By Ryan McConnell
Smartphone-wielding consumers willing and able to switch brands at a moment's notice. Rampant distrust in institutions, corporations, and even information itself amidst an increasingly fragmented media environment. An "Attention Economy" that strains cognitive capacity and prevents establishing authentic, deep brand connections. These are just a few of the elements that make it such a Herculean challenge to create and maintain a brand that will resonate with today's modern consumers.
Brand marketers must now grapple not only with often-sudden shifts in society, culture, and consumer priorities, but a growing emphasis on short-term, financial metrics that frequently conflict with the goals of effective brand-building. Given these impediments, it's little wonder why it's become fashionable for pundits to say that traditional approaches to brand-building are dead and that radically new ways are needed to survive and thrive in a post-digital age.
While new ideas are needed to stay ahead of cultural and societal shifts, of course, Kantar's research on the evolving role of brands suggests less of a need to blow up existing systems than to recommit to a fundamental role for senior marketers: Getting deeply acquainted with the wants, needs, and expectations of a company's core customers.
In fact, inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow's classic 1943 model, Kantar found the following "hierarchy of brand needs" among modern consumers. It's based upon a comparison of responses to the same set of questions, asked 20 years ago and today, regarding the most important reasons for choosing a brand.
Kantar's research found that, while brand reliability remains the topmost concern among modern consumers, instead of forming the peak, it actually sits at the base of the hierarchy of brand needs. Just as physiological needs such as health, food, and sleep make up the base level of Maslow's pyramid, reliability is "table stakes" for competing in today's marketplace; if it's missing, there's little chance that today's uncompromising consumers will even give brands a second look, never mind engage with the organization.
Instead, the building blocks for maintaining a modern brand today include reliability as the base, topped by assurance, simplicity, adaptability, and, at the apex, emotion.
Below are some tips for how marketers can make the most out of each building block.
Leading the Way on … Reliability
Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and equipment company, is renowned for its commitment to the environment and its community. Not only does the brand commit one percent of its total sales or 10 percent of its profit to environmental groups, Patagonia also offers a lifetime warranty on all its products via its repair and replace service.
The brand also doubled down on its Common Threads Initiative to reduce clothing consumption through the company's highly regarded "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign, which originated in 2011. But the brand won't rest on its laurels. Last year the company took the $10 million it saved through new federal tax cuts and invested the money in various nonprofit environmental groups combating climate change.
Once modern consumers feel confident that a product or service works on a consistent basis, the next hurdle brands must clear is reinforcing that they can be trusted to do the right thing. With assurance and confidence at a premium today, modern consumers are on high-alert for scams, fraud, and sleights-of-hand that have become all-too-commonplace in today's culture. Brands that reduce risk, provide assurance, and show that they operate with integrity are likely to remain in the consideration set well into the future.
Leading the Way on … Assurance
CVS, the health and wellness retailer, has made it a priority to be a brand that can be trusted. Showing that its customers' health mattered more than profit, it famously eliminated the sale of tobacco products in its stores in 2014. More recently, it responded to the rising cost of pharmaceutical medications by launching CVS Pharmacy Rx Savings Finder, which enables the company's pharmacists to quickly identify savings opportunities at the point of sale.
The amount of data that passes in front of U.S. consumers each day has increased seven-fold since 1980. The number of ads more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, while the number of brands increased by almost a third. What's more, according to Kantar's 2018 U.S. MONITOR study, 64 percent of Americans aged 18 and over agreed, "Life today has become much too complicated."
Against the backdrop of these findings it's pretty clear why brands that help consumers "avoid the clutter of other choices" has increased by 16 percentage points during the last 20 years. Faced with an influx of messages and options, Americans are looking to eliminate the friction in their shopping and buying experiences and live simpler, less taxing lifestyles. Brands that consider ways to radically simplify and relieve the cognitive burden of their offerings are likely to be embraced by today's overwhelmed consumers.
Leading the Way on … Simplicity
Aldi and Lidl, the German supermarket retailers, consistently rank high on lists ranking brands and retailers for their simplicity. Offering exclusive products, clear communications, and affordable prices, these stores make it so that its customers don't have to choose between the often-overwhelming amount of brands and prices offered at its competitors.
Leading the Way on … Adaptability
Digital connectivity and the demands of the new economy have accelerated the speed of life, increasing the need for people to make their lives more flexible and adaptive. At the same time, people are increasingly accustomed to brands meeting them precisely where they are and tailoring products and services that align with modern consumers' multifaceted identities and tastes.
These developments likely help explain why there's been a steep rise in the percentage of Americans who expect brands to represent their unique tastes and individuality. Brands that reflect a more adaptive, flexible, and shapeshifting identity that can fit into many different contexts are very much on-trend for modern consumers.
IKEA, the home decorating giant, has emphasized the flexible and adaptive nature of its product lines in recent years. Its 2018 catalogue, for example, encouraged people to embrace the fluidity of their homes — such as unconventional spaces and multipurpose furnishings — and recognize that homes are able to "flex" in order to meet the varied wants and needs of all of those who live there.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom within marketing circles is that a steady, roughly equal mix of both rational and emotional appeals is ideal for effective communication. But in a marketplace that increasingly features emoticons instead of language, encourages outrage instead of patience, and celebrates "living out loud" compared with being reserved, the role of emotion has taken on a much greater role.
Leading the Way on … Emotion
The Economist, the business magazine known for its sober analysis of world issues, recently became an unlikely role model for the effective use of emotion in marketing communication. Learning through research that its customers perceive the brand as elitist and lacking in humanity and accessibility, the 175-year-old publication earlier this year launched a brand campaign emphasizing the human element, introducing new podcasts and films, and using young actors as brand ambassadors to establish an empathetic connection with potential new readers in shopping malls and public-transportation stations.
While no silver bullet exists, following the hierarchy of brand needs in ascending order — starting with the tables stakes of reliability and advancing through to assurance, simplicity, adaptability, and emotion — is a fact-based guide for aligning with the modern consumer mindset. People's wants, needs, and expectations have shifted, along with dramatic cultural and technological changes throughout the last 20 years. It's high time for savvy brands to catch up.
Ryan McConnell is an SVP at Kantar, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.