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6 Strategic Dead-Ends For Brands

Some things just never work. At least not for building brands or value propositions. Yet, over and over again, we keep trying to make a go of these things. So, today, I want to share my list of things that I believe are dead-ends for brands—things that seem promising but turn out mostly to be yea-saying by consumers, not deeply felt convictions that brands can use to differentiate themselves and create value for the bottom-line.

The things in my list can get brands into trouble, but they are not things that brands can lean into for success. When you’ve seen my list, you may disagree, or have definitive proof to the contrary. If so, please share your perspective with me. I am always open to learning and I am not averse to changing my mind. But here’s what I think today.

1. Privacy. Consumers care about privacy, but not enough to matter. During the dot-com years of the late 1990s, I made a small investment in a data locker business that promised consumers the ability to seal, secure and monetize their personal data. Never took off. In the years since, there have been repeated revivals of that concept, none of which gathered any momentum either. My mistake was that I took our survey results at face value. These days, I have a better, more experienced understanding that some things respondents say are just yea-saying. Little of what consumers do suggests much concern about privacy.

People will readily share personal data in return for small-value coupons or other slight discounts. Few, if any, read or care about the fine print of the terms and conditions for the social media sites they flock to. Consumers continue to shop with and rely on companies that have had serious, even repeated, data breaches.

A handful of companies like Apple have made a point of securing people’s personal data. Apple has not only emphasized this in recent advertising. Apple has butted heads with law enforcement to prevent investigators from breaking into the phones of alleged criminals. But Apple is the exception that proves the rule. Not to mention that critics question Apple’s true commitment to privacy while others cynically opine that Apple’s policies are actually about upending the adtech businesses of Big Tech rivals. More telling to me is the fact that privacy is far from Apple’s central brand proposition. It is a nice thing to have, and is getting airtime now, but people would still buy Apple products without it. Having it helps but not having it wouldn’t hurt. If privacy were really make or break, every tech company would be on board, too. When it comes to privacy, regulators are stepping in. Which means consumers need not worry. Nor brands. The playing field will be leveled. Thus, there is no competitive advantage here.

2. Trust. Trust is a lot like privacy. In surveys, people say it matters, but such concerns are hard to see in people’s choices and behaviors. There have been instances where people have fled a brand because of egregious actions or circumstances. Brands have been caught cheating and lying and cutting corners. Brands have been hacked and tampered with and counterfeited. Brands have been exposed and called out and unmasked. But people keep coming back to brands that have lost trust, even after repeated violations of trust and oftentimes before reforms have been undertaken or enforced.

This is not to say that brands can take a pass on trust. Or privacy either. Rather, it’s to say that trust and privacy protections need only be just enough. MONITOR data show people tend to be suspicious and skeptical when it comes to businesses. People expect brands to put profits first, which means that compromises and disappointments don’t come as a surprise. They’re not welcome, but they’re not wholly unexpected.

All of which is complicated by the fact that sometimes what consumers ‘trust’ is that brands will only work as promised most of the time. People have learned to trust not to trust brands completely, so to speak. A brand cannot announce that it is trustworthy. It must prove it. So, trust is not a great platform for brand positioning or for an ad campaign.

Trust is built organically as people come to realize, over the course of repeated interactions, that the interests of a brand align with their own interests. Such organically-realized trust is in service of delivering the benefit promised by a brand, which is the true selling point. You don’t sell your brand on trust. You sell your brand on the benefit that people trust you will deliver. You can hurt your brand by not delivering, and thus betraying trust, but you can’t sell it with the promise that you can be trusted to do what you are expected to do in the first place. I mean, if you have to reassure people about that, should it be a surprise that their reaction is more mistrust instead of more trust?

3. Politics. There is no bigger minefield for brands than politics. Aside from the gargantuan risks to brand image, it is just not the way that brands grow. Which is simple arithmetic. Brands grow by attracting more customers. Now, you may be in the loyalty camp of the penetration versus loyalty debate, but more loyal customers will run out of new occasions and new uses eventually, at which point you’ll need more customers. So, the core unassailable truth about brand growth is attracting more customers. And this is precisely what you lose when your brands get involved in politics.

Politicians win with just one more vote, so divide-and-conquer makes sense. Brands win by getting as many customers as possible, and that necessarily means broadening the appeal to attract people of many minds, not narrowing the appeal to motivate people of like minds.

Politics and culture always overlap. But rarely as much as now. Which is a big challenge for marketers because culture is the lingua franca of brands and consumers. The best way to navigate these waters is to remember that brands use culture to sell, so if something about culture is not going to help sell then it should be set aside. This is true in general, of course, but I’m mentioning it here as a reminder that there is nothing special required to deal with today’s politics. It’s the same rule-of-thumb as always—if it runs people off, don’t do it.

By the way, I am not suggesting that brands should not segment or target their advertising, product design and distribution. I am just taking judicial notice of the fact that the biggest brands are inclusive by their very nature. They have to be—it’s arithmetic. Segmentation on the basis of politics closes a brand off, thereby capping its growth potential and setting it on a course that can never reach the top tier.

4. The Environment. This is a more nuanced dimension than the things I have just mentioned. To begin with, there is a large segment of consumers for whom the environment is the most important criterion in their brand decisions, and they will make sacrifices of price and convenience in order to choose environmentally-friendly brands.

For the last five years, Kantar Worldpanel has surveyed consumers worldwide about brand choices and sustainability. So-called Eco-Actives are essentially one-fifth of all consumers, and even in the face of more extreme climate events, they are an unchanging percentage over time (with the normal random wobble around the trend line). Even our optimistic forecast of growth in this segment through 2028 is well under thirty percent. Which means that, by far, the largest number of consumers are less motivated by the environment, and many not at all.

The biggest quandary in environmental and sustainability marketing is the so-called value-action gap. Or the gap between what people believe and the choices they make. Nobody has closed the gap. Because the environment is just not a strong enough motivator for most people. People don’t dislike the environment. They just like their lifestyles more. So, it is a non-starter for most brands to put the environment first. It’s like privacy—nice to have, but not primary or essential.

Mind you, I say all of this with deep concern. I would prefer that we embrace a different ethic in our consumption. But I am realistic about the advice I give to brands. We can never afford to invest in the environment if we undermine our collective prosperity. Brands should make responsible choices in their operations as a matter of environmental ethics (and increasingly, as a matter of efficiency and cost-effectiveness). But motivating consumers generally requires a different kind of focus and message.

5. Ethics. Speaking of ethics, albeit briefly, this, too, is a marketing nonstarter. Like trust, talking about it raises suspicions about why you’re bringing it up. This is a big deal in health care and financial services. But people are zeroed in on better care or higher returns. They presume ethics is standard operating procedure. Plus, this also is something that regulators and trade associations oversee, so there is no competitive advantage.

The way that ethics tends to be promoted is by spotlighting a company’s leader.

Sometimes this works—Lee Iacocca and Chrysler, Steve Jobs and Apple, Walt Disney and Disney. More often than not, it is risky to tie a brand to the reputation of a leader (or a celebrity). I won’t name names, but it’s all too easy to tick off three or four handfuls of instances where this went south. Brands should sell the benefit, not the boss.

6. Bad Marketing. The final thing to mention is marketing itself. There is no arguing that marketing is annoying, cluttered, intrusive, often unwanted, and all too often enraging. The National Customer Rage Survey finds half of consumers are angered by their experience with one or more brands.

The rise of marketing resistance was the focus of a big survey we did in 2004 that was unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. We then published a book about it. But in the ensuring 15-plus years, just as we documented about the previous 50 years, everything irksome about marketing continued to grow. Yet, so has consumer spending and engagement with marketing.

Consumers like marketing, at least some of it. Even when consumers don’t, they still connect with brands.

Reducing saturation or frequency or intrusiveness will only punish your brand by diminishing its presence and availability. Consumers know how to cope with the worst aspects of marketing. Even more, they know how to get the sip of information they need from the firehose of marketing.

What will sell. That’s my half-dozen things that won’t help sell a brand. Which begs the question of what will. I will circle back to this in the near future. But let me give you a one-word hint of the single most powerful motivator in the history of the consumer marketplace—convenience.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Walker Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer, Brand & Marketing at Kantar

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