Welcome to 2019: Associating brands with acts of social good

For brands, negative emotions can be powerful drivers of behaviour. But so too can acts of kindness, selflessness and decency.

As 2019 kicks off, brand purpose stands at a fork in the road – or maybe it’s more of a point of dispersal. With Alan Jope succeeding Paul Polman at the helm of Unilever – and chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed to leave in May – the business must decide whether to maintain Polman’s dedication to purpose-led brand strategy, or become closer to most other companies that are subject to the demands of shareholders.

Jope has already said he will keep the targets for sales growth and profit-margin improvement set in the wake of 2017’s failed takeover bid by Kraft Heinz. Unilever’s sustainability-led brands may be its best-performing, but after shareholders forced the company to ditch its move to the Netherlands, Jope will need to demonstrate a strong personality to defend projects that might seem peripheral to the business of making cash.

Elsewhere, last year proved beyond doubt that having an agenda, even a divisive one, can be highly effective for brands. Nike, a pathmaker for less ambitious brands, showed us with its Colin Kaepernick campaign that alienating half the population is no biggie, or at least if it’s the half that is less likely to buy your products anyway, as research suggested was the case here.

Even Lush, which baffled and angered many with its #SpyCops campaign last summer, recorded a short-term sales increase.

So, expect to see brands being quicker to take a side when culturally contentious stories, such as the decision of Kaepernick and other NFL players to "take a knee" during the US national anthem, make the news.

The biggest surprise hit of 2018 came from Iceland, with its Christmas ad, "Rang-tan", which was blocked from running on TV by Clearcast. The decision to repurpose a film originally made for Greenpeace gave it access to a piece of quality content without the expense or hassle of making its own (although the supermarket did apparently book TV space it was unable to use).

Moreover, the overwhelming response to it, including a one-million-signature petition to let it be shown on TV, will have marketers at other smaller and mid-sized brands wondering whether they can pull off a similar trick. But they should take heed that the reason Iceland succeeded was less to do with the politics of the message than the politics of the medium. Whether intentionally or not, it won its exposure as a result of indignation that something so obviously agreeable should be banned. As much as marketers might want to shy away from them, negative emotions can also be powerful drivers of behaviour.

Fury certainly doesn’t work for everyone, of course, so also expect to see more brands looking to associate themselves with acts of kindness, selflessness and decency. Cadbury did this to great effect last year, with its story of a little girl handing over treasured trinkets to buy her mum some birthday choccie, and Mr Kipling played a similar game with a boy nicking a piece of cake for his grumpy sister.

What advertising like this has in common is a certain shyness about consumerism; a need for purchases to contain an act of social good. This no doubt reflects the changing views and behaviours of consumers – members of Gen Z are less materialistic, more concerned with sustainability and far more bothered about being nice to each other than those of previous generations – as well as the proliferation of left-wing political ideas. Smart brands will get behind these trends, rather than looking for new ways to stick their fingers in their ears.

Consumerism as altruism is the message that has long fuelled John Lewis’ Christmas campaigns, and following its recent "& Partners" rebrand, we can expect it to set another precedent that others will be interested in following. In its ownership structure, John Lewis has a unique trick, but it doesn’t mean other brands can’t show they are good employers and use that fact to win consumer approval. Amazon demonstrated it understood the growing importance of this last October when it raised its minimum pay in both the US and UK, with the UK level now meeting the rate set by the Living Wage Foundation.

The recent pay increase was one sign from Amazon that it understands that public approval will be an important battleground as it continues in its mission to become the operating system of human society. It will not let up; it is reportedly interested in snapping up those stores that Sainsbury’s and Asda may be forced to sell by the Competition and Markets Authority to allow their merger to proceed. If Amazon does make a significant move into physical retail, it could finally face some action aimed at levelling the playing field from the government, which ignored demands at the last budget for an online sales tax to give bricks-and-mortar businesses a leg-up.

Meanwhile, more retailers are likely to follow Toys R Us and Maplin into oblivion. It’s hard to envisage the path to survival, but with a consensus that retail needs to offer an experience, rather than simply a location for browsing and transaction, brands will be ever-more inventive with that side of operations. But retailers will also continue to look for ways to collaborate – one of the big drivers of the Sainsbury’s-Asda merger, for example, is the opportunity to introduce Argos branches in Asda stores. On a smaller scale, John Lewis has formed a partnership with upmarket supermarket Booths – sometimes dubbed the "Waitrose of the North" – to offer click-and-collect in its stores, largely in areas where John Lewis and Waitrose have no presence. It’s now time for all retailers to start thinking this way to find new systems of mutual support.

Amazon, which leads consumers to buy the first or most highly rated search result on its website, and Aldi and Lidl, both almost entirely own label, all pose threats to brands that traditionally relied on resonance at the moment of purchase. And the evidence suggests that in no category are established brands safe against a Fever-Tree-style upstart doing things differently or better.

However, there are still tools available to brands that need to respond to threats. Look at Coca-Cola, which has handled the joint political and public pressure to cut the amount of sugar it puts into people’s diets by incrementally shifting the centre of gravity of its brand to the Zero Sugar variant, allowing it to tackle its most controversial aspect, while making no change to the original product still glugged enthusiastically by millions of consumers. Coke may not be a purpose-led brand, but it is one with an incredibly strong identity. If it succeeds in pulling off this magic trick, it will prove that, for skilled marketers, anything is possible.

Fighting the insurgents

Jon Goldstone

Managing partner, The Brandgym; former global marketing vice-president, Unilever

Last year was another tough one for most large consumer-goods companies. They continued to be buffeted by three major disruptions: consumers preferring brands that they perceive to be less artificial; a fragmentation of media; and major channel changes, as both discounters and ecommerce grew at the expense of traditional supermarkets.

The old model of pushing out a new product into broad distribution with a high-reach media campaign has stopped working. Retailers are less interested in listing, consumers are less interested in purchasing, and return on marketing investment has crashed.

Added pressure has come from shareholders. As top lines have faltered, more scrutiny has been placed on the bottom line. Nestlé, for example, is chasing a formal operating margin target of 18.5%, a significant increase on the 16% achieved in 2016.

As a result, big brands have lost share to smaller, insurgent brands. In a recent Brandgym survey of more than 100 marketing directors, 88% agreed that these insurgents pose a serious or very serious threat.

However, we are seeing the tide start to turn. Many of our progressive clients are responding to the threat, and I believe 2019 will be the year that the leading big brands start to fight back. We see them doing five things.

1 Sharpening their brand positioning

Looking back to what made them famous, and looking forward to tap into emerging trends and needs. Stripping out all the superfluous noise that builds up over the years and returning to a sharp, single-minded positioning.

2 Reigniting their passion for insight

Refocusing the core task of the marketing team on being the champion of the consumer. Getting closer than ever to the consumer, eschewing drawn-out, heavy research processes for lighter, nimbler and more iterative immersion-based approaches.

3 Being an 'agile giant'

Changing traditional structures and working practices to embrace more "test and learn", special, cross-functional project teams, third-party outsourcing and flatter structures.  

4 Relentlessly renovating the core

Building on the "trust advantage" that should come from being a big, well-known brand and placing the emphasis on core quality improvement, top-notch communication, better ethical sourcing and more sustainable packaging.

5 Leveraging scale of mental and physical availability

Creatively using larger marketing budgets and reach to grow mental availability. Building on established relationships with key retail customers to explore new opportunities in ecommerce and increase physical availability. As Nestlé chief executive Mark Schneider observed: "Size should be nothing to be afraid of. In fact, size gives you a whole lot of good things."

Performance marketing focus is the road to ruin

Philip Almond

Founder, Philip Almond Consulting; former chief marketing officer, BBC

Being a chief marketer in recent years at times felt like standing, mouth wide open, in front of a fire hose, with new data, tech and media opportunities being fired at your throat at an increasing rate. You try to absorb as much as you can but know most is flying past you unattended.

This year will doubtless bring more of the same. As I write this, trend predictors will also be penning pieces telling us that 2019 will be the year of "x" (insert the new tech solution you are selling here). Just like the year of AI (2018), blockchain (2017) and VR (which seems to have passed by without ever really arriving). FOMO, anyone?

I hope 2019 is the year we step back from that fire hose and put the tech-led performance track we’ve been pounding for the past decade into perspective.

I fully appreciate what the trilogy of new tech, online media and big data has brought us. At the BBC we made major investments in data and tech, creating a database of 28 million signed-in users, collecting more than one billion consumer actions a day. This helped drive new insights for programme-makers and schedulers, and more personalised online products (see BBC Sounds).

We’ve been told for too long that this "new" marketing is the only stuff that matters, but experiments by Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and the AA have concluded that relying totally on performance marketing is the road to ruin, as consumers aren’t loyal and you need fame to keep the top of your funnel healthy. The new players know this: look at how much Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google spend on telly.

New media isn’t replacing old, it’s creating new occasions and, in many cases, is complementary, not substitutional. Big data is of questionable use on its own: those billion actions per day represented only about 10% of audiences’ time spent with the BBC; most of consumers’ lives still happen offline.

So, yes, your marketing and insight need to be tech-savvy and data-enabled but that doesn’t mean the fundamental industry playbook is wrong. Sixty per cent of spend on brand-building, 40% on performance remains as valid as ever. And "digital" has so far been proved to work effectively mainly in the 40%. So let’s make 2019 the year of real consumer focus – both offline and online – rather than chasing the next shiny tech toy.

No better time to be a brand with an opinion

Lisa Thomas

Chief brand officer, Virgin

Last year was another 12 months of seismic change and political turmoil. Lack of trust in governments has continued, punctuated by major social movements, from #MeToo to Nike’s "Just do it" 30th-anniversary campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick. When the latter was launched during last year’s Super Bowl, it sparked a global debate about race, sports and patriotism.

There has never been a more popular time to be a brand with an opinion and take a stand. However, for brands to truly do so, they need to ensure their creative output mirrors the diverse world in which we live, and authenticity sits at the core of their approach. These qualities hold the key to success.

Before they can be truly diverse and authentic, brands need to work harder than ever to develop a deeper understanding of their customers. In 2019 we’re likely to see more brands taking a stand on key issues that resonate and align with consumers.

Sometimes it can go wrong: Lush’s #SpyCops was heavily criticised and dropped shortly after launch. And sometimes it can win global admiration: in the days immediately after the Kaepernick launch, Nike recorded a 31% increase in online sales.

Diversity can be a thorny issue. Brands need to avoid jumping on the bandwagon and to understand what diversity really means for them and their customers. Marketing campaigns have the ability to bring about change in society by influencing representation norms, and creative teams need to ensure they’re tackling difficult issues head-on. 

Creative departments should also better reflect consumers – we need more female teams and directors. Diversity fed in at the creative end broadens your reach. Smarter recruitment from a broader talent pool is not only the right thing to do, it will also pay dividends in your results. 

At Virgin, we’ve set up diversity and inclusion groups focused on gender, disability, social mobility and age. The aim of them is to bring to the surface the challenges we’re facing in these areas and ensure the Virgin brand truly reflects the communities in which we operate, both internally and externally.

Yes, 2018 was another year of seismic change and political turmoil, but there has been a conscious awakening, which presents marketers with a unique opportunity. We have a consumer who is more aware of their values and willing to act on their beliefs; ultimately, they are giving us permission to act. And we should.

The brands that succeed in 2019 will be those that are brave, take risks and have bold conversations with their audience. They will also be the ones that create authenticity by listening to and understanding their diverse consumer base.

Expect more brand partnerships

Pete Markey

Chief marketing officer, TSB

I’m really excited about 2019. A new year and, in my view, the emergence of a new era, as brands need to embrace an ever-changing consumer landscape. I am a firm believer in the power of the high street and physical retail space.

This year we will see a positive move of reassertion where brands more powerfully affirm their point of difference away from digital-only. The catalyst will be John Lewis’ move last year to become John Lewis & Partners, boldly stating its unique benefit and approach to customer care that has real people and physical presence at its heart.

Physical does have a role to play and the experiential end of this will come to the fore in 2019 – brands such as Lush continue to thrive for a reason, and genuine, positive, people- and productled experiences help deliver that success.

The other key word for brands in 2019 is partnership: true, mutually beneficial partnership to meet the changing consumer landscape. Brands will realise the strengths and limits of their capabilities, and partner like never before to keep ahead.

The recently announced Snapchat partnership with Amazon is a great example of this. Consumers take a picture of a product with a Snapchat camera, which then takes them to an Amazon page where they can buy the product they’ve photographed.

A similar partnership that excited me last year, and sets the trend for 2019, was that between Neos, a home insurance provider that uses smart tech to protect customers’ homes, and Aviva.

Aviva, which is in the process of taking a majority stake in Neos, uses the partnership to benefit from the latter’s technological superiority, fusing this with its own pricing prowess.

Partnerships are going to become increasingly key for brands to succeed, and the clock is ticking to find and work with the best partners in a rapidly changing landscape.

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