Released in August, Havas annual Meaningful Brands report is a 12-year study of brands, their impact on society, and what makes them matter to consumers. This year's report found trust for brands is at an all-time low, calling it ‘The Age of Cynicism’. Despite this, the report did not paint a bleak picture but rather one of several opportunities and shifting expectations that brands can meet. Havas Creative Group's CSO, Mark Sinnock, spoke with AdForum to dive deeper into this year's findings and how they're helping Havas deliver solutions to clients.
It’s been about 4 months since you’ve stepped into the Global Chief Strategy Officer role at Havas Group; what initially drew you to Havas, and what is your vision for the future of the network?
I see Havas as the goldilocks agency – unique in that it has the scale and capability of a large network, combined with the mindset, agility and entrepreneurship of a small business. My role as Global CSO is to help the business harness our smartest talent and focus our freshest thinking on our clients’ biggest commercial issues. Increasingly clients are looking for what I call “ideas with reach”; ideas that combine brand, CX, activation and data science and that transform the body language and behavior of a business as well as the way it communicates. This, for me, is the future of our company and the way we will continue to stand apart – by being able to galvanize talent in new ways and create ideas that reach further.
The Meaningful Brands study has been going on for 12 years now. How is this report integrated into the Havas approach to work, and how does it help the network better serve clients?
The study is fundamental. I would say that it has been the catalyst for our own evolution as a business over the last 5 years. Because the findings were so instrumental, we made the decision that it should become one of the foundations of our own brand purpose ‘to make a meaningful difference’. At the same time, I developed a comprehensive integrated strategic process that leverages the data within the study. This lets us unlock greater insight and differentiation for our clients.
So, the study has allowed us to ‘level up’ by creating strategic alignment across our business whilst accelerating our ability to deliver better solutions for our clients. The world is changing at a rapid rate so we use the study to evolve and enhance our understanding of how brands can meaningfully engage through channel, message, media and experiential behaviour.
The Meaningful Brands 2021 report calls this the Age of Cynicism; what findings led to that moniker?
We wanted to understand how people felt about the shift by business to communicate brand purpose and the findings were fascinating.
When you get under the skin of the statistics – the thing that strikes you is that consumers are becoming much more cynical toward ‘purpose as promise’ – they are hearing a lot of big promises and claims that brands are ‘changing the world’ but they are not seeing a lot of tangible change around them. And too often the broader context of political, social and environmental unrest - which are really big thorny subjects – are becoming worse not better in the eyes of consumers.
That really is the essence of the issue – these claims and promises are not being felt or realised in a meaningful way. If you make a big promise of change, and you fail to deliver it – it creates a problem. And that is where the disconnect is happening. The disconnect between the sorts of new promises that brands are making, and the reality that people live with every day.
And then you go a little deeper, and we start to see where the problem lies – three quarters of people think brands ‘should’ be doing more and acting for the good of society and the planet. The active words here are ‘doing more’; actively doing something, rather than just saying so. So, we can say that the expectation for brands to deliver personal and collective wellbeing is at an all-time high. This, in turn, becomes the point of tension – people want brands to step up and brands say that they are, but that isn’t the real or lived experience. Only 1/3 of people think brands are making concrete actions to improve life, and only 1/3rd feel companies are being transparent about their commitments or promises.
There is hope though. This cynicism can be solved – there’s a real desire for change, and this translates into people’s willingness to vote with their wallets. Over half, 53%, say they are willing to pay more for a brand that takes a stand on environmental or societal issues, and the really big increase since 2019 – and a true indicator of ‘conscious consumerism’ - is that 2/3rds of people (64%) prefer to buy from a company that has a purpose other than just making profit. That’s a 10pt increase since 2017.
Which business sectors are adding the most value to the lives of people? Do you think there is a reason why this sector performed so well in the study?
Rather than look at which brands are winning or losing, we think identifying the bigger themes is a more useful exercise. When we compare two study periods, 2017-2019 and 2019-2021, we can see a spike in the ‘personal’ needs that people report – mainly caused, we believe, by a growing sense of personal anxiety and fragility brought on by the pandemic and people’s changing status and security.
When we go deeper, we see that consumers want help from brands by decreasing or counteracting that stress in their lives. Either by making things easier, providing peace of mind or happiness, or helping people feel content in their everyday lives. 80% of consumers expect brands to show support to people in times of crisis in this way. We can also see that collective attributes have shown a consistent trend upward. To become more meaningful, brands need to really reflect on these important trends in the personal and collective spaces.
This year, a portion of the report focuses on how brands aim to deliver ‘collective benefits’; what was the reason for this? Were there any key findings that stuck out to you?
With the growing trend towards a focus on collective benefits and the shift in priorities towards the health of people and planet, this year, for the first time, Meaningful Brands study mapped proprietary metrics alongside the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We wanted to understand what really matters to people.
What’s of note is that consumers increasingly expect brands to strengthen their collective pillar, but it isn’t about jumping on the bandwagon to help the latest trending social cause – it can’t come across as woke washing. The cause needs to be genuine and authentic, because people think that building a better world starts ‘at home’. Consumers want to see brands supporting what is most authentic to them and where they have a genuine right to share their support. Food brands should focus on Zero Hunger for example. This is about ‘prioritising’ what matters and where a business can make the biggest difference.
Although the report found consumer trust in brands is at an all-time low, does this present any unique opportunities?
Taken as a whole, our study does suggest that brands are under more scrutiny than ever before. With so much choice, access, time and technology available, people can research in new ways, and they can afford to be more discerning than ever before. For people all around the world, what we’re finding is that being ‘meaningful’ is not something vague or esoteric – it’s about delivering real and tangible benefits that people can see, feel, touch or experience. The pandemic has made people more sceptical and has changed what people expect from the brands they interact with. The data is also showing that people expect brands to focus more on delivering to their personal and collective needs – this is in large part down to the growing sense of uncertainty and insecurity inherent in the pandemic and its potential threat to people’s jobs and lifestyles. We also see that consumers over-index on wanting help from brands by decreasing or counteracting stress in their lives. So, if the issue is an increase in consumer cynicism; then the opportunity is to focus on ‘action’. Affirmative action. Brands that act, and do, and get out there to change people’s lives in a real and meaningful way, will win.
Looking forward to the 2022 Meaningful Brands report, do you have any predictions?
Making any predictions in such a fast-changing and dynamic social and consumer landscape is dangerous. We use the study to give us guidance and insight and we will continue to explore what brands need to do to be more meaningful to their customers. The only prediction I’ll make is that I’m sure the study will throw up some fascinating new insights in 2022. Watch this space.