Wanted versus Needed

Buckle up, 2024 is in full swing and we’re already seeing a year defined by extreme volatility across every aspect of the economy, politics, the environment, and society. With so much that can go wrong, how can brands position themselves to thrive in this environment? The most enduring and successful brands will distinguish themselves from their competitors by their ability to attract and hold onto the most pragmatic and informed consumers we have ever seen.

Brand strategy for 2024 must abandon the trivial, the cliché and the irrelevant. The winning theme for brands will be “essentiality.” Starting today, brands must scrutinize their essence, focusing on how they can add tangible value to consumers’ lives, in a way they can’t live without them. Lukewarm efforts won’t cut it. Honesty, actionability, and clarity must replace vague and lofty purpose statements for brands seeking to foster lasting emotional connections.

But what makes a brand essential?

Essentiality is a powerful concept for successful and sustainable brands, defined by an equation: Indispensability + Innovation + Attachment. Brands can be indispensable, but it’s their ability to create meaningful innovation and develop lasting emotional bonds that deem them essential.

A global brand perception study, the FutureBrand Index, recently revealed that brands that best home in on their essentiality are today’s rising stars, outshining competitors across sectors because they follow a playbook of attributes. Marketers looking to prove their brand’s essentiality, especially during challenging times, would best served to showcase the following brand characteristics:

Indispensability: Understand and anticipate customer needs.

Often, we equate brand indispensability with high market share and habitual brand use, and though this isn’t wrong it’s not the full picture. Indispensability develops due to trust, and sometimes, delivering on your promise isn’t just about what you sell.

In the case of Chobani, it’s everything around it. With a mission to use food as a force for good in the world, Chobani makes business decisions with accessibility, community, and sustainability in mind. Initiatives like the Tent Partnership for Refugees or Chobani Incubator are incredible examples of how to make purpose tangible. Ask the 47 companies that launched with growth funding, or Chobani’s own refugee employees with tenue exceeding industry average – America’s most consumed yogurt brand is following through. (44.7 million Americans consumed Chobani in 2020, according to Statista).

Becoming indispensable means looking beyond the table stakes of your category. As marketers, we need to examine the behaviors of the world around us and find a role in that story. Survey the consumer journey and inject a signature moment that rewards behavior or deepens engagement. Once you find your trust-building value, invest in it. Make it a core part of your identity.

Innovation: Build for the future.

​​After establishing value for consumers, essential brands build meaningful innovation pipelines, signaling to consumers that their needs are worth investing in and will continue to be met as they grow and evolve.

As an example, to ‘make sustainable living commonplace’ Unilever relies on R&D. In 2022, the company reported an investment of roughly $984 million, which funded innovations as vast as Dove’s nanotechnology to improve skin moisture with a 98% biodegradable formulation, plastic-free packaging for Persil, and vegan flavor variants for Hellmann’s. In fact, the company stated at the Deutsche Bank Global Consumer Conference that its purpose-led brands are growing faster, and delivering more growth than the rest of their business.

The FutureBrand Index shows that brand strength in innovation correlates with the perception of a brand ‘moving ahead.’ In other words, when a brand shows it can deliver meaningful innovation, consumer belief in its future rises. A good first step forward is to develop a clear set of experience principles that can drive consistent, brand-led ideation.

Attachment: Forge emotional connections.

Attachment stands as the most crucial element of essentiality because it speaks to the emotional bond consumers form with a brand. Seventy percent of consumers make decisions based on emotional factors, not rational ones, according to a 2022 Gallup study.

Continuing with Unilever as an example, they connect their product brands to universal human truths. For example, the “Find Your Magic Initiative” by Axe helped to transform the brand from a cliche of toxic masculinity to a champion of inclusivity. Positive sentiment for Axe soared to 41% from 15%, which led to increased purchase consideration among U.S. men, according to the brand. Likely a strong factor of success was the honest acknowledgment by the brand of its shortcomings, and a wholehearted attempt to do better.

Brand engagement is a form of self-expression and meaning. Attachment closely ties to shared values. Interrogate the values guiding your organization. Do they drive meaningful action – how you hire, work, partner or show up in culture? In today’s climate, there’s an increased need for brands to express authenticity — less fluff, more truth.

In the coming months and years, marketers will need to develop strategies to thrive in a volatile world. Now is the time to reassess your brand. Is your brand reliable and responsible? Is your brand trusted for advancing tomorrow? Loved for demonstrating humanity? A purpose rooted in tangibility and authenticity will deliver brand resilience in volatile times.

This article was first published by Advertising Week on 21 April 2024

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