Keeping it real in a skeptical 2018

2016 was a proper year. History will remember it. Trump, Brexit, Bowie… Momentous stuff happened; most of it was bad, but it was historic nonetheless. By contrast, 2017 was the difficult follow-up album, try-hard swagger without substance: a damp squib of an election resolved nothing; a trash-tweeting president failed to repeal Obamacare, ban Muslims or build a wall; Catalan independence wasn’t, Brexit isn’t fulfilling any promises… Collins’ word of the year was “fake news” which feels about right. So we approach the new year with lowered, but maybe more realistic, expectations. Here are three ways this mindset will shape 2018…

1. Purpose evolves from ‘Social Good’ to ‘Strategic Clarity’
The purpose backlash is well and truly underway. The desire to ‘do a Dove’ has led to some painful contortions as perfectly good brands tried to pretend they were social activists all along. Ironically what was sold as a way to build trust, pushed brands to behave in ways that were disingenuous. Examples include Heineken’s ‘World’s Apart’, Starbuck’s #RaceTogether and even Dove –  the poster-girl for purpose – with its ‘Body Positive packaging’. Whatever the merits of their aspirations, they just didn’t ring true.

However, purpose in and of itself is a good thing. The purpose story – that is, defining Why your brand exists, How it stands out and What it does – demands strategic focus and clarity. Framing a brand with ‘purpose’ makes it as relevant to internal audiences as external ones, encouraging brand-building ‘inside out’ rather than ‘advertising in’. The problems start when we feel obliged to make this worthier than it is. To create the ‘ultimate driving machine’ is a fine purpose. Saving the planet is optional unless you’re Greenpeace.

In 2018 realism will ensure Purpose will shed contrived Social Good to simply offer Strategic Clarity.

2. Authenticity evolves from ‘rich heritage’ towards ‘plucky start-up’
Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Choosing an ‘authentic’ brand generally says more about a consumer’s discerning judgement than it does about the brand. The dictionary would say the if you fail to choose the authentic option you’ve got a fake, anecdotally it usually refers to indiscriminate purchase by someone who couldn’t see the sustainably-grown Scandinavian rare pine from the trees.

For much of the last decade, the authentic choice was a brand with a story. We looked for heritage, a charismatic founder or a creation myth and brands like Smythson, Dyson, Burberry delivered great stories, in Facebook’s case a film even. However, Brexit Britain is short of patience with the establishment in general and that includes big brands. So the authentic choice in these times is the ‘plucky startup’ standing up to the distrusted sea of the system.

In response, brands are responding by presenting themselves as having that start-up vibe. In Comms it means combining lo-fi production with hi-fi conviction – if gave Dollar Shave Club credibility, why not Boots’ new own-brand launch ‘Below the Belt’? In design, it means bringing ‘startup minimalism’ to packaging and web-design. That is the sans-serif fonts, flat colours, white space, full-bleed images that have become the visual hallmark of start-up culture – Aussielent, Tangent GC, Outdoor Voices are great examples.

2018 consumers see authenticity in start-ups, so brands will adopt their attitude and design in comms, packaging and web presence.

3. Transparency evolves from ‘intent’ towards ‘accountability’
“History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.” As Churchill points out, marking your own homework is the surest way to exam success. We get that. A respondent in a recent Greater London Authority focus group put it well: “No one wants to ‘Find out more about the Mayor’s plans and progress’ because that’s just PR; I’d be interested if it meant we could hold him to account though…”

Declining trust and increasing social media scrutiny are placing brands in the spotlight like never before. Secrecy is not an option because if consumers can’t get the information they want from your brand they will go elsewhere i.e. the wild west of social media and the internet. Brands’ initial forays into transparency – purposeful manifestos, vision films and customer charters – were statements of intent rather exercises in accountability. The bar has been raised.

At the pointy end of online retail, brands know that providing customer reviews increase conversion. High street brands are now also embracing outside voices to hold themselves to account. McDonald Canada’s “Our food. Your questions.” campaign offered customers a chance to publicly ask anything and gave McDonald’s an opportunity to dispel rumours, educate customers and stand behind its products. To date, they’ve garnered over 42k questions and 3.8m site visitors showing the desire for this information. Clothing brand Patagonia’s ‘Footprint Chronicles’ provides an interactive map of its supply chain, details of manufacturers and is partnering with Fairtrade to certify it. American fashion brand Everlane breaks down the pricing for each of their products from manufacturing costs to import duties. These brands are setting expectations for what transparency looks like, expectations other brands now need to live up to.

2018 consumers will expect to hold brands to account, and if brands don’t offer up appropriate information, they will look elsewhere for it.

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