Year ahead for brands: A taste for sustainability and fairness

People are still aspirational, but their aspirations are evolving.

Appetite for conspicuous consumption is being tempered by a taste for sustainability and fairness

Not so long ago, in the grand scheme of things, food for a significant majority was scarce, with many varieties near impossible to find. House chores were slow and tedious and new clothes were a luxury for most. Back in the early days of consumer capitalism, it was plain to see the role brands played: they provided goods that could improve people’s lives by meeting their fundamental desires for security, comfort and health.

It would be absurd to suggest we’ve solved any of these problems, when poverty remains prevalent even in rich countries, let alone more deprived parts of the world. But it’s certainly true that those growing up in the West since the 1980s would find it difficult to imagine a world of scarcity. The environmental risks of overconsumption have long been recognised in certain circles, but we are now at a tipping point where the impact they have on our behaviour is becoming greater than the desire for better that has always driven consumption.

Of course, people are still aspirational, but their aspirations are evolving. We still want to live in a nicer house and eat better food but, increasingly, people aspire to live in a way that makes the world fairer and more sustainable. This poses a fundamental challenge for brands selling FMCG or other consumer goods, and is one that will define the marketing agenda in the coming years.

Look at Black Friday for a sign of the direction of travel. As a discounting event, it was based on low-commitment shopping – encouraging consumers to buy things purely because they were good value, and not because they met a discernible need. But the evidence of 2019 suggested the day made little impact for some UK retailers, and several brands took a different approach: mobile network Giffgaff hosted a pop-up to promote the use of refurbished phones; and Just Eat, rather than offering a discount, donated 50p from each order to charity FoodCycle, which runs projects serving meals made from surplus food that would otherwise have gone to waste.

As Unilever’s Aline Santos writes, the majority of brands could disappear without being missed and the "meaningful" ones that buck the trend are either those few that are so embedded in culture that they feel like a part of people’s identities – Apple and Cadbury for example – or those that are unambiguously making a positive contribution to the world. This is why, sensibly, Unilever is shifting its focus entirely to "purposeful" brands, which perform better because people feel good about buying into them.

As the value of brand purpose becomes more widely accepted among marketers, we’ll see an increase in both good and bad examples of it. As Zoe Harris, chief marketer at Go Compare, outlines, an effective "purpose" strategy must be connected to what a product actually is and does. But, as with her example of Eve Sleep, purpose does not necessarily need to be about altruism. Eve, along with several other brands, has recognised that poor sleep is a growing problem for people with endless stimuli in their lives, and therefore it is able to offer a specific, tangible benefit to consumers. Brands such as Eve can augment their core products by providing advice and guidance to consumers via marketing channels such as digital content and live experiences.

Social purpose will increasingly provide the substance behind the marketing efforts of brands, but creativity is as vital as ever in capturing attention. As Diageo’s Amrit Thomas writes, though, the challenge is not just about the creative idea in the traditional sense, but making creative use of the array of contextual options available. Brands can surprise and delight consumers by using technology in a way that is intrinsically witty and engaging, as we saw in Burger King campaign "Whopper detour", which used geo-targeting to talk to consumers who were already in or near a McDonald’s store. It can be difficult to make ideas like this resonate twice, so brands will be rewarded for an attitude of experimentation – but originality is not everything. Consequently, as The Brandgym’s Jon Goldstone says, brands that have confidence and verve in the way they communicate will win hearts.

The best marketing leaders recognise that they need to be across every part of the business; that there is no use talking about an ethical supply chain if those composing the messaging are not plugged in to what is happening in their company. Look at last year’s most spectacular business failure, Thomas Cook: it would not have been saved simply by adopting a stronger positioning.

Transparency will be vital to how businesses operate. Newcomers, such as banking brand Monzo, are publicly detailing all decision-making within their organisations (in Monzo’s case, this included the changes to, and eventual withdrawal of, its failed premium banking product) – and consumers will gradually become less tolerant of brands that do not take this approach. Consumers expect the same from businesses as they do from people – traits like personality, integrity, courage and initiative – and advertisers unable to demonstrate these will find themselves falling behind.

Say farewell to pointless purpose, and hello to pragmatic purpose…

Zoe Harris

Chief marketer, Go Compare

As we ring in a new decade, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on what we have learned. Besides not having to attend any more crap, punning, 20/20 planning sessions (please, god), this is going to be the decade when we see more brands saying goodbye to what I’ll call pointless purpose, and evolve (or perhaps return) towards a model of pragmatic purpose. 

For me, pointless purpose is a purpose that is so far removed from the role a brand plays in a consumer’s life, that it is virtually impossible to ever deliver true effectiveness (@MarketingZoe, if you want to disagree). Pragmatic purpose, on the other hand, is a purpose that is directly related to a genuine product benefit, giving your brand a point of difference and a canvas to play in beyond rational USPs. 

A couple of examples spring to mind that I both totally "get" as a consumer, and love as a marketer. First, from the archives, is Persil’s "Dirt is good". The canvas brilliantly brings to life the purpose of encouraging your kids to get outside and get muddy, linking clearly to the product benefit of a washing powder that’s so good you don’t need to let the state their clothes might end up in be a reason to be a boring mum or dad.

A more recent example is Eve mattresses, reframing a good night’s sleep – the boring domain of mattresses since time began – to own: "Rise. Shine." 

It brilliantly spotted the trend in sleep as a wellbeing anchor that sets you up to get the most out of your day, filling the brand with optimism and aspiration. The positivity campaigning to Apple for the end of snooze buttons is a playful way to demonstrate pragmatic purpose that can make a direct impact on customers for the better. 

Lastly, there’s the repositioned Go Compare, with an ad campaign that has polarised writers in this very title. Go Compare has clarified its own pragmatic purpose, as the comparison site that is there for you – when it matters, when you need to make a claim. It enables the brand to add value to the customer, with a "walk the walk" proof-point of £250 excess cover.

The new year provides the perfect time to review and renew whether you have a purpose at all, whether it is pointless, or brilliantly pragmatic.

…as established brands throw off the shackles

Jon Goldstone

Global managing partner, The Brandgym

Last year felt like hard work. As the country got stuck in the painful morass of Brexit, our mood suffered, we all seemed to get a little more frustrated and lacking in patience or trust.

For brands, this has been a difficult cultural context to navigate. 

Over Christmas many brands played the tried-and-tested nostalgia card but I was attracted by those that offered something fresher and more optimistic. I loved the energy of the Marks & Spencer Clothing "Jump around" campaign, and I felt that Ikea’s "Silence the critics" was brave and highly distinctive.

My prediction is that we will see much more of this forward-looking energy and bravery from established brands in 2020. 

Over my career, my greatest pleasure has been rejuvenating famous brands like Walkers, Hovis and Marmite. For me, these are the sort that need the biggest jolt.

For too long, too many established consumer goods brands have been bogged down by internal musings. Are we agile enough? How do we increase margin? Are we digitally transformed? What’s our purpose? 

In 2020, I expect that we will see the best of these brands, the ones that will be with us for another 100 years, return to action and do some great stuff. I think they will do this by:

  • Positioning with purpose. Almost all the consumer goods brands that I work with are grappling with purpose and making it far too complicated for themselves. The best ones will cut through this and re-ignite the purpose that first made them famous and successful, with a freshness that is relevant to today. 
  • Innovating like a start-up. In a recent Brandgym survey among senior marketers, 69% said they were under increased pressure to deliver rapid innovation but 72% have also faced pressure to cut costs. This is forcing established brands to embrace quicker and cheaper new digital research methodologies and adopt more of the test, learn and refine mindset that serves start-ups so well.
  • Balancing brand-building with performance. I see the "60% of marketing investment allocated to long-term brand building and 40% to short-term performance" mantra being widely understood and adopted by many established brands. 
  • Communicating with confidence and creativity. This is the magic ingredient that so many established brands seem afraid to embrace. Now really is the time to throw off the shackles and provide some joy and pleasure to consumers who are feeling jaded and in need of a lift.

We are creating a product or service people want

Amrit Thomas

Europe chief marketing officer, Diageo 

The world we enter in 2020 is one where advanced data analytics, behavioural 

science and technology are fundamentally transforming the context in which businesses operate. Despite the transformation in context we are experiencing, the core elements of marketing haven’t profoundly changed. Understanding what consumers value, creating a product or service people want, leveraging insights for advertising and promotion, and grasping the relationship between value and price are still the fundamentals.

One thing that is changing, though, is the "how" of purchase and consumption. I believe that there are three big opportunities marketers should be paying attention to in 2020:

  1. Creativity matters even more now, but so does context. In a world with increasing fragmentation of media and consumer attention, we need not only to raise our creative game, but also combine the craft of creativity with the craft of connections planning. That’s because context can make a profound impact on how an audience engages with the creative content. 
  2. Digital transformation of the marketing value chain. In an intrinsically digital, data-rich and programmatic world, marketers must leverage the opportunity to programmatically create, optimise and deliver content in real time across a multiplicity of touchpoints. This requires marketers to build a cohesive content ecosystem with a modular content architecture that can be leveraged across programmatic media. Furthermore, marketers must seek to combine human intelligence with artificial intelligence and machine-learning systems to accelerate the delivery of key marketing tasks such as mining for insights, the delivery of brand safety and embedding our brands in culture. 
  3. Building an agile marketing organisation ready for the future. We need lean, cross-functional teams full of diverse people, who collectively have the necessary experience, knowledge, tools and tech at their fingertips to deliver a defined set of business outcomes. We must empower our teams to test and learn, course correcting as new data and insights demand. They need to be supported by leaders who focus on coaching, facilitating fast decision-making and encouraging creative experimentation. And in creating these teams we must break down both functional and organisational silos. 

As we step into the 2020s, those who are curious, rigorous, combine the magic of creativity with the science of measurement and embrace a "test, iterate and learn" approach will come out on top. 

But hang on a sec… shouldn’t brands still stand for something?

Aline Santos

Executive vice-president, global marketing and diversity and inclusion, Unilever

Hold on tight, marketers. The pace of change will continue to evolve at lightning speed. New platforms, features, algorithms and channels will excite and terrify us in equal measure. Who would have thought 10 or 15 years ago we’d be talking about data-driven marketing, performance marketing, precision marketing? That we’d be balancing our time between SEO, bottom-of-the-funnel metrics, omnichannel assets and wondering just who exactly is an influencer entrepreneur? 

As we get ready to start another decade, let’s keep asking what is going to change in the next 10 years, but let’s also reflect on what’s not going to change.

We need to get back to an era of marketing that focuses on brand positioning. With a well-planned position, customers will take an active interest in your products and services and seek you out.

We know, from a Havas study, that consumers believe 77% of brands could disappear tomorrow without being missed. Why? Because they are not meaningful enough. Brands that don’t stand for something can easily be replaced – or simply lost. 

People are shifting from asking "How much is it?" to "Why should I buy from you?" A relevant and authentic brand purpose is a route to a strong and emotional brand position.  

But it’s important to carefully consider what the right purpose is for a brand or company, and how to implement it with impact – we can’t just hurriedly "purpose-wash". It’s about taking time to identify a tangible contribution that the brand or business can make to society. If you want to identify a cause to champion, make sure it’s a problem that your product or service can genuinely help solve, and that it’s an issue or tension your audience cares about. 

It’s not easy: a well-crafted, authentic, purpose takes time to develop and put into action. Many of our brands have had long conversations about their role in the world in recent years. Campaigns like "Dirt is good" and "You. Me. Tea. Now" stem from work we’ve done to understand the positive impact our products can have on people’s lives. 

Brand position has always been important, but having a well-defined brand purpose will be the competitive edge of the future.

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