Why are brands failing to connect with people?

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At The Playbook our mission is to help our clients to move their audience – emotionally and occasionally physically. Success in that comes down to finding ways to genuinely connect with people, and that starts with a real understanding of how those people think and what has an influence on them.

We recently ran a piece of quantitative and qualitative consumer research, talking to over 2,000 people aged 18+, in partnership with Opinium, delving into how successfully brands are managing to emotionally connect with their audiences.

Here are some of our key findings:

Brands are failing to emotionally connect

78% of people in our sample feel brands never emotionally connect with them. Amongst over 45s, this figure is even higher, at 87%.

Brands are slightly more successful at engaging with younger age groups, but the majority of 18-24s (60%) and 25-34s (63%) still believe that no brand has ever done something to emotionally connect with them.

What does change perceptions of a brand?

If brands are finding it tough to connect, what kind of strategies might break through? Our research uncovered a significant difference between the generations.

Over 45s are more resistant to anything affecting their perception of brands, with 63% claiming that nothing any brand has done in the past has made an impact.

18-24s are very different, and we found this age group to be the most receptive to changing their opinion of a brand, with only 28% claiming that nothing makes an impact.

40% of 18-24s feel that aligning with a social cause has positively changed their perception of a brand or product.

A third (33%) of 18-24s feel the same way about brands that sponsor or support something they care about (e.g. sport, music or art) and 31% are positive about brands teaming up with charities.

36% of 18-24s are positively impacted by content from brands that is simply entertaining - suggesting brands that can combine meaningful causes with entertaining, engaging content will be on to a winner with this younger demographic.

Brands need to be more meaningful (depending on the age of your audience)

Brands that fail to connect on a deeper, more emotional level could be costing brands when it comes to purchasing decisions. Our research found that 88% of 18-24s and 78% of 25-34s are either much more or a little more likely to buy from brands that align themselves to an issue or cause that they are passionate about.

There is a generational divide here, with only 48% of those aged 55+ feeling this way, but across all age groups, the figure is 63% - a clear indication of the opportunity that exists for brands to connect through understanding and aligning themselves to causes that their audience cares about. Very few people (2%) consider themselves less likely to buy from brands that align themselves to causes people care about, meaning there is little downside for brands, provided the fit and the execution are right.

Family and friends have the most influence

Family (41%) and friends (40%) were the most highly rated factors in having influence on brand perceptions. This is a useful reminder to marketers not to overlook good old-fashioned word of mouth, and to find ways of encouraging direct recommendation and conversation.

These two groups were even more important amongst our younger audiences, with 49% of 18-24s and 50% of 25-34s rating family as influential.

Friends had an influence on 46% of 18-24s and 52% of 25-34s, with these two factors both becoming less influential as we go through the age groups.

Don’t write off traditional media channels

While there is no doubt that “traditional” media (TV, newspapers, magazines, radio) is less influential that it used to be, it still exerts an influence on a significant minority of people across all age groups.

So, even for younger consumers we shouldn’t write off traditional media. In the fake news era, trusted and reliable channels will remain influential, as people seek reliable sources of information.

Digital and social influence is age-dependent

The influence of digital channels on brand perception does vary significantly across the age groups. The influence of “people on social media” follows a similar, but more pronounced pattern.

33% of 18-24s believe that people they follow on social media have an influence on their perceptions of brands or products, compared with 14% of 25-34s, 12% of 35-44s, 6% of 45-54s, 4% of 55-64s and just 2% of 65 and overs.

This trend is exactly what we might expect to see, but the actual influence of digital and social media on younger audiences is surprisingly low. This is because we asked specifically about the channel’s influence on brand perception (and not simply whether people use the channels). Again, fake news and the sheer proliferation of channels and content may be feeding into this relative lack of influence.

The death of celebrity endorsement and the rise of the expert?

Just 6% of our audience feel that celebrities are likely to influence their perceptions of a brand or product. 18-24s (16%) and 25-34s (11%) are slightly more influenced by celebrity, but this is much lower than we might assume. Older audiences don’t value celebrity endorsements at all: just 1% of those aged 55+ believe celebrities have an influence on them.

This should make any brand marketer stop and think carefully before buying in to celebrity endorsement. As with social and digital channels, there appears to be a big gap between the reach and awareness that celebrities can provide vs. the actual influence they have.

The apparent rejection of celebrity endorsement could also be due to a lack of authenticity in those relationships. Gen Y are very savvy towards marketing strategies and will see right through a celeb endorsement that isn’t genuine or adding any real value to that brand proposition. While only 19% of our audience cited ‘experts’ as having an influence on their perception of brands or products, this figure rises to 34% of 18-24s and 28% of 25-34s.

Based on this, experts exert more influence on 18-34s than traditional media, digital channels, social media and celebrities. While this age group are undoubtedly consuming vast amounts of content and social media, are they actually craving someone credible they can trust to tell them what’s going on, and help them to make the right choices?

So, what’s the conclusion?

Based on our research, brands need to work much harder in making emotional connections with their audience, and failing to do so could cost them sales. Marketers need to consider these three questions: What does my consumer care about? How can I align my brand with those causes? What channels and tactics will actually have an influence?

It seems clear that (certainly for younger audiences, but across the board) brands have an opportunity to engage people by aligning themselves to issues, causes or passion points. Consumers today have an expectation that brands will do more than simply sell them a product, but the ones that get this right will be rewarded with product sales.

In adopting this approach, authenticity and transparency are critical. People will look beneath the surface and expose any brand that doesn’t have a credible approach.

When planning how to engage their audience, brands should look beyond the obvious channels and understand the nuances of what actually has an impact on how people think and behave. Connecting emotionally with people and changing their perceptions is a complex task, but in can be achieved with the right insights, strategy and execution.

Eddie May is managing director at The Playbook.

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Eddie May

I am managing director of The Playbook, a communications agency specialising in sport, active health, wellbeing and technology.

All by Eddie