How brands can find strength through consumer unity amid disunity

How brands can find strength through consumer unity amid disunity

A K-shaped post-pandemic recovery is likely to accentuate societal disparities but should brands be looking to build on what unites us?

It’s a cruel fact that the pandemic has hit poorer people harder. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that 80% of those in the bottom 10% by income have either been in a shut-down sector or unable to do their job from home. This has been one of the worst-affected groups in terms of job losses and falling income.

Those worst affected, according to Ipsos Mori’s Financial Research Survey (FRS), are younger (21- to 44-year-olds) and more likely to be female. In terms of ethnicity, those from black minority ethnic groups are the most adversely affected.

Dr Grace Kite, an economist and managing director of marketing effectiveness analysts Magic Numbers, says: “Just as the effects of the pandemic were not evenly distributed, the recovery will not be evenly distributed. The poorest people in our country either lost their jobs, or have to go to work in person and be exposed to the virus.”

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May show that 70% of all staff in affluent Richmond upon Thames in London worked from home at some point during the pandemic. The equivalent figure in Burnley was less than 14%.

Many of those who have been able to work from home have been saving. With limited ways to spend, 57% have saved more overall since the start of the pandemic, according to the FRS data. Those most positively affected tend to be homeowners over the age of 55, who have remained in full-time work and are unlikely to have children living at home. They are also more likely to be white. 

What’s particularly concerning about a K-shaped recovery is that it splinters the economy, continually widening the gap between richer and poorer. It makes any existing economic inequalities much worse; and is not simply a binary split. 

It’s crucial for marketers to acknowledge the many fault lines upon which societal divisions exist, and the complex and multifaceted nature of polarisation. The UK faces significant divisions along class, generational, regional, political and racial lines, while major disparities are also occurring along industry lines. Although some sectors are nearly back to business as usual, industries such as entertainment, hospitality and travel are not.

Emotional polarity

The extent of travel uncertainty has led online holiday retailer On the Beach (pictured above) to close bookings for this summer due to the government’s traffic light system. The company blamed “a market-wide lack of appetite for booking amber destinations, as well as the likely loss of customer goodwill for holidays that might be booked only to be cancelled”.

Zoe Harris, the brand’s chief marketing officer, says: “We need to be mindful of the K-shaped recovery, not only from an economic perspective but also emotional. Some people are ready and raring to get back out there, others want to take it much more cautiously. While many of us are enjoying the different work-life balance and flexibility home working allows us, others have not seen such a change. It is possible that there is more to divide us than has united us in the past – financially, socially and practically.”

Empathy will be paramount, Harris argues, as marketers and creatives try to stay sensitive to widening differences between people. The fluctuating landscape for holidays means flexibility has been key for On the Beach. Having footage and voiceover as its ad model means quick re-edits are possible, such as its ad featuring Iggy Pop, created by Uncommon Creative Studio, which ran from January to March with a hopeful, forward-looking message.

In many sectors, the way campaigns are briefed and executed has not changed fast enough to keep pace with societal splits, especially as many businesses are under financial pressure that hampers the ability to adapt to changed consumer sentiment. 

Ete Davies, chief executive of Engine Creative, says: “Consumer segmentation needs to move away from legacy socio-economic, geographical, age and gender characteristics, because intersectionality makes that approach problematic and too arbitrary.” 

Instead, he calls for recognition that polarisation is now more about principles and beliefs than traditional demographics. Attitudes towards social issues, activism, politics and identity now carry far greater relevance.  

“Throw away your segmentation study”

However, Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi London, argues that it’s far simpler. “Right now, the only fundamental segmentation is the ‘haves’ and ‘have-lesses’. So throw away your segmentation study; this is what really matters. This is not just about marketing, it’s about society. The past year has baked-in inequalities that existed anyway. And the recession will ultimately affect everybody because our economy is co-dependent.”

His agency is advising clients to focus on value at both ends of the economic scale. Even for the better off, the financial certainty of a fixed-term mortgage may be more appealing than the risk of rate-hikes. “This is a time for brands to be really serious about value credentials. In recessionary environments, conspicuous consumption isn’t a great look, so even in terms of the ‘haves’, cautious conservatism looks much better. And they may genuinely be cautious, despite saving hundreds a month,” he says.

Prior to Covid, the proportion of disposable UK household income being saved was just 6.5%. According to the ONS, this peaked at 27.4% in Q3 2020; it has since fallen back to 16.9%, signalling a rise in spending and prompting predictions of summer sprees. Given that UK households increased their bank deposits by £148bn in the first three quarters of 2020, the amount of additional cash sitting in bank accounts is predicted to reach £180bn by June 2021, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. If this ends up being spent in the next four quarters, it would add 6% to consumption both in 2021 and 2022. 

To benefit from this potential uplift, and for growth, it’s imperative for brands to remain as attractive as possible to the largest audience, Davies says. Brands and agencies must try to pinpoint areas that unite consumers – universal values that transcend geography, income and political beliefs.

Deeper human truths

Ultimately, for all but the largest brands, it’s inefficient to run separate campaigns for different audiences, and inauthentic to be playing to both sides. Brands that are committed to bringing people together are likely to be more valued than ever, especially when the prospect of doing so is underpinned by affordability and accessibility. 

As Kevin Chesters, strategy partner of Harbour, says: “The best way to approach audiences is by remembering that whatever views, leanings or prejudices they hold, they all have one thing in common; they’re all people. Therefore, when devising strategies to get them to do something, or not do something, it’s best to look for what we have in common versus what separates us.”

This could prove tougher against the backdrop of Brexit and the pandemic, since 74% of Brits believe they have lost the ability to listen to others’ views, according to a four-year study by news brand trade body Newsworks. However, 75% say they’re now making an effort to understand different perspectives, with two-thirds cautiously optimistic about the future as vaccines are rolled out. 

There are always deeper human truths that unite society, Jason Cobbold, chief executive of BMB, says. His agency produced the first TV ads for paint and wallpaper brand Farrow & Ball in September. Designed to show the brand’s emulsion is “tough enough to meet the needs of life at home”, the campaign (pictured abovemocked middle-class homeowners as they took over-the-top measures to protect freshly painted walls and keep their homes pristine. 

“The very best marketing finds a human value or an emotion beyond the immediate,” Cobbold says. He adds that the recent reaction to the idea of the European Super League demonstrated society’s enduring capacity to unify around a common goal. “In a time where we’re completely divided for all sorts of reasons, we can damn well come together around football. Marketing at its very best can get into culture, elevate the conversation and unite us.”

Humour transcends divides

Likewise, Yorkshire Tea’s socially distanced teapot campaign (pictured below), created by Lucky Generals, used humour in a bid to connect beyond divides. The brand’s marketing director, Dom Dwight, says: “We know from years of conversations with British tea drinkers that ‘tea in the workplace’ has a relatability that translates well beyond the traditional office environment. It’s never really been the case for any brand that their target audience all think exactly alike. Just keep focused on the common ground, even if it’s become thin.”

Yorkshire Tea stretches across regions and socio-economic groups, Matt Gainsford, strategist at Lucky Generals, says. “Tea is associated with levity; you can have a laugh over a brew. And Yorkshire Tea wasn’t affected by the pandemic in terms of having to face different business challenges.”

Similarly, supermarket brands proved relatable to multitudinous audiences, with many consumers now choosing to shop at both Marks & Spencer and Aldi, mixing special buys with essentials. Julie Chadwick, managing partner at Dentsumcgarrybowen, says, “They speak with different voices, but both understand shoppers and the desire for special moments or quality essentials.”

DentsuMB’s recent Halfords campaign is a lesson in reaching beyond divides, she adds. “You want Halfords” stars TV presenter Steve Jones and launched on 3 April during Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway on ITV. Since almost the whole country is within 20 minutes of a branch, Halfords crosses all demographics, backgrounds and needs. 

Chadwick has roots in Manchester, having been director of creative agency BJL, which has an office in the city and was folded into DentsuMB in April. Now part of a UK-wide network, Chadwick is approached regularly by clients who are “desperate” for an understanding of the country outside London. “The pandemic was a real opportunity to unite the country post Brexit, but a lack of connection or knowledge of the regions has arguably ended up widening the gap.” 

Wherever an agency is based, clients expect understanding of consumer motivations. But nothing is more powerful than representation, which is why DentsuMB’s geographical span across the UK is an important selling point for the agency. Of Dentsu International’s 3,175 UK employees, 37% are based outside London, the largest proportion of the major agency groups. “Our UK footprint means we are domestically ‘locals’ in some form to every brief we receive,” according to Chadwick, who emphasises that employing a diverse range of people is akin to keeping “a finger on the pulse of consumers, in a way that goes beyond focus groups and research”.

Diverse and representative talent

It’s a view shared by Davies, who points out that sourcing agency talent that is diverse and representative of the entire UK population should be easier, now that adland has established ways to work remotely. “Create an environment that is genuinely equitable and inclusive to make the most of representative talent by supporting work that authentically resonates,” he says. 

Davies believes that representation should extend to research and insight gathering, where he argues a change in approach is overdue. He hopes to see more brands and agencies supporting Voices4all, an initiative to improve diversity and inclusion standards within research.

For many in the ad industry, the shock Brexit vote was a catalyst for change, prompting them to step outside their bubble, according to Vicki Holgate, executive strategy director (government comms) at MullenLowe London. “Among all the strategists I’ve spoken to over the past few years, there’s a genuine desire to understand groups that perhaps have been overlooked in the past,” she says. “I’ve worked on campaigns where we’ve made extra effort to walk in the shoes of people who we don’t necessarily come across in our day-to-day lives, to get a real sense of where and how they live, what their homes are like.”

Virtualisation of focus groups

For many brands and agencies, the key has been to stay as close as possible to consumers. Most share |the view that while there’s no real replacement for getting out there and talking to people, which has been physically tricky over the past year, an unexpected benefit of Covid has been the virtualisation of focus groups, allowing for inclusion of a broader base of people.

VCCP’s Walkers pitch win in summer 2020 “couldn’t have happened without the huge range of video groups, conducted on a national scale that wouldn’t have been possible face-to-face”, according to Jack Lewis-Barclay, senior planner at VCCP.

The agency now runs groups via both Zoom and WhatsApp, which have led to less group-think and fewer dominant voices leading the pack. “If you don’t have budget for this kind of qual, ask your mum. I guarantee she talks to a wider spectrum of society than you do,” he says.

Ethnography, the qualitative close-tracking technique, has brought a marked increase in demand, Matthew Warren, senior director, consumers and brands at Ipsos Mori, says. 

“Clients are very aware of the growing divides and want to be able to address them. People’s lives have been turned upside down, but what’s not yet clear is how many changes will remain. Now more than ever, we can’t make assumptions about how customers are feeling,” he warns.

Having tracked 30 households in six countries [the UK, US, France, Italy, China and Russia] during the past year, Ipsos Mori has produced a documentary, Divided We Fall, examining differences between “haves” and “have-nots”. The film cuts together raw consumer footage with commentary from high-profile figures including former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and Rob Scotland, head of strategy at McCann London. 

Speaking in the film, which was released in May, Scotland says: “If a K-shaped recovery happens, which it looks like it is, and more signs of the wealthier getting wealthier and the poorer being disproportionately affected, it’s going to be a real challenge.”

But Warren issues a word of caution about how brands should respond when thinking about what has really changed.  “While our behaviours – the way we live, work and shop – have changed rapidly over the past year, our research shows that underlying values and beliefs tend to change much more slowly,” he says. “Brands need to adapt to changes in the way we behave, but should make sure they don’t lose sight of the fundamental things that really matter to people.”

In possibly the most unequal recession in modern history, it’s important to remember the best creative output has always worked at a basic human level – not aimed at one side of a “divide”. 

As the late British MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right activist in 2016, said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Bridging the digital divide: O2’s 'Community calling' campaign

 While seven million people across Britain still don’t have access to the internet, there are 28 million smartphones sitting unused across the nation. This insight from O2’s in-house research department inspired a campaign spotlighting the UK’s digital divide, as part of its ongoing “Community calling” activity. 

A series of online and social media takeovers created by VCCP ran in March, targeting the “lucky majority” with a smartphone in their hand. It presented the idea that “seven million people can’t…” tweet, stream or swipe right, and urged people with a spare handset to donate it.

Through the brand’s partnership with charity Hubbub, which runs community outreach projects, O2 aims to give 10,000 unused smartphones to vulnerable individuals in the country’s most deprived areas. Those without phones are far more likely to be in the lowest income bracket and socioeconomic groups and be significantly older, according to O2.

Jack Lewis-Barclay, senior planner at VCCP, explains that for many, it’s their first ever phone, while for others it’s their first phone that can connect to the internet, allowing access to education, health and employment services, and a connection to friends and family. 

O2 chief marketing officer Nina Bibby says: “At Owe know how vital connectivity has been to millions of people this past year. We’ve also seen the devastating impact digital exclusion can have on the most vulnerable, from loneliness to lack of access to digital services.”

Lewis-Barclay believes brands looking to reach this audience should remember that they conduct far more of their life locally and face to face, so brands need to consider the interactions they are having. “It could be as simple as being more visible in the corner shop,” he says.

O2 hasn’t changed at its core, he points out, yet started 2021 with a free data and calls offer, to help people weather the financial storm, connecting the most vulnerable in society. “Both campaigns.... are carried out with the confidence, reassurance and optimism of a market-leading brand. Giving people something to buy into, and helping them do so,” Lewis-Barclay adds.

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