Brands have been guilty of paying little more than lip-service to consumers needs. However, many companies have realised that meaningful dialogue with customers can bring long-term rewards
NestlÃ©, a company that in the past has faced a consumer backlash over policy, was recently awarded a Fairtrade mark for its new coffee brand Partners Blend (MW October 13). While the move angered many ethical consumers who have boycotted NestlÃ© for years, it is evidence of a company that has changed its approach in response to consumer reaction.
Modern consumers are flexing their muscles. Research from brand design consultancy Fitch points to a fundamental shift in attitudes and behaviour towards brands. Where brands have been accepted as paternalistic voices of authority, consumers now want mature relationships.
Some may argue that this is not a new trend, that the 21st-century consumer was already demanding greater dialogue with and social responsibility from brands. This is true to a point, but Fitch commissioned the research because it noticed a fundamental sea change in attitudes and wanted to understand more.
So what has prompted this change? The impact of recent world events should not be underestimated. The war in Iraq, natural disasters, and threats of terrorism have forced people to question the world they live in and, in turn, their relationships with brands. More than ever before, consumers want relationships based on trust and honesty. But equally they are looking to be delighted and surprised by brand behaviour.
One of the key trends to emerge from the research was a sense of disillusionment, even frustration. Two-thirds of consumers don’t trust the organisations they deal with on a day-to-day basis to meet their needs. More than 60 per cent say they do not rely on these organisations, 66 per cent say organisations have not changed for the better in the past few years and a damning 68 per cent do not believe that brands are interested in improving consumers’ lives.
Brands are perceived to be uninterested and untrustworthy – but all is not lost. It seems consumers are willing to get involved with brands, as long as the relationship is an adult one. Eighty per cent of consumers think it is realistic to have a relationship with a brand, although 61 per cent would rather take an active role in the relationship than being told what they should think or do, and 68 per cent believe good relationships are about give and take.
More than 80 per cent of consumers say brands should be more open about the fact that marketing aims to sell products, while 83 per cent think brands should behave in an open and relevant way, and more than half think that the best way to demonstrate trustworthiness is to be reliable.
Consumers realise they have a collective power to influence brands – real evidence of a sea change in consumer behaviour, 40 per cent believe they can (collectively) change brand owners’ attitudes, behaviour and communications and more than half believe they can influence price.
Consumers value brands with a generous, open and personal approach: 68 per cent trust brands with a “tell it like it is” mentality, 50 per cent notice when brands go out of their way to meet their needs and a third say the brands they prefer are more than just brands, they become entities to which they can relate.
The research reveals a desire for brands to be more human in the way they interact with consumers. Brand owners need to adopt a more generous attitude and be prepared to “make the first move” to gain consumer confidence and show that there is humanity behind the brand. They need to manage consumer expectations and to consistently exceed them. This sounds like a tall order but Fitch has identified a group of brands that it labels “generous”. They are responding to consumers’ changing mindsets in strategic and creative ways.
A generous brand displays a generous attitude in the way it interacts with consumers, consistently exceeding expectations – and achieving commercial success in the process. This generosity can be manifested in a variety of ways – from tone of voice to experience, through service to functionality. In short, generous brands will push marketing to its furthest limits, going far beyond free gifts.
Some forward-thinking brands are already displaying a generosity of attitude and action that sets them apart. Amazon’s commitment to publishing reader reviews and offering second-hand products at a cheaper price; the free music festival Fruitstock run by Innocent Drinks. Such an investment in “giving” will bring long-term rewards. You reap what you sow.
One problem with the current agency viewpoint is that all the excitement around responsible marketing is limited to new brands. However, it’s easy for new brands to overtly set out their agenda and claim to be making stronger consumer connections in a socially responsible way – even if this is only marketing.
More interesting is the social policy of established global brands, such as Cadbury Schweppes. Before the term corporate social responsibility (CSR) was coined, an ethical stance had been at the heart of Cadbury. But the “big is bad” mentality still dominates for some, wrongly making such brands an easy target.
Yet it may well be the case that in the next two or three years this perception will be reversed. At the same time some of the newer, smaller brands may not actually be able to deliver on their ethical promises while the global brands will, as NestlÃ© has, become bolder in promoting their CSR stance.