2016 was a year of backlash. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump represented angry yells against the modern world’s globalization, liberalism, and the perceived elitism of the increasingly distant 1%. It seemed that a fundamental realignment was underway. But instead, 2017 saw a backlash to the backlash. Older, deeper trends instead re-emerged and asserting themselves – and brands need to respond.
One of the most potent indications of the backlash was the public’s reaction to the UK TV show Blue Planet II. The show highlighted the problem of plastic in the ocean. Evocative footage showed miles of plastic debris, choking wildlife and finding its way into the food chain. Scales fell from eyes, and plastic bottles from hands.
The combined brand equities of the show, veteran presenter David Attenborough, and the BBC, ignited one corner of the broader debate about conscious purchasing. In some parts of the world plastic water bottle brands are a guarantee of safety, but for many people they are a status purchase. Why else would you need to ship water from one side of the planet to another, when it falls out of the sky locally – if not to show off how wealthy you are?
Water brands were at the heart of the branding surge of the 1980s, a time when many brands emphasized lifestyle over function. That these lifestyle accessories have now become part of the problem, shows how much sustainability has become mainstream for brands, despite Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord.
A second indication of the trend came on Black Friday. Yes, there was still the usual mayhem at the stores, but there was also a video which went viral, contrasting crazed shopping with those who had no money to shop, or even eat. A re-appraisal of the acceptable use of resources is underway. This can be seen in the behavior of both brands and consumers through that 4Ps marketing stalwart, price. It’s no longer just ‘price to market’ or ‘value add’: now we have surging, leasing, free (or at least in return for your data), and flexible discounting. Brands like AirBnB and bike share schemes like Ofo now use digital tools to re-think how assets can be utilized.
Brands want to be more productive, purchasers want their money to go further. Neither wants waste. Sustainability – in the broadest sense of the world – is now mainstream and a must for any brand. Expect water in environmentally friendly bottles very soon.
The other strand of the year’s backlash backlash is different sort of ‘p’ – people. Women are 51% of the population, and represent around 80% of the purchasing decision makers in most categories. So you might expect brands targeting women to have a strong grasp of their needs. Alas, instead we often see a strange hybrid of the 1950s housewife and the smart girl about town.
The result is the lifestyle branding witnessed in categories like chocolate, hair products, and washing machine liquids. These categories have always emphasized emotional benefits, but the marketing arms race has pushed things into new realms of unreality. When your most important relationship is with your sweater, it’s time to re-think your life choices.
Especially now, when adverts for these brands are juxtaposed with #MeToo news stories of abuse and harassment. Suddenly, brand claims have stopped looking like harmless exaggeration, and are starting to look stupidly trivial. Perhaps 2018 could be the year brands aimed at women start recognizing and helping with the reality of their lives.
Diversity of opportunity in general also took a knock in 2016, when nationalist, conservative forces propelled the agendas that emphasized the importance of one group over another. it seemed as if years of progress in widening life changes out from only ‘old rich white guys’, to the rest of humanity, was going into reverse.
Here brands – and the people that manage them – have been playing a positive role. WPP was one of the first to put out a statement after Brexit, supporting international diversity. The entire advertising industry followed with a campaign supporting an open approach to talent. What these two macro trends – sustainability and diversity – have in common is that they are signs of a fundamental tussle between the lifestyle consumer branding that developed since World War II, and an emergent conscientious branding movement.
Despite the events of 2016; sustainability, asset re-appraisal, and reality-based marketing to women are all going to grow in 2018. The branding landscape is re-forming around these three pillars, aligning with the overall re-appraisal of consumer lifestyle branding.
Brands need to live in the real world; to stop treating people as consumers and to start treating them as partners, to support them with the reality of their lives and concerns. The backlash backlash has begun.
Best wishes for 2018