We lived in this all-important bubble called marketing, where we prided ourselves on being in the driver’s seat of aspirations and experiences that consumers could achieve. We dictated what and how people would buy. As brands we were channels for people to get access to worlds that were usually assumed to be beyond their reach. We created and told stories, and consumers were part of these narratives.
But today, when I look back, every fundamental I knew and learned in marketing has been turned on its head. The only thing that remains constant is its purpose: to influence the buying decision of consumers. What changed? A simple fact: people. And they aren’t interested in being part of a brand’s world.
We now have to ask to be part of theirs. People reside in a new world, where they create and narrate the stories and they decide the role a brand has to play. And it’s not always the hero; sometimes it’s a little less significant than their pets.
We referred to them as consumers because it highlighted our importance as marketers in their lives. But today ‘people’ are consumers of content, of life, of changes in the world, of global crises and not just brands. That’s our playing field.
In the new rulebook, the two fundamentals that brands relied on – relevancy and loyalty – now need to be looked at from a whole new perspective.
Let’s start with building relevance, which has been core to a brand’s need to differentiate or even exist. Something which was traditionally understood as creating functional and emotional resonance or defining a brand’s reason to buy. But relevance in today’s world is based on one single button – ‘Like’. A feature that slipped into our lives and changed the mechanism of how the internet operates. Every platform, be it Instagram, Twitter or even Amazon, has a variation of it.
It started as a simple button to support others, but today ‘Like’ represents validation. It is a measure of how important people’s thoughts and ideas are to others. It showcases their interest or the lack of it. It is a tool to belong and it defines who people choose to include in their world. It’s no surprise that ideas, movements and brands sink or swim thanks to their likes tally
This button introduced a new measure for a brand’s relevance: how much it is liked. Today’s consumers can choose to express their interest in what brands are selling through this one button. ‘Like’ defines relevancy.
So, the choice is simple:
Do you want to be a brand that sells to people or are you a brand that is people’s choice?
The latter automatically means brands have to work relentlessly and be committed to align to people’s idea of being liked and, therefore, relevant. Two of the biggest audience groups today, millennials and Gen Z, have clear definitions of what that is. These two generations have been shaped by crisis, and now a major pandemic. They are ‘woke’ and, with their unique ability to sift through BS, they demand honesty – to focus on purpose more than profits. Their values will continue to evolve to reflect a desire of optimisation of self and the community. With the focus on joy and the greater good, they expect brands to align and create meaning.
Earlier, brand loyalty was defined through the lens of long-term association. This is outdated and old-fashioned today. The choice-rich world has redefined loyalty, the basis of which is a solid relationship. This relationship has put brands and people on a level platform. Brands can definitely sell, but they first have to align with people on the nature of the relationship. In today’s world, it is authenticity.
In recent times the one example that sticks is the open letter that Levi’s wrote in the wake of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Here is a brand that openly acknowledged the black representation among the corporate staff was less than 5 per cent and decided to change immediately and made its measures public. It also set the ball rolling on a perspective – it’s OK for brands to admit to shortcomings because it goes a long way to cement authenticity with people. So, when a relationship decides loyalty, there is no telling what it can open up – something far greater than just convincing people to buy.
It may seem like things are changing too fast and we may have to unlearn and relearn. Yet there is a fundamental truth that defines us , as observed by Mlambo- Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, at Cannes Lion Live: “This is an industry that knows how to influence people’s thinking and choices.” It’s how we use this strength that will define our success in the new world. Will we continue to arrogantly believe that people need brands, or will we partner brands to use their power of influence to end divisions, to be more authentic, to be liked? Because this, today, is a prerequisite to buy.