In the new normal, brands are being forgotten.
That’s the overall outtake from the latest wave of the Participation Brand Index from Iris, which explores the shifting consumer relationship with 150 global brands. With the accelerated rise of video on demand and a steep decline in visits to high streets and physical retailers, it seems to be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”—eight out of 10 brands in the Index are not being thought about regularly by consumers.
Meanwhile, the increasing frequency of global movements such as Black Lives Matter, Fridays for Future and even Wall Street Bets, shows the extent to which cultural power is being placed in people’s hands and spread in a radically democratised way. People are increasingly excited about other people and the ideas, information and influence they provide—while the Index tells us that only 18% are “excited” about brands.
The significance of the shift becomes clear when the latest study is compared with data from 2018. Since then, indifference towards brands has doubled, while those showing “intrigue” towards brands has declined 44%. With a fall in interest comes a fall in buzz: the number of brands people want to talk about with their friends has declined by 38%. As people reprioritise their lives post pandemic, it seems that they’re finding other things to talk about than brands.
Now in its fourth edition, the Participation Brand Index analyses the response of B2B and B2C audiences in the US, Europe and Asia to 25 “modern” marketing levers. It is designed to help marketers navigate the shift from the old world of persuasion via mass media to a new world of participation.
The study shows that brands can fight this "apathy epidemic" by driving high levels of consumer involvement, through purposeful brand platforms, insight-led customer experiences and people-powered influencer programmes.
The brands doing this most successfully inspire higher levels of recommendation, can charge higher prices and generate greater commercial returns. The brands scoring highest in the Index have delivered a stock market return almost 2.5 times that of the bottom brands over the past three years.
So, what can marketers learn from the brands embracing the opportunity of the Participation Age?
Purpose gives leading brands the edge
Tesla (pictured above) is the new leader of the Index, knocking Apple off the top spot for the first time in nearly a decade. Tesla outperforms on all purpose-related levers – people see it as a brand that “helps them make a positive difference to the world”, while 77% feel they are “shaping the future”.
Overall, brands putting sustainability at the forefront of their proposition outperform their competitors. Sustainable fashion brand Allbirds is the number one brand among millennials, Oatly is the number one food brand in the US (way ahead of Coke) and Ikea has risen sharply. It seems that consumers value brands that are actively leading the way—each of these brands performs strongly against the lever “introducing people to new issues and ideas”.
B2B customers lean in the most
As the world of work is turned upside down by the pandemic, a new generation of digital-first B2B brands is harnessing the power of participation to embed themselves in the new normal of business. Transformation partner Alight was advocated by 80% of the B2B purchasers, while more than 70% felt that controversial data innovator Palantir had introduced them to “challenging new ideas”.
Overall, number one B2B brand Splunk provides a participation masterclass by combining demand-gen innovation with a clear, fun and distinctive cultural voice. The big data company that also boasts it is “the world’s 11th largest T-shirt company” has managed to make four out of five people feel “part of a community”. When comparing the data, Iris found that these brands outperformed even the most iconic consumer brands in the Index, while their lead over the old guard of HP, WebEx and even LinkedIn is significant.
In CX, emotional engagement matters
For those marketers who see first-party data as the answer, the study has another warning: the number of consumers prepared to share their data with brands has declined 33% since 2018.
As the battle for data heats up, how can a brand stay ahead? Beauty retailer Glossier is the number one customer experience brand, beating the “big five” tech firms. Glossier is seen to create “memorable moments” and a sense of community that makes interacting with it on a mobile “enjoyable and interesting”, not just seamless. Overall, the brands creating the highest levels of trust are those seen to follow through with their commitment to customers and provide “service and support after purchase”.
Hot brands polarise
Maintaining a presence in people’s passions and lifestyles is a vital way to maintain interest but it’s the brands that don’t just keep up with culture but actively shape it that have the performance advantage.
Specifically, the Index shows that consumers are willing to pay a premium for brands like Netflix and Samsung that create a sense of “evolving with the times” and keeping customers guessing “what will they do next”.
TikTok is the brand seen to be most “hot right now in popular culture” (and ranks second place overall among Gen Z). But, simultaneously, the brand is more “disliked” than other any brand in the Index.
This isn’t the first indicator that to be culturally hot you need to put up with haters. In the 2015 Index, Beats headphones was both the hottest and most disliked brand. One warning: this truth isn’t universal. Budweiser is one of the “least hot” brands in the study, and is disliked almost as much as TikTok.
For a decade, we have followed the increasing disruption of “top down” advertising by digital connectivity but, as we enter a new era of post-pandemic marketing, the shift is more profound than ever. Customers are in control and every brand is a step away from being cancelled.
The Participation Brand Index proves that unless brands embrace participation, by adding authentic and innovative value to their customers’ lives, they will increasingly find themselves forgotten and struggling to drive commercial returns.
Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris