Agencies must become activists, speaking to consumers' morals and emotions

Olivia Stancombe, strategist at The Future Laboratory and one of Campaign's Faces to Watch 2017, shares her lessons from the ladder.

In our hyper-connected world, consumers can question, interrogate and investigate brand and marketing claims; and if they don’t trust what they see, their voices will be heard.

As the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed, for the first time, media has become the least-trusted global institution. And, as the key channel for a large portion of the advertising industry’s output, this poses some significant problems.

To keep pace with the changing consumer, the advertising industry must pause and fundamentally reconsider the "what" and the "how" it is delivering for clients. This is not a call to throw out the playbook, but against a changing landscape, these are two significant shifts that the industry should observe to prepare itself for the future.

From targeting to engaging

Thanks to technology and data analytics, we are constantly being fed the "right ad" for the "right product" at the "right moment". This kind of targeting is all about efficiency, and of course it has its place and its value in the industry. But consumers increasingly feel bombarded by content and information, leading to a burgeoning sense of wariness and scepticism toward advertising content.

It feels at times like we live in a world where every interaction is tracked and measured, where the consumer is forever being "targeted". The fact that 59% of social sharing in the US now occurs on private channels, away from the watchful metric-hungry eye of the analyst, is a sign of a reactionary shift in behaviour as privacy is a growing concern.

Consumers are less trusting of traditional media and becoming savvier to the algorithms used to deliver them that "perfect" piece of content, and the industry must acknowledge this and react. Data can only take you so far in identifying who to connect with. More is needed to strike up a truly meaningful connection.

So how to evolve?

According to a study by Harris Group 72% of millennials now prefer to spend money on experiences over things.

Again, we see here a fundamental change in consumer behaviour, but also an opportunity. Rather than a ruthless drive for targeted efficiency, the industry must find more ways to engage and connect with consumers through emotional and experiential work.

Today, a shareable experience is a more valuable social currency than a product, with material ownership no longer having the same caché and status it once did. But this is not merely social media sharing, but also word of mouth, peer-to-peer sharing.

Creating hype around a product or brand and allowing authentic consumer voices to speak for its worth is invaluable. So rather than relying on data to target consumers, the industry should look to connect and facilitate, to explore more experiential activations to spark conversations around brands and products.

From adverts to action

In tumultuous times, consumers are looking to brands to take an active role in society, as was shown in a recent Unilever study which found that a third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

The industry is known for tapping into a cultural zeitgeist and leveraging buzzword labels, from organic, to natural, to craft. But numerous scandals and over-usage have left such terms somewhat void of meaning. With trust in governments and traditional institutions waning, consumers are looking to brands to step in and become agents of change, as well as providers of goods/services.

As the old adage goes, "actions speak louder than words". Consumers will continue to consume, but increasingly they will seek to do so responsibly. They will choose a brand or product based not just on its apparent personal benefits but also on its ethical credentials.

The charity campaign and partial profit donation format is much used but is really nothing more than a gesture, a box tick. Consumers will soon expect more. Consequently, there needs to be a move towards more initiative-based brand activation – shifting from traditional adverts that communicate a brand product and purpose to campaigns that move beyond the printed page or screen and actively tackle social, cultural or environmental problems that show a brand practising their purpose.

For agencies, this means redirecting the significant client budgets at their disposal and channelling them not into adverts but into meaningful action.

The common theme here is perhaps the need for a fundamental change in the role of the agency. They should become more than suppliers or broadcasters delivering fully-formed adverts and content. Agencies must become connectors, facilitators, and activists, demonstrating value to consumers by speaking to their morals and emotions.

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