Lynn Manternach/Tree Full of Owls

Consumer expectations for brands are changing as fast as the technology that is driving those changes.

Brands that show some personality and attitude – empathy, humor, generosity, humanity – are being embraced by consumers. Is your brand positioned to take advantage of this new trend?

According to trendwatching.com, four currents are now converging to make consumers more focused on brand attitude and behavior than ever before:

Brands that can show business in a new light will be embraced by consumers. Consumers expect companies to become actively involved in promoting the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

In 2006, “strong financial performance” was the third most important factor for US consumers in determining corporate reputation, according to research by Edelman. By 2010, financial returns had fallen to the bottom of the Edelman’s rankings, while “transparent and honest practices” and “company I can trust” were the two most important. (Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, 2010.)

In addition, according to research by Young & Rubicam, August 2010, 71 percent of people “make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to my own.”

So what can your company do to actively promote the wellbeing of individuals and communities?

Are your PR efforts focused on making sure you are involved in the right community activities – activities that are aligned with your corporate values? Are you identifying ways to get the word out about your efforts and the impacts in ways that are relevant to consumers?

Consumers expect companies to conduct business transparently and honestly. And with the highly wired world we live in, it’s difficult for companies to be anything but transparent thanks to the easy availability of online comments, conversations, reviews, ratings and more.

Consumers are cynical. They want to do business with companies they trust. Building that trust takes time and effort and the management of a lot of variables. First, you have to have a product or service the consumer wants or needs. Next you need to deliver a consistently on-target brand experience. Then you need to reach out to and engage with consumers in ways that make sense to them. Because, ultimately, this isn’t about the brand or the corporation – it’s about the consumer.

Personality and profit can be compatible. Zappos is a great example of a brand that has built success by overtly engaging with customers, rather than holding them hostage behind a web interface. With every business that succeeds financially while remaining fun, helpful, fair and human, the tolerance consumers have for traditional, boring and impersonal brands drops a bit more.

According to Havas Media, most people would not care if 70 percent of brands ceased to exist. Brands that engage with consumers, showing their personality and sharing their values, are among the 30 percent that would be missed.

Some brands may seem better suited to an engaging and personality-driven brand than others. But those in industries that are typically more serious and reserved have the best opportunity to stand out from their peers with a little personality.

Online culture is the culture. In the online culture, communication is immediate and open. Brands that are bland, inflexible and lacking in human qualities live outside that culture.

If your company has a basic web site but does not make it easy for consumers to interact with you online, you’re not part of the online culture.

If you don’t have a Facebook page or another way for consumers to casually interact with your brand online, you’re not part of the online culture.

Consumers have integrated their lives into the online world. If you aren’t hanging out in that world with them, you’re missing some significant opportunities.

Flaws make brands more likeable. Things will go wrong. Unhappy consumers can tell thousands of other consumers with the click of a button. The good news is that brands have access to the same technology consumers do, and brands can react and respond. If the response is handled well, it can actually increase the brand’s reputation.

According to a study conducted in September 2011 by Maritz Research, 76 percent of the people who complained on Twitter received no response from the brand. But among those who were contacted, 83 percent liked or loved that the brand responded, and 85 percent were satisfied with the response.

Expressing your company’s brand personality is a process that should be embarked upon carefully and strategically. Make sure you’ve built a plan and approach that makes sense for your brand. Take the time to clearly articulate the brand personality and values inside your company before you launch a social site to express that personality publically. But most importantly, make sure the personality you articulate is authentic. Because if it’s not, consumers will call you on it.

Lynn Manternach is brand arsonist and president at MindFire Communications Inc. (www.mindfirecomm.com) in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. Contact her at lmanternach@mindfirecomm.com.