There’s a fascinating article in this week’s Economist titled “We want to be your friend”, discussing brands’ fervent desire to recast themselves in the digital age. The subtitle is “Brands are finding it hard to adapt to an age of skepticism”, and in my experience, this is nothing but true. There are several causes for this state of affairs, but the main takeaway is that what used to work in the past, no longer does; and the brands that future that out first will invariably “steal a march” (to use the Queen’s English) on their competitors. To wit:
last August [Havas Media] published the latest in a series of worldwide surveys, in which 134,000 consumers in 23 countries were asked what they thought of 700 brands. A majority of those taking part would not care if 73% of them just vanished. In Europe and America 92% would not be missed. Only in places like Asia and Latin America, with lots of newish consumers, is there a bit more attachment to brands, though Havas Media reports that it is declining there too.
What’s more, consumers are ever more skeptical of brands’ intent; in the good old days, the likes of politicians, clergy and athletes were used to endorse brands and products; it’s not overstating the case that doing so in 2014 has become a minefield, at best.
It gets worse. According to the article’s author, “Nielsen’s studies show that strangers’ comments on social media and online forums are also now seen as credible sources, rivaling traditional ‘paid media’.” Think about that: when complete strangers recommend or talk down a product their words are heeded so much that they affect purchasing decisions, while the credibility of many well-known brands is so ridden with holes that their words are at best ignored — and at worst, attacked.
Yet when companies attempt to earn their media via outreach and connection to other parties, they inevitably get it wrong – witness the examples outlined in the piece, from Hyundai to KFC. Hence, the reason for such consumer skepticism lies at least in part in the brands’ own undoing – by trying to be something they’re not (buyers’ friends), they end up assuming too much and insulting our intelligence. That’s not to say that brands cannot occupy the space of trusted partner, but it takes time, especially when the decision to purchase from them is a big one, fraught with risk and uncertainty. (This is what’s commonly referred to as “earned media” in our world.)
It’s a lot like meeting someone new. You may happen upon them on the subway or in a café, but like doesn’t work that way often enough to count on it. Instead, we rely on our existing networks of trusted individuals to introduce and acquaint us with other people, and both we and them tend have a better experience as a result. We avoid associating with people of ill repute, we learn more at the outset so as to begin a richer relationship, and we have a context in which to base our interactions. It’s a shortcut of sorts. There’s a reason why such a mechanism exists – why such word-of-mouth referrals have existed since time immemorial. All it takes is stepping outside one’s own point of view and adopting the perspective of the other. Brands that can do this repeatedly early on are those that will win out in the 21st century. Unfortunately for those that don’t, the way of the dodo awaits.
[image credit: The Economist]