Do brands care about consumers and will consumers care about brands in the future?

Will consumers care about brands in the future?

What does the future hold for the brands of today? What do consumer’s want and expect in terms of behaviour from today’s big brands and what are the actions of modern brands telling us about where these brands might be years in the future?

Social media agency Media Bounty recently invited respected futurologist Mark Stevenson to speak to a number of their clients, who include Bodyform, Plenty, Heinz, Boots, TENA, Palmer’s, Direct Line, Seriously Cheddar, Président, Luxardo and Rebell Yell Bourbon at an event which aimed to shed some light on the questions above. To say the event was thought provoking would be an understatement and being an organ which thrives on provoking thoughts, The Drum asked Media Bounty founder Jake Dubbins to offer his responses to some of the insights, opinions and thoughts that Stevenson offered during the event.

The Drum (TD): Mark stated that in order to change cultures and people’s behaviours they have to be encouraged to change their hearts first and their brains second. Are brands getting on board with that approach to building customer relationships and how are marketers humanising their own brands?

Jake Dubbins (JD): I think they are getting on board with that. A brand is no longer expecting a simple transaction in the brain, usually based on price, as the very concept of a brand is so much more nuanced in 2017. It is no longer just what a marketing team tells you it is. A brand means different things to different people. Coca-Cola means happiness and Santa Claus to some and one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters to others. Brands are finally waking up to the fact that one size cannot fit all. The really exciting thing is that listening to consumers – listening properly – is not just meaning that communications are different but the business behind the brands are recognising they need to change too.

Media Bounty co-founders Jake Dubbins (right) and Matt Webster (left) at the recent RAR Awards

TD: Society is usually given two lenses through which to view their future – the political lens and the economic lens. Mark suggested that more accurate lenses to assess what the future holds for us all would be to consider what is happening in the worlds of arts & culture and what is happening in technology. How should brand marketers embrace these two lenses as they aim to create new and innovative products, services and sustainable brands?

JD: Economics has almost become the dominating religion of our time. We are yoked to growth. Austerity is on the tip of society’s lips and is never far away from the news. Art and culture is often created as a reaction to this, exploring the alternatives, expressing what life could be like. There are no absolutes, so we can imagine a future that is not simply rooted in the striving for more growth, more cash.

We are seeing now a big switch of people under the age of 30 wanting experiences rather than more stuff. Life as an experience is far more attractive to many than a life collecting stuff. The key for brands is not just to jump on the latest bandwagon but as an enabler to artists, cultures and subcultures that chimes with their values. People can see through a brand partnering with an arts organisation if the values do not align. The backlash against BP’s sponsorship of the arts is because people can see the cynicism of the transaction. Media Bounty works with a bourbon brand - Rebel Yell – where we a connecting the brand to DJs, hip hop and grime artists and others. The brand is genuinely supporting the scene, rather than trying to rip it off and it is really seeing results being supported by key influencers and then in turn getting listings in bars and clubs.

In terms of technology. This lens is already fully focused. The challenge for brands here is not to chase after every shiny new technological advance but again to look for technology both at scale and in its infancy that is authentic to the purpose of that brand. Brands partnering with technology must add value to a human’s experience. The writer of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan is creating a virtual reality experience based on the series. People will be interested in that because the series was almost universally loved. It will be interesting to see if brands like Chrysler who had product placement in the TV show will be on board for the VR experience. Virtual reality will get really interesting when brands or companies use it to solve some of the big problems - to teach kids about the scale and reality of climate change in schools or teaching new skills and practical vocations to prisoners. What problem are we really trying to solve to create long-term positive change?

TD: It took decades for the telephone to achieve 50% household penetration, but less than five years for mobile phones to accomplish the same thing. Adoption of new technologies and new ways of doing things is speeding up to an incredible level says Stevenson. How can brands keep up with that pace of change and ensure that their products and services remain in step with future generations without leaving current customers behind?

JD: Test and learn. Test and learn. Pilot. Fail. Learn. Do it better. There is no other way. Big brands are often paralysed by fear of new technology. Most of the directors of boards of big companies are over 55 and are digital and social immigrants. Not all, but most. It is not ageist to say that or recognise that. A lot of big brands are only really scratching the surface with social for example because the senior decision makers still view social as something their kids do. Better collaboration between senior members of an organisation, those in the first job and everyone in between is the key.

Culture cannot just be top down if brands are going to adopt and harness new technology. One of the most successful training programmes that Media Bounty run is in social media where we insist there is attendance from every level of the business. It is fascinating and very cool to see initially cynical board directors and junior members of the team all talking in the same language and collaborating on a tone of voice exercise by the end of the day!

TD: With the advent of driverless vehicle technologies Stevenson estimates that 3-4% of the entire US workforce will lose their jobs in the next 15 years as a result of this one single technology. What do stats like that mean for the brands of today and how can they futureproof themselves if the industries they operate in are going to obliterated by new technologies?

JD: Driverless vehicles will also have a massive impact on the insurance industry. Volvo’s decision to only release hybrid or electric cars by 2019 and Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that France will ban the internal combustion engine by 2040 will see the enormous change to the oil industry, to Formula 1 and to brands who are deeply embedded within motor sport.

Brands need to look at these changes and not put their head in the sand and hope it won’t happen. Companies can and do change. According to Econsultancy IBM is the largest digital agency in the UK with Accenture at number two and BAE Systems at number four. Virgin’s first business launched in 1970 and the first Virgin record store opened in 1971. They have done a few different things since then.

The critical thing is being human first. What are the hopes, needs and passions of the humans you are in a relationship with? If you lose touch with the very people who buy or engage with your product or service then you will become future illiterate. This is why Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement and backing for coal is, in my view, one of the worst business decisions in recent memory. The horse has already bolted. Consumers are demanding a future without fossil fuels.

TD: The models for traditional business sectors such as utilities and banking are fundamentally broken and the next ten years will see incredible technological innovation in these sectors as consumers take more control over who they buy services from and who they interact with. What should brands in these ‘at risk’ sectors be doing to futureproof themselves?

Again, understand what people are looking for in their lives. Listen to them. What are the things that keep people up at night? What are their problems? What are society’s problems? Look to solve them. A large section of society are waking up to being constantly sold to by politicians, companies and brands. People will engage with brands if they share their values. Energy companies (other than the likes of Good Energy), other utilities and banks are very good examples where it is clear that the values and critically the actions of the businesses are not shared by people. People are sick of being ripped off and lied to. So in a nutshell – listen to find true insight and understand people’s problems, create beautiful ways to solve the problems and be utterly transparent about how you are doing it.

TD: Statistics show that one in three employees do not full trust their employer. Engagement is at an all-time low and employees feel they are being forced to work within a system that doesn’t value the things that ultimately we tell our children to value. Thanks to sectors such as energy and banking modern business leadership is often viewed as morally bankrupt and lacking in ethics. What does ethical leadership mean in a modern business context and how can leaders in the marketing sector demonstrate that it’s not just all about the money?

JD: Truth. What are the goals of the business and the personal goals of the leaders within that business? Be truthful to your team about what those genuinely are. In this day and age I am not sure as many people are motivated by a £10k watch and a Ferrari. Leaders in the marketing sector need to do a much better job of not being all about the money. Those at the top earn tens of millions which many people find grotesque, the annual back slapping Cannesathon is an exercise in superyachts and Rosé. Initiatives like The Drum’s Do it Day are fantastic. Google’s ‘Crisis Info Hub’ giving access to critical information to refugees is amazing. The marketing sector could do a lot more by getting together outside of Cannes or the 3,000th other awards ceremony of the year and looking at briefs from the charity sector together without ego or fear of IP issues. If people from 3 different brands and 3 different agencies worked on every one of those briefs, we could do some awesome things!

TD: What do Media Bounty do to demonstrate ethical leadership and what impact do you see that having on your business?

JD: Media Bounty’s vision is simple - we believe in long-term growth for our people and our clients, and protecting our world for future generations. This means that we will not compromise by accepting short-termism that is detrimental to our people, our clients and indeed the world we live in.

When we first started in 2008 we partnered with a charity, World Land Trust, for the long-term to save land and protect our planet in perpetuity, as well as having a long-term commitment to volunteering. We made our first donation before we issued our first invoice and we pay for people to volunteer in care homes, protecting bees and with charities such as Lifebeat who support disadvantaged young people. By doing this, all of us are constantly reminded that it is absolutely not all about the money. The more successful we are, the more that we can do for the World Land Trust and the charities we volunteer for!

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Richard Draycott

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