Brand transformation: The time for action is now

24 December, 2019 Share socially

In recent years politics has become a key issue in the lives of Millennials and Gen Z-ers with environmental and social matters high on the agenda for young adults and teenagers all over the world. Values like equality and respect have never been more at risk and in 2020 young people’s desire for change will be put to the test by the US elections and a post-Brexit Britain. Heightened social inequalities fuelling populism and the growing climate crisis demand action, and brands have a key role to play in making a difference and creating a better world, but first they'll need to evolve.

We're seeing a new global rebellion and a rejection of government policy, with 80% of young people claiming that they're willing to take radical action to uphold their beliefs. While Millennials have put brands under pressure, forcing them to take real steps towards sustainability, it's Gen Z that will revolutionize the market, pushing brands to provide clear, transparent information, and in doing so letting consumers be the judges of their products and services.

The leitmotif that will guide brands as they renew and pursue new consumer relationships into the next decade is therefore a political one. The exchange between brands and individuals will take place at “human” level, on equal terms. And in order to learn to be human, brands will need to understand their why, how and what.

  1. WHY – living a purpose - not just having a purpose - is what matters
  2. HOW – the truth, the whole truth
  3. WHAT – stand out from the crowd and be brilliant

1. Why is purpose so important?

“Why a brand exists” was one of the most debated topics in 2019, and it looks set to also be one in 2020. Brands with a clear purpose are dramatically changing the whole nature of business, managing to emerge even in overcrowded markets. One of the most intriguing examples of this is US company Chobani. It has shown how a simple yogurt manufacturer can improve the world with a purpose that goes beyond mere profit. Chobani’s commitment “To make universal wellness happen sooner. Real change. Not just checking the box.” is a corporate mantra repeated throughout the entire company. Its CEO Hamdi Ulukaya has said that “The script companies have followed for the past 40 years isn’t working anymore. We need to write a new one, putting people first and moving away from the simplistic concept of turning a profit."

Brands need to be aware of the difference between “having a purpose” and “living a purpose”. Truth is becoming thin on the ground, but we do expect and need it from brands: good intentions in relation to diversity or combating climate change will no longer suffice, and nor will reducing plastic use or sponsoring CSR projects. Business models will need to evolve and the 2020s, which will be about transformation with a commitment to structural change. CEOs will need to review their entire agenda, which will take many brands out of their comfort zone as those which cannot manage drastic change will have to start modernising, starting with concrete action rather than just statement of intent.

2. How can a brand gain consumer trust?

Brands must focus on three key areas: credibility, relevance and evidence. Familiarity can breed contempt and there are sometimes negative associations with heritage brands as their legacy can play against them. To win back consumer trust and secure the loyalty of new consumers, the successful brands of the future will be those which can demonstrate authenticity and transparency. The banking industry has transformed itself since the financial crisis by focusing on these two values with new players such as N26 and Revolut leading the way. Their communication is based on transparency and clarity; every aspect is explained in clear, straightforward language that could not be further from the corporate tone adopted by traditional banks.

In Italy, the issue is also apparent in the food sector, with consumers demanding the utmost transparency. Until now, brands have responded by plastering their packaging with messages such as “pesticide free”, “organic” and “free-range” however the sheer volume and range of different language being used can end up having the very opposite effect by making things more confusing for the consumer.

So, how can brands cut through? Brands need to be in a position that they do not need to back up their promise with words: they have built such a strong, credible brand identity that consumers trust them without further explanation. Organic Valley is a eco-conscious farming cooperative that moved away from conventional farming back in the early 1980s, believing it to be harmful to the planet. They state that their mission is simply, “At Organic Valley, we like to keep things honest and simple”, and this is communicated clearly and transparently across every touchpoint of the brand experience meaning that “seeing is believing” for consumers.

3. What must a brand do to be relevant and grab attention?

It is possible to establish authentic relationships with a target audience even without being a “purpose-based company”. Up until now, brands have used eye-catching campaigns to spark their audience’s interest, but in 2020 they will need to combine the functional and emotive aspects of their brand, offering their consumers a harmonious brand experience aligned to their purpose.

Sometimes, a little innovation is all it takes to trigger high levels of engagement and boost brand awareness. An example is the way Heinz restyled its packaging with a “diagonal” label, showing customers how to pour their ketchup. Meanwhile, Instagram has revolutionised the entire purchasing process, shifting from a window on our lives to a never-ending catalogue of products we can buy with a quick click.

Innovation can also be relevant when evolving the customer journey or even just a service. Delta has achieved this with its “baggage tracking” app, reducing the stress of losing a bag by enabling passengers to track their baggage from a smartphone throughout their journey.

It is vital for brands to transform themselves, to radically change their approach by creating dynamic, two-way engagement at every stage of the customer journey and product lifecycle. This means taking account of consumer demands, overhauling the entire system to tear down the traditional barrier between brand storytelling and the real world. It will no longer be possible to work in silos and companies will need to bring in all their departments, from Marketing to HR via R&D and Finance together, in order to meet consumer needs clearly and consistently.

The brands of the future will need to understand and react to cultural tensions; to stand up and stand out with a clear purpose that involves the entire business; to be authentic and transparent; and to invest in innovation. Those which err on the side of conservatism and fail to meet these demands will struggle to succeed in tomorrow’s market.