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Empathy, environmentalism and enthusiasm: 3 branding themes for a new year of sense and sensibility

Photo of Peter-Jan Grech
Peter-Jan Grech
Partner, CEO

As nations and economies start to head up the steep hill towards recovery, brand owners should take a step back, assess, audit and rewrite their strategies before pushing forward once again.

Marketing has never been as important as it is today. As a value driver for business results, it is time for brand leaders to start driving forward once again. To do that it would be sensible to engage with the new context of what surrounds our audiences.

It’s time to build more conscious brands.

The following three concepts have often played a vocal part in the narrative of the board room, however we truly feel that they are now more essential than ever if a brand wants to survive and thrive in the landscape we are being presented with today.

Empathy 

If we really are entering the ‘Great Reset’, then we must remind ourselves that a customer first approach is truly what matters. The ability to sense audience emotions and act accordingly is going to be an essential focus for all business leaders as we start the new decade.

As organisations, we need to be sensitive to what customer groups have been through (and are still going through) to ensure that we meet not only the needs served through our product or services, but also to fill the emotional and psychological voids that our brands sometimes serve. 

Our customers can only become true brand advocates if they experience compassion as well as a connection with the brands they consume.

Advocacy entails that we truly act, react and serve customers in a way that not only respects, but actually embraces who they truly are, not as a statistic or a unique line on a database but as true individuals with hopes and dreams, joys, frustrations, loves and pet peeves.

The path of brand-empathy is one of sensitivity; a path that entails systematic active listening, creating a shared journey between your brand and your unique audience of one.

Yes, that’s right. Each one of your customers should be served individually. This means that customers lie at the centre of our business frameworks and that brand teams inspire product development, customer experience, operations, finance and tech. 

Empathy-brands thrive on authenticity, pushing forward purpose-led missions that are recognised and loved by their customers.

Having empathy does not mean shifting core beliefs depending on wind patterns. On the contrary, being true to your principles means taking the time to share what you stand for with your customers in a way that they are ready to hear it, when they are ready to hear it and where they are actually open to listen. 

Empathy-brands depend on complex listening tools powered by well crafted technical engines. Brand roadmaps must be managed by teams who have the digital capability, marketing sensibility and, more importantly, the awareness of the responsibility entrusted to them by their customers to use data to the customer’s own benefit.

Such data can be extremely powerful to help craft beautiful customer experiences and user journeys that truly benefit audiences in a mood to shop and satisfy a need.

Whilst data captures are sacrosanct for digital brand leaders, the data and the insights can be even more powerful if well extrapolated to shape product development, inspire creative brand campaigns as well as lead the way for crafting better customer experiences.  

Data alone will not cut the mustard, as Diageo’s global consumer planning director Andrew Geoghegan put it in an article he wrote for Marketing Week way back in January 2020: “We must remind ourselves that data is an aid to judgement and meaningless without context, and that creativity is the magic which can boost our performance further.”

Brands that lead with empathy should allow themselves the freedom to experiment, surprise and delight their customers with out-of-the-box, bold ideas that stand out from the crowd. 

The world has changed more in the last 10 months more than it has in the last 10 years. The way we shop, the way we work and the way we live will be forever affected. Brands that were leaders last year might not even make it over the fence heading into this year.

Those who are ready to move forward with empathy, might even surpass all expectations so long as they proceed sensitively. This might actually be the time for ‘The Great Reshuffle’.

Collaboration will be a key strength for those willing to go the distance. No brand is an island, and the process of collaborating with other brand peers and agency leaders to compare insights and learnings (not data) will be a key determinator of brand success.

Environmentalism

Environmentalism has finally turned mainstream, and that is great news. Audiences are no longer strangers to the impact of global warming, mass deforestation and the importance of sustainability. They are doing something about it and they expect the brands they use to do so too.

Customers are doubling down on their pro-planet choices by actively choosing not only sustainable brands but also whole product categories above others in the fight for better and more environmentally friendly brands.

Plant-based food choices, electric or hybrid vehicles, sustainable clothing, earth friendly packaging, energy saving tech, as well as an overall reduction in consumption, are all trends that are massively on the rise. 

Covid-19 has forced many of us to embrace the great outdoors, and this new forced love has brought about a new appreciation of our natural and wild surroundings, inspiring new ways to enjoy them.

The bicycle industry alone has seen such a sharp growth in sales due to unprecedented pandemic-fuelled demands that many manufacturers cannot cope with sales orders. Consumers are trading stilettos for trainers and trekking boots to avoid the crowds, and finding new ways to entertain themselves.

The trend of re-wilding is having its effects not only across the outdoors with more and more people spending money on outdoor sports, activities and even camper-vans, but also in bringing the outdoors inside. Consumers are finally spending more on plants, pets and nature-inspired Pinterest searches than ever before. 

Brands are no longer going to get away with tree planting or recycled bag initiatives to jump on the environmental bandwagon. Not that those are bad things per se, but they are definitely not enough. Consumers today expect brands to play at a much higher level.

From apprehension to activism, brands need to stand up and lead by example if they are to favour respect.  

Revolutionary brands like the California-based clothing company Patagonia have gone as far as featuring a new clothing tag that reads, “Vote the a-holes out” on their 2020 Clothes tags, in an attempt to stand up to climate deniers and encouraging its customers to hit the ballot boxes last November in the Time to Vote campaign.

What’s interesting however was that Patagonia’s political tag actually went viral not after self-promotion, but rather after a Twitter user posted a photo of the short’s tag on Sept. 11.

Such is the power of brand activism. Your customers will notice your efforts and will be more likely to become advocates if your values align with theirs.

The climate revolution must be fought by consumers and brands together, through the choices made, the campaigns created and the stories retold. History will not look back kindly, at those brands who are caught with their pants down on the wrong side of this protest. 

Enthusiasm 

It’s only been a few weeks since Britain hailed a turning point in the fight against the pandemic, as it began the biggest vaccination programme in the country’s history with a new Covid-19 jab.

Whilst the larger markets have been largely favourable of the approval of the vaccine, the industry is aware that ‘vaccination-mistrust’ will be the next hurdle to overcome. 

Despite the concerns, consumers the world over are showing great excitement towards the eminent recovery plan, and that excitement will be satiated with brand consumption at some point.

Forecasts for a somewhat return to normal with minimal restrictions are expected to appear around early Spring, but confidence is already starting to set in. 

Spring is the time for new beginnings, and brands must herald this wave of customer expectations with a renewed sense of excitement. Even a simple visit to the supermarket without a mask will restore feelings of enthusiasm, potentially it will also induce an increase in spending.

Brands would do well to explore ways in which to elate, exhilarate and arouse customer passion and zeal. Markets which experienced the so called ‘lockdown fatigue’, will be seeking ways to re-inspire their lives, looking for ways to create new memories.

Customers are expecting innovation to seek new and better ways of satisfying new as well as dormant needs.

Audiences will be more likely to explore new brands or well known brands with updated offerings in an attempt to quickly forget ‘2020’.

Businesses who have not reinvented themselves, invested in their brands or sought new competitive ways to be at the top-of-customer-mind over the last months will likely fade in the background never to be seen again, as customers will see them as part of the past.

Beyond the Covid exit, 2020 will be remembered as the year of Brexit (deal or no-deal), as well as a new US Presidency. Two world changing events which are likely to bring with them a great deal of anticipation and a fresh sense of recovery.

We have already started to see a beautiful wave of new entrepreneurs bringing new concepts and ideas to the markets, and this is just the start.

Human nature’s default settings of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ will see many of those with their backs against the wall push forward enthusiastically to create new businesses, new brands and possibly completely new and compelling product categories.

2021 will be an exciting time to be alive. Brand owners need to decide whether to be tagalongs or drivers in this new game.

Scroll through your Instagram or Facebook feed today. The higher percentage of brands that you encounter will be brands you have never heard of in your life.

At a time where the barriers to entry for any market category have been slashed, and where access to complex marketing tools are at reach to all, it is the investment in brands that create love at first sight that will crown true winners.

Fun, optimism and playfulness will take centre stage as core themes of a number of campaigns yet to come, however brands will need to play their cards very carefully and avoid looking over-the-top. Many customers will still be struggling on reduced take-home remuneration for at least another 18 months. 

Corporate enthusiasm is also likely to force market consolidation to cater for a shrunken markets. On a business to-business level, we are likely to see some newly formed allegiances that should add value not only to shareholders but primarily to corporate customers too.

Having said that, investors need to chart their course with care. Leaders must be mindful. Whilst merging balance sheets and sharing costs might lead to profitable operations, aligning cultures and values between workforces can lead to fireworks of the un-celebratory type.

Newly formed C-suites of new ventures should not enforce cultural traits on newly acquired businesses, but rather attempt to define entirely new principles that should serve new ventures.

Novelty should be met with enthusiasm, that is marketing’s job. Living up to brand promises is the responsibility of everyone involved.

Finally, 2021 will herald more than just a new year. It is also a time to unleash new potential, new creative thinking and a chance to realign our new strategies with our newly discovered sentiments of what truly matters to us. As businesses, as leaders but most of all as humans.

2020 has thought us many lessons, that we should never forget: to lead with purpose, to keep a pulse on the market and to learn how to pivot at the right pace.