We live in a crazy, chaotic, complex, technology-driven, attention-divided era where consumers have more choice than ever but, also, more pressures than ever.
There’s the global political and economic turmoil. The instant-upgrade, instant-gratification culture. The growing knowledge about, and obsession with, what we should (and shouldn’t) be doing to stay healthy… Not to mention the apocalyptic potential future looming on the horizon due to climate change and what we should (and shouldn’t) be doing to save our planet.
All these pressures are mixed in with hefty doses of corporate cynicism and fear that big brother is always watching and listening.
It’s a great time for marketers that like a challenge.
As Just Eat’s global brand director, Susan O’Brien, says in our sector analysis on food and drink, amid such complexity it’s easy for brands and marketers to get "trapped in their own bubble" and to become out of touch with their consumers. That’s why research like WE Communications’ Brand in Motion study is so important – and why we have covered it in detail by sector; in addition to food and drink, we’ve analysed finance, health & wellness, business to business and automotive.
While the nuances by market are hugely valuable to understand, the study also identifies many general trends and insights, relevant to all sectors, that any marketer in 2019 should be aware of.
Here’s a summary of the top 10 takeaways from the Brand in Motion study.
1. Consumer expectations are sky-rocketing
In the past two decades the world has sped up at a previously unimaginable pace and so have consumer expectations.
"Consumers want it all - they want you to tick all the boxes and they expect brands to tick all the boxes," says WE Communications’ global chief operating officer and president of international, Kass Sells.
Before the online revolution, people were content to order clothes via huge, hefty catalogues and wait a couple of weeks for them to arrive at their door. The ‘Amazon effect’ (the company is now 25 years old) has changed all that and consumers expect brands to do everything quicker and are increasingly unwilling to wait – hence the popularity of next-day delivery, or even next-hour delivery services.
"The world of retail is going through dramatic change. We talk about ‘ticking boxes’, and maybe nowhere is more evident than in retail business. People want a product, want a good price, delivered the next day at a different address," says Sells.
But it’s not just retail feeling the effects. This impatience has filtered down into every industry sector, as we can see in Brand in Motion’s sector studies. Even in the healthcare business, there are expectations that previously hard-to-get products are available quickly and easily. For example, you can now get the morning-after pill delivered to your door within a day, and cannabis within an hour.
And expectations are only going to keep soaring.
Not only that, when consumers’ expectations aren’t met they are increasingly prepared to voice their (displeased) opinion. Brand in Motion reveals that the vast majority (78% in Britain’s case) would "join in the public shaming" of a brand under attack.
2. Consumers expect a lot from their tech
Technology, to a large degree, is driving these high expectations.
In 2002, we marvelled at the futuristic technology in the Tom Cruise movie ‘Minority Report’ but now consumers have come to expect the tech they use in their daily lives to operate seamlessly at the touch of a button.
As WE Communications’ JJ Lee, vice president, regional health lead, APAC, says in the sector study on the health & wellness industry:
"We’re seeing new technology dramatically raise the bar on consumer expectations and patient expectations."
This rapid change and raising of expectations is accelerating with the advent of game-changing technology such as Artificial Intelligence and cloud computing.
"It’s a tough time for the retailer in particular, but also a very exciting time as they are starting to put new technologies together in an interesting way," says Sells. "My main piece of advice to any brand that wants to ‘keep in motion’ in this rapidly changing technological landscape is to be on the side of the consumer."
3. Consumers demand constant innovation
The Brand in Motion study clearly shows that being seen as innovative correlates with numerous positive brand outcomes.
"This is where the cutting edge becomes transcendent," says Sells in the sector report on automotive.
These ‘innovation halo effects’ include: being more likely to be loved rather than hated; being seen as delivering amazing customer experiences and being seen to be doing good in society.
Again, consumers are demanding innovation in particular when it comes to tech. The big challenge for many industries, such as automotive as we found in the sector study, is that brands are innovating at such a speed that legislation and infrastructure can’t keep up.
As Ruth Allchurch, UK managing director at WE Communications says in the food and drink report: "Brands need to push themselves outside their comfort zone when it comes to innovating and making their product relevant in today’s responsible and transparent society."
4. Consumers fear their tech going wrong
"They are expecting a tonne, but they are also fearful of, and jump on, any fall from grace," says Lee in the sector report on health and wellness. The delicate balance that brands, therefore, have to strike is pushing their brand to innovate, especially technologically, while also pulling back when the stakes are too high and there’s a real risk of big failures, or data being compromised. Even though there’s pressure to innovate (which often requires a ‘fail fast’ attitude) there is little consumer tolerance for big mistakes or imperfect experiences.
High profile cybersecurity/data scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytical/Facebook debacle, have upped fear levels and reduced trust in corporations. The Brand in Motion data shows, for instance, that 84% of consumers fear their personal data is not secure, 71% fear their medical records are compromised and 54% worry artificial intelligence will take their jobs.
5. Brands need to provide stability
Although there are threats to brand reputation if innovation goes wrong, there is also a unique opportunity – precisely because of the fears and global instability – for brands to step in and be a beacon of stability and security.
As the fascinating situation in South Africa shows, covered in the sector report on the business to business market, political instability means consumers are craving people and organisations they can trust.
"There are many opportunities available for marketers in this time of turbulence, which apply to markets ranging from the UK, South Africa, the US and beyond," says Sarah Gooding Kobus, the deputy general manager of WE Communications, who works in Johannesburg, South Africa. "When government impacts societal insecurities, there is a massive opportunity for brands to step in and innovate, providing communities with stability. But with trust low in both corporates and governments, the need to be ethical and transparent becomes even more important."
Similarly, in the health sector report, opportunities borne of instability were also identified. "Uncertainty in the environment means that consumers are looking to brands for stability," says Catherine Devaney, deputy managing director and head of health, UK, at WE Communications.
6. Brands need to build their foundations on good ethics
Consumers demand that brands innovate fast, but they also expect them never to compromise their ethics.
In order to successfully do this, executive behaviour matters, as the Brand in Motion data shows. Brands must be seen to be reducing the negative impact they have on health, the economy and the environment, to name just a few aspects of ethics.
"Not just for the brand’s reputation but because it’s the right thing to do," says Just Eat’s O’Brien.
As explained in the automotive report, for example, there are a myriad of ethical issues that must be considered, such as: what are brands doing to ensure autonomous vehicles are safe? What are they doing to ensure the security and safety of data as cars become more connected? What are they doing to reduce harmful emissions?
"Consumers want to know how what they are doing extends beyond the vehicle itself and helps ensure a sustainable future," says Sells.
Brands can’t just talk the talk, they must walk the walk too. The tragic example of Pret A Manger, and its unclear labelling leading to allergy-related deaths, is a case in point; the brand took over two years after the death of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse to improve its labelling to include allergens (which is not a legal requirement, but in consumer’s eyes, certainly an ethical one).
"This is an example of how the public could not understand how a company like that, which purports to be very ethical and responsible and in tune with consumers, handled the tragic crisis," says Allchurch.
By contrast, supermarket brand Waitrose is a good example of a brand which has made acting ethically central to its business, knowing that its customers care deeply about issues such as animal welfare, plastics, food waste, health and their communities. Consequently, Waitrose frequently talks to consumers about these topics and is constantly experimenting with new ethical initiatives, such as Bcorp.
It describes Bcorp as a range of products handpicked because they "use the power of business as a force for good" with the aim of creating a sustainable, inclusive economy by reducing poverty and inequality, creating high-quality jobs and a healthier environment.
7. Brands need an authentic purpose
Consumers were more likely to support a brand that has a high level of purpose, or participates in activism, in six to eight markets surveyed.
"One of the things we’re doing more of is giving counsel to all of our brands to really find their purpose," says Sells.
The downside of this opportunity, as already mentioned, is that if consumers feel that a brand doesn’t live up to its stated values and purpose, then people are increasingly prepared to publicly shame them.
Sells cites Cannes-winner Nike’s Colin Kapernick work as a good example of a brand on a mission which it is prepared to commit to, even if it damages profits:
"Nike went out on a limb to show it believes in racial equality in this controversial campaign featuring the outcast American football player and civil-rights activist. Its share price may have dropped, but the message and its stance were clear."
He also names another Cannes-winner, Schweppes and Coca Cola, and its ‘Dress for Respect’ campaign which ran in Brazil. For this, the brand implemented technology on a woman’s dress to see how many were touched inappropriately. "The numbers were staggering and the way it was presented and demonstrated in terms of emotion was really powerful," he says.
Another good example, as mentioned in the health and wellness analysis, with explanatory commentary from the Bodyform marketing director Nicola Coronado, is Bodyform’s #Bloodnormal campaign to normalise menstruation, taking the shame away from periods.
8. Consumers want an emotional connection
The recognition that consumers want more of a transactional relationship with brands is well established and the reason behind why so much marketing aims to pull on the heartstrings.
As O’Brien puts it: "You need the emotional drivers. Something that establishes a connection with those consumers – proving we care about the same causes and concerns they do – helps us to stand out in such a competitive market place."
But as the Brand in Motion study shows, consumers – across all sectors – are showing less and less love, year on year, for brands.
"Love for brands is binary," says Sells. "We live in such a crazy world that it’s getting hard to choose, so increasingly consumers are choosing a smaller number of brands. They’re starting to love or hate a brand. Marketers must do everything they can to protect that love."
While "brand love" has often been touted as the Holy Grail in marketing historically, sometimes all you need isn’t love, but loyalty. Jeremy Seow, managing director, WE Communications Singapore operations, makes these poignant observations in the sector analysis on finance.
"Marketers should stop trying to get every consumer to love their brand because it’s not going to happen. There are other ways your customers and consumers will remain loyal and stay with you. You don’t have to make them love you to make them stay loyal. Loyalty is not just limited to the emotional realm, whereas loving is completely emotional. Consumers can stay for rational reasons, nothing to do with emotions."
9. Functionality of product is more important than emotion
Across the board, consumers’ needs for rational reasons to connect with a brand are increasingly more important than emotional reasons, with average scores up 16% for rational drivers and only 14% for emotional drivers from 2017 to 2018.
Devaney says that consumers are fed up with the emotive hyperbole.
This is particularly true in the UK, which has gone through an especially turbulent time as a result of Brexit and the subsequent socio-political turbulence and uncertainty. The Brand in Motion study, for example, shows that Brits are particularly looking for functional products that they can rely on.
As observed in the financial sector analysis, many financial brands are ‘defenders’ (in the bottom-left quadrant of motion). However, if these brands shifted their focus to rational (rather than emotional) drivers they would have the potential to move into the upper left-hand quadrant, ‘the providers’. This is synonymous with low emotional but high rational engagement and associated with brands that deliver reliably on their promised functional benefits.
10. Brands must become master storytellers
With such complexity and information overload, if brands have any hope of getting their message heard by consumers they must become master storytellers.
As any novelist will tell you, there are certain ‘rules’ to storytelling. One that is relevant to both brands and novelists is the advice to "show not tell", which means that brands shouldn’t just shout about how good their products and services are, they should lead with examples of how and what they are doing. It’s for the reader/consumers to conclude that these examples are ‘good’.
Another is to tell your story in the simplest, clearest way possible and bear in mind the question ‘so what?’ to keep you connected with why the audience should care about what you are saying.
Other rules already touched upon in this piece include ‘tell your story in a way that balances emotional and rational motivators’ and ‘before you can build your innovative narrative, you have to build a strong and true story around your ethics’.
"These are big takeaways for brands today," says Sells. "As a marketer, you have a responsibility to share a brand's stories, and do so everywhere. And you’ve got to be ethical. We often start the storytelling process by helping a brand find its true purpose."
The other crucial, and often most challenging, storytelling device for brands is to relinquish control.
Consumers today expect to be able to take a narrative and put their own spin on it, often in their own user-generated content such as memes.
One brand that has courageously let go of their need to control every aspect of messaging is Johnson & Johnson, as mentioned in the health sector analysis. For its ‘Choose Gentle’ campaign, which portrays a less traditional, more inclusive definition of the modern family, it invited diverse families to take part in week-long unscripted shoots in different locations.
This kind of co-collaboration with consumers coupled with a test-and-learn attitude is going to increasingly be a prerequisite for being heard. While this type of co-marketing can be scary for some brands, especially those used to lengthy ‘sign offs’, procrastination is not an option; it just means your brand will be left out of the conversation completely and others will invent your brand narrative for you.
Great storytellers, from poets to playwrights, often say that the hardest part is starting. Putting pen to paper initially can feel so daunting because there is so much to think about, so many ‘rules’. The same is true of crafting modern brand narratives; marketers can be so overwhelmed by expectations and the pressure for perfection that they are paralysed into inaction.
As Lee says in the same health sector analysis, but which is relevant to all sectors:
"Brands can’t wait another couple of years to tell their stories because transformation is happening today. We need to roll up our sleeves and sharpen our pencils. The time to tell our stories is now."
Or, as acclaimed novelist and teacher Anne Lamott says in her writing guide ‘Bird by Bird’ about the importance of starting, regardless if the first thoughts and ideas are rough and ready and, even, "shitty":
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft."
WE Communications reveals its 2019 Brands in Motion research findings from next month