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Opinion: Welcome to the Age of Cynicism

In the 12th edition of our Meaningful Brands survey, Havas Village Dublin has found that Irish consumers are casting a cynical eye, and that trust in brands is at an all-time low. But, as Ashly Stewart says, don’t we also love a challenge?

Welcome to ‘The Age of Cynicism’ – the chaotic and uncertain cultural landscape of 2020 brought on by a global pandemic, political friction, societal demands and the rise of misinformation have significantly impacted consumer priorities, behaviours and attitudes. And this uncertainty is spilling over to brands. The gap between consumer expectation and brand delivery is widening. In fact, Irish people agreed that if 77% of brands disappeared overnight, they would be easily replaced by morning. Just as startling, 74% of Irish people are tired of brands’ empty promises and only 42% agree brands are trustworthy.

Meaningful Brands

By now I’m sure we’re all a little tired of the doom and gloom. So, what do we do? As marketers, where do we go from here and how can we make certain our brands are meaningful in the lives of our consumers?

First, don’t wait to take meaningful action – 77% of Irish people want to see brands act now, for the good of society and the planet. Perhaps unsurprising given the state of affairs we find ourselves in, right now the majority of the Irish population all agree on four key areas for focus: the environment, public health, politics and the economy. With 83% of Irish consumers expecting brands to show support to people in times of crisis, inaction is simply not an option.

Maybe you’re thinking, “But wait, we’re just a [insert your industry here] company. Should we really jump into that?” It doesn’t matter what kind of company you are. When you create products, brands, communications, events, and use public media space, you are creating culture and the right to do so comes with responsibility.

The Rise of Cancel Culture

Maybe you’re already doing a CSR programme. Oh, and you’re sponsoring a major sporting team. Those are laudable and necessary contributions, but people are still demanding more. In today’s climate, inaction speaks volumes. So, while you might think your brand is doing enough, only 30% of Irish people feel satisfied with companies’ or brands’ concrete actions to make the world a better place, and only 29% think companies and brands are transparent about their commitments and promises.

With the rise of cancel culture, it can of course feel daunting to take action – “what if we get it wrong?”. You might get it wrong. But even brands must learn to be okay with that. The best anyone can do is to approach action with a commitment to doing their best with the knowledge available, and have a willingness to admit when they didn’t get it right. Don’t shy away from supporting controversial topics because you don’t have all the answers. While it can feel like a vulnerable place to play, it’s worth it to know where you stand on the challenges affecting your consumers. Have the hard conversations, make the tough calls, and be open to learning and growing along the way.

Not only will taking this type of action better society and the planet, you’ll be rewarded for it. That is because Irish people are not only expecting better behaviour, they are willing to pay more for it – 55% said they were ready to pay more for a brand that takes a stand on environmental and social issues. While 68% of people prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for having a purpose other than just profits.

At Havas we measure how meaningful a brand is by looking at three key benefits: Functional, which assess how well your products and services deliver; Personal, where we look at how well your brand improves peoples’ lives; and Collective, or the contributing role a brand plays in society. The majority of Irish brands are over delivering on functional benefits and underdelivering on the personal and collective. So there it is. A clear opportunity that is yours for the taking.

Being Distinct

But how to be distinct? How to create a voice that feels different? Especially in such a small country. While Ireland’s population is small, we’re not as homogenous as we once were. Our island is becoming a more diverse and inclusive place and if brands are looking to appeal to Gen Z, they’ll need to encourage the outliers, not the mainstream. Gen Z is shaping the cultural landscape and they aren’t as agreeable as other generations. In fact, 25% of Gen Z believe that people should disobey and provoke if they want to have a say, while only 17% of Boomers feel the same.

Gen Z are challenging and changing social norms, and this means wider acceptance for new perspectives and ideas. With 44% of Gen Z agreeing that sex-roles are social constructs and 55% of them looking for products and services which allow them to express their individuality, it’s time for new narratives.

And as we’ve seen the media landscape evolve and fragment, most brands are missing the mark when it comes to content. Our study shows that more than half of content fails to deliver, and that 59% of people don’t feel that the content provided by Irish brands is meaningful to them. Right now the most expected roles for content are to reward, inspire and help.

Embrace Imperfection

So with that, I invite us all to take on “The Age of Cynicism” as our collective wake up call. As marketers, it’s time that we stop chasing perfect symmetry. In order to do better and be better, we have to embrace imperfection. Today people are seeking leadership from the truth tellers that are willing to take action. In order to make a meaningful difference, brands must be willing to make a few waves. To let go of empty promises, there must be a willingness for risk by taking action in people’s lives around the issues that matter most to them.

If you’re ready to get to work on making a Meaningful Difference or if you want to learn more about the 2021 Meaningful Brands study, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you – meaningfulbrands@havas.ie.

Ashly Stewart is Head of Planning, Havas Dublin

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