a surround-sound marketing and branding strategy has the ability to penetrate America’s 24-hour, social media-driven news cycle. Customers at the checkout counter may listen sympathetically about the challenges of running a small business, but they will forget unless they hear that message again and again on a variety of platforms in a variety of ways. They need to hear an ad on their commute, see your social media posts, and read your story in the press.

Business leaders must invest in a messaging strategy to remind the public of the value they bring to communities, or the anti-business hostility will only get worse. Small business owners and entrepreneurs on the ground are the first line of defense against hostile thought leaders; perhaps their grassroots efforts will give corporations the courage to speak out and defend the market economy that has made America the most prosperous nation in human history.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Markets.

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