The playbook for brand building has undergone a metamorphosis. And to call it a playbook limits its true purpose of enabling brand custodians to evolve the brand to fit purposefully into the world of its consumers even as their values shift. Perhaps the word compass is more fitting.
A decade ago, most CPG marketers followed a set playbook to build brands. Building a brand required big ticket media campaigns and buying expensive GRPs to reach masses of consumers, and then doing it all over again. Largely, the thinking was to understand the target consumer’s behaviors, how the product fit into their lives and then surround them with promotions and marketing campaigns. Campaigns were mostly product-centric, very few were user-focused. In some cases, celebrity partnerships got a lion’s share of the budget.
Then a level of fatigue set in with celebrity endorsements. The economic value that a celebrity brought to the company was beginning to come into question. Within days of the Tiger Woods scandal in 2009, the companies that partnered with Woods—Electronic Arts, Nike and PepsiCo—saw a 2% decline in their market value.
Businesses that place consumers at the center of the experience, and make it their purpose to transform that experience will succeed.
Voices spoke up about the lack of diversity in advertising. When Dove came out with its campaign on Real Beauty, it changed the conversation around beauty and inclusivity, instead of focusing on the attributes of the product. It’s no surprise that Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was a huge success. It won several Cannes awards, increased sales by 60% in the years post-launch for Unilever and most importantly, plugged into its consumers’ value systems.
In addition to these micro trends, another larger change impacted the world of marketing and brand building: the internet. It democratized the tools required to start a business by providing access to millions of consumers through social networks, requiring far less capital to reach these consumers. With social networks offering targeting ability and real-time data to gauge the performance of these ads, it was cheaper and more opaque to build a brand. With social media influencers, the rules of content changed. Authentic, user-generated content was in, creating a tide of internet brands leveraging the power of influence to create brands that didn’t need traditional brick-and-mortar or monolithic middleman systems.
Hundreds of internet brands have launched in the last five or so years across categories like mattresses, eyewear, bras, cookware, furniture and shaving razors. Take Warby Parker for example. It launched entirely online and earned a huge fan following. Its offering was less about the product attributes and entirely about changing the consumer’s experience with the category. Casper took the archaic mattress buying experience, which was full of meaningless product attributes, and disrupted the category by making it all about the consumers ultimate need from a great mattress: great sleep. These founders all started with a personal experience or pain point and a consumer insight, and saw that as an opportunity to provide value to the consumer.
Consumers have become increasingly more discerning about the products they use, and are demanding answers about where these products came from, how they were made and what it costs the planet. With the climate crisis becoming a real threat, consumers realize that their own consumerism plays a role in how our planet has been compromised and abused. Values like sustainability, transparency, diversity and inclusion are no longer buzzwords to include in an annual report. They have become integral to what consumers expect from brands, and how companies need to do business.
The charter of a marketer today is far more complex and complicated. Marketers must win the trust of their consumers and continue to act in ways that deepen that trust long after the product has been purchased. And consumers today are far more powerful than they ever were; they are more discerning, they demand a more humane, gold standard experience and they have more money and more knowledge. Plus, they have the power of their social networks to tap into for sharing their experiences.
A successful brand today must have a deep understanding of their consumers’ values and how those values shape their relationship with categories. As long as there are deficiencies in how consumers experience the category, there is an opportunity to make the experience better, easier and friendlier. Businesses that place consumers at the center of the experience, and make it their purpose to transform that experience will succeed. And this has to go broader than marketing. It has to be embedded in the purpose of the business, in its technology, in the product or service design and in the UX and the brand experience. These elements must all work harmoniously in service of the consumer.
Instead of asking consumers for their patronage, successful brands will solve a fundamental problem for their consumers, do it with more empathy and compassion and create a conversation around that. That’s the next frontier for building successful brands.