Edelman has just released its latest Brandshare report. It has the rather uninspiring title ‘How brands and people create a value exchange’. It is, however, a very important report: one that every single marketing director should not just read – but read and actually think about – because it presents credible evidence that explains how the relationship between brands and their customers or consumers is changing. In effect, it lays out a framework for what it will mean to be a brand in the future – even if the report itself doesn’t quite go so far as making this claim. Perhaps more starkly, it makes it very clear that what it is that built brands in the past will not be relevant in building brands in the future.
The report starts with the assertion that “people’s needs have changed due to an increasingly complex and interconnected world.” Fair enough – but I think a better way of phrasing this is to say that the world has changed and this is creating new opportunities (indeed requirements) for brands to better meet people’s needs: a fact which ‘the people’ are now starting to realise. The reason I think it is better to phrase the issue this way is that believing that ‘the people’ are changing can often result in an attitude which seeks to blame or resent ‘our consumers’ for spoiling the brand party. Not the right mind-set. People have not really changed (they rarely do), what has changed is the world around them – and it is this that brands need to understand and react to. The people are not the problem here. Anyway – a small quibble.
Edelman then introduce the concept of ‘the value exchange’ and demonstrate that consumers now feel they are not getting sufficient value in this exchange, which I took as ‘strategy talk’ for saying that the relationship between brands and consumers is breaking down. The report identifies three reasons for this:
- Brands are not really giving consumers what they now want (“there is little value for the consumer in the current value exchange.”)
- Consumers want actions, not words (“emotional and rational needs are merging”)
- Being seen as a good corporate citizen is becoming more important (“meeting societal needs delivers real business value”)
More specifically, consumers want brands to:
- Respond quickly to concerns and complaints
- Provide ways to ask questions and give opinions
- Communicate openly about how products are sourced and made
- Invite people to be a part of the development and refinement process
- Have a clear mission and purpose at the brand core
- Use its resources to drive change in the world
- Let people know the company’s mission and value for the future
- Take a stand on issues consumers care about.
These points clearly fall into two distinct groups – the first four relate to process and delivery and they are very functional. No BS here about wanting to be ‘surprised and delighted’ by brands or wanting ‘rewarding brand experiences’ – just very clear instructions that are essentially all rooted in listening and responding. The remaining four cover the more emotional territory – but are equally explicit. They are an exhortation for a brand to demonstrate that it stands for something other than simply the creation of profit.
I think these eight points represent a crystal clear manifesto for what a brand needs to deliver against if it still wishes to be a brand in the future. However, the interesting thing is the extent to which conventional marketing activity delivers against almost none of these points. For example, customer service has been seen as an issue that is peripheral to marketing and indeed peripheral to corporate activity in general: a cost that should be minimised by outsourcing it to India. Likewise what Edelman identifies as ‘societal needs’ have been marginalised in CSR or CRM activities that are similarly peripheral to marketing and corporate activity rather than being something that is seen as being at the core of the brand.
Perhaps it is worth restating this conclusion more bluntly: what it is that built brands in the past will have almost no relevance to what will build brands in the future. Edelman has not been as explicit in stating things this way – but this the inescapable conclusion of what the evidence collected actually demonstrates.
Of course, brands have paid lip service to these issues to date. Customer service has long been talked about as being an important component of social digital strategies, but very few brands have actually done much about it. It is incredibly easy to address all of the four functional needs through the creation and management of online customer communities – but why do so few brands have them? Most brands still make it incredibly difficult for a consumer to do any of the things the report shows that they want to do (ask questions, get responses, provide opinion, access relevant information). Why? Dell showed the way with its Idea Storm site seven or eight years ago. Why have so few followed its lead?
The ‘strategy du jour’ these days is all about content marketing. But rarely is this content actually aligned against responding to complaints, providing answers to questions, or giving transparency about how products are made and sourced. Rather we have organisations like Coca Cola (my current bête noir in the content space), telling people how to make cups out of crayons. Why?
I guess the answer to this question goes back to the conclusion that what built brands in the past won’t build brands in the future. Perhaps it also helps explain why Edelman stepped back from putting this conclusion centre-stage. What built brands in the past represents a huge set of vested interests that define the world of brands and agencies as we know it. While it may be acceptable to recognise the problem, it is much harder to embrace a solution that addresses this problem. Instead it is far more seductive to believe that the solution is content, or ‘reaching out to consumers’ (rather than responding to them), or creating ‘engagement’ (whatever that means) because this is a solution that doesn’t upset the brand and agency apple cart.
Personally, I take great heart from this report. It gives me the hard evidence to support what I have been saying for a long time: namely that social media strategies need to be based on listening and response, that content strategies should be seen as a process that matches brand answers to consumer question in real time rather than strategies designed to fill-up the channels with brandfill, that the social digital space is a medium of connection not a medium of distribution, that communities will become the new media, that marketing people should forget trying to target consumers and recognise that they need to get consumers to target their brand.
As a brand owner I guess you can take this report in either one of two ways. You could brush it aside as just another one of ‘those’ reports by a consultancy telling me I need to change my business. Or you could see it as a message from your consumers, telling you what you need to do if you still want to be relevant to them in the future.