Consumers are reacting to a fear that the trajectory they are on is going nowhere. People are anxious for change in their lives. Brands must reflect this, too, writes J. Walker Smith, executive chairman of Kantar Futures.
Over the years, brands have had to adapt to many factors influencing consumer attitudes: the sharing economy; mindfulness; the shift from active to passive digital; the on-demand business model; and the rise of programmatic consumption.
While all of these things remain important, there is a bigger dynamic in play right now, one that is shaping how all of these other things are unfolding. It’s a dynamic creating division as much in society as in the marketplaces. It lies beneath these divides, giving rise to the angst and anxiety and even anger we see bubbling up.
Generally, when we see consumers this unsettled, it is because of some disruptive change like the Great Recession or the introduction of the iPhone.
Today, though, it’s not change that is unsettling people. It’s no change. It’s stagnation. Consumers are not reacting to a big change, they are recoiling, even revolting, against the prospect of no change, of being trapped in a trajectory of decline from which there is no escape.
Indeed, it’s even deeper than that. It’s the fear that even as things at large change, people will see no change in their individual prospects and possibilities. The only way out of no change is to break out of the trajectory of decline, which is why we see people pursuing very radical shifts in course, particularly in voting and politics.
Expectations about brands are also being affected a lot by this overarching sensibility. Brands that simply continue on course will feel stagnant to consumers and thus out of sync with the change people want in their lifestyles.
Simply put, the imperative is for brands to go off script.
Nowadays, the predictable trajectory – the script of life, if you will – is perceived to be downhill. So staying on-script is a bad thing. And brands that stick closely to a script – or in marketing jargon, a fixed persona or brand image – will have a style and a feel and a tonality that cuts against the grain. When no change is a signal to consumers that something is awry, going off script becomes a necessity. Brands must find ways to embrace change as the core of what they deliver.
“Brands must make change a distinctive point of emphasis in order to resonate with consumers”
Marketers readily embrace change as an input but rarely as an output. Continuity or staying on-script is our objective. What’s needed now, though, is the opposite.
Axe Deodorant has refreshed its appeal by going off-script from highlighting immature sexuality to celebrating maturing individuality. Ford is turning toward the future by going off-script from a manufacturer of cars people drive to a provider of vehicles that drive people. Teen Vogue has reengaged its readership by going off-script from a focus on fashion to an embrace of bigger issues, and its bestselling issue of 2015 was a cover that broke all of the traditional rules-of-thumb.
Brands have never ignored change, but now brands must make change a distinctive point of emphasis in order to resonate with consumers whose biggest fear is not change, but no change.