What marketers can learn from participation brands

Tesla: considered by respondents to be the most challenging and exciting brand
Tesla: considered by respondents to be the most challenging and exciting brand

A new study reveals how 'participation brands' are successfully designing content and experiences to suit modern consumers' lives.

 Consumers’ relationships with brands have reached a crossroads. On one level, advertising is facing its toughest test yet. One in five Britons are using ad-blocking software, while 89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered at all. On another level, consumers are letting brands into their lives like never before. They are making brands an ever-more visible and vibrant part of their lives. They are endorsing them and promoting them. They are actively involving themselves in the world of brands.

And the brands that are getting consumers to do this are not just surviving but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are not just combating apathy but getting their market to do their marketing. 

So what’s the secret?

We’ve long had a hunch that people like ideas more when they feel like they come from an audience’s world, not a brand’s world. That people respond better to marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing but feels like culture. That, in this modern age defined by people’s ability to participate, the way to win as a brand is to harness the power of consumer involvement.

The Participation Brand Index is our way of understanding the levers that successful modern brands are using to capture the hearts and minds of consumers in the age of participation. We used data from 14,000 global consumers (3,000 in the UK) across multiple sectors to understand how they respond to the brand-building strategies employed by 50 leading brands. 

"Generation Participation" is an attitude, not an age. Overall, we found that the UK is ready for, and expectant of, a more involving relationship with brands. The dynamics of this vary for different age profiles. For an older audience, it is the life-improving innovation of Amazon and Lidl or the inspiring experiences of BMW and Land Rover. For younger demographics, it is the culture-shaping contributions of Beats, Coca-Cola and GoPro. 

For city dwellers, social influence is a key motivating factor. For those outside the cities, a broader sense of being "hot right now" is important. Here are the ten key points from this global research project. 

1) Involvement drives recommendation

For a millennial audience, the more involved they feel with a brand, the more they are willing to recommend it to others. Our study found that one of the most powerful triggers to recommendation is when a brand makes people feel part of a community. That might be a literal community, such as Airbnb and Zipcar, or the sense that they are part of a unifying ideology – Apple is one such example. More than 60% of millennials said Apple made them feel "part of a community".

Recommendation is also driven by a brand’s ability to fuel their passions – with consumers appreciating GoPro and Ikea’s ability to do this.

Millennials respond to involvement in a more literal sense too – as shoppers. We found that 18- to 34-year-olds are more likely to recommend a brand if it delivers an involving experience when they are shopping for the product – whether that’s the in-store playfulness of Coke or the online seamlessness of Emirates. The sector struggling to deliver against this need is supermarkets – one in four respondents felt they were not delivering a strong shopping experience.

2) The millennial effect works for brands too

As marketers, we often look at audience attitudes and behaviours by generation but rarely explore brands through the same lens. Our research suggests that participation-brand behaviour comes more naturally to "millennial brands". Of the top ten UK names that the Participation Brand Index saw as delivering against their needs, only Apple and BMW were born before the mid-90s. Digitally native tech brands such as Amazon and Tesla lead the way, but category disruptors – Propercorn, for example – also reinforce the trend.

Propercorn: participants felt it stood for something they believed in

3) Excitement: a new emotional currency?

Love has long been recognised as the ultimate emotion a brand can elicit in its audience. But in a modern worldof immediacy and interaction, there’s an even more important emotion: excitement. In the study, this was the emotion most strongly related to overall brand performance.

How are brands generating a sense of excitement? They are adopting a more provocative and challenging voice – whether that’s the fresh tonality of Beats or the well-established challenger voice of Virgin Atlantic. And they are playing an active role in shaping popular culture and being seen as "hot" – just like the most challenging and most exciting brand in consumers’ eyes, Tesla. 

4) Influencers have more impact in the city

Urban dwellers were twice as likely to say the brands in the research were endorsed by someone they follow on social media than people living in rural or suburban areas. Whether Instagram or Pinterest users or vloggers, the impact of influencers is much stronger with a connected urban audience. And within this audience, it is women who are most responsive – with the influencer-led storytelling of tech brands such as Beats, GoPro, Sonos and Fitbit coming out on top. 

5) Social influence vs sponsorship

One of the more nuanced things the study explored was the difference between "social endorsement" and "sponsorship". The former, influencer-dependent approach is dominated by lifestyle, tech and snack brands including GoPro, Red Bull and Vita Coco. Walkers, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates belong to the world of sponsorship and celebrity endorsement. 

What’s interesting is the difference in performance outcomes driven by these approaches. While the research suggests association with a celebrity or sponsorship property drives high levels of brand trust and memorability, being endorsed by someone the audience follows on social media drives intrigue and excitement for the brand. And then there are a couple of brands in the study that manage to achieve the best of both worlds: Beats and Apple. 

Frank's Holiday - Apple

6) Gen Y most influenced by brand purpose

Gen Y live up to the millennial stereotype as the audience most responsive to a brand’s sense of purpose. Half of 25- to 34-year-olds felt the brands studied were bothered about their impact on society versus a third of the 45-plus audience. The automotive industry was the most striking for this audience: 70% of Gen Y respondents rated both Zipcar and Tesla as caring about society, while half as many said the same about Volkswagen.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Gen Z (18- to 24-year-olds) are far less engaged than Gen Y with a sense of social responsibility – and no different to other age groups. And it turns out that it’s men who are more responsive to a brand’s impact on society. But while men appreciate the pragmatic approach of brands such as Virgin Atlantic, Volvo and Honda, women prefer the more visibly conscience-led Ikea, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

7) 55-plus feel alienated

Personalisation is a hot topic and one that is driving real response with a millennial audience, half of whom felt the brands in the study talk to them personally. However, only a quarter of the 55-plus audience thought the same – a majority of them felt brands are failing to address them personally.

Indeed, across a number of measures, the 55-plus respondents felt brands are failing to excite or involve them sufficiently. It is perhaps unsurprising that their levels of apathy towards brands was also considerably higher. 

8) The march of the FMCG disruptors

We’re used to stories about tech upstart brands disrupting their markets. What is less documented is the
disruption taking place in that most traditional of markets, FMCG. Our exploration of the snacking sector found two brands that, despite their small size, are considered by consumers as having all the right ingredients for success in the participation era: Propercorn and Vita Coco. 

Both Propercorn and Vita Coco are seen to have a more clearly defined sense of purpose than their more established competitors. Two-thirds of those familiar with the brands felt they "stand for something they believe in" and show a commitment to improving life. Compare that with the 30% who said the same of Walkers.

These brands are beating the established names at the oldest game in FMCG: consistency. Two-thirds
of respondents felt they delivered a "consistent experience", "wherever and whenever" they encountered those brands. While the likes of Kit Kat experiment with new ideas and diversify into more product variants, these challengers provide  an authentic, unique experience where their narrative, product and packaging exist as one. The result? Respondents said they were more willing to both recommend and pay a premium for these brands.

9) Brand experience key to unlocking consumer data

We know that in the automotive category, data is key to unlocking preference and purchase in a decision journey that can last months or even years. We asked consumers which automotive brands they would be most comfortable sharing their data with and discovered the behaviour that defines these brands is their ability to create experiences consumers want to be a part of. Mini, Land Rover and Tesla in particular are leading the way by creating experiences and content-led brand worlds that consumers want to spend more time in. 

10) Return on involvement

Scoring highly in the Participation Brand Index was found to correlate with a series of brand performance measures, including memorability, price premium and net promoter score. We also found that a stock
market investment in the 20 highest-performing global brands in the Participation Brand Index would have earned a return four times that of the bottom 20 brands over the past three years.

Ben Essen is the executive planning director at Iris. Explore the study at participationindex.iris-worldwide.com

Why brands should embrace participation

By Kevin McNair, marketing director, Britvic

Never has there been a better time to be a marketer. Be happy to go with the flow and not be in control of your message all the time, and encourage participation and conversations just like those we have with friends and family.

Marketing is no longer about demographics. People do not see themselves as a demographic. Instead, it has to be about an attitude or a lifestyle or culture if you want to matter more to more people.

We have done this with Purdey’s. We target thrivers – people who want to thrive in life. They are ageless and diverse.

By having a purpose that is meaningful, differentiated and people-powered, it is possible to tap into something at a far more emotional and engaging level.

Marketers and consumer insights teams need to leave their laptops and get out to observe cultures and think about how their brand can tap into this trend with a narrative and distinctive brand character that resonates.

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