‘Tis the Season to ‘Get Real’

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Why brands must bite the bullet this Christmas and find out what their customers really think of them.

UK Consumers have fallen out of love with brands.

There, I said it.

And it needs saying, because the sad, dangerous truth is that brand marketeers and retail managers are burying their heads in the sand. They are still far too quick to believe reassuring – but superficial, often anecdotal and inaccurate – feedback from self-interested parties telling them that consumers love their offer.

Invariably, they don’t, but in fact it’s much more serious than that, because customers are brand-savvy, IT-conscious, money and time poor. The combination of which continues to have a devastating impact on UK high streets, as the face of retail looks set to change immeasurably.

Shoppers have come full circle from learning to love labels and logos in the sixties, through a dizzying retail cycle that saw them adopting and showing off the must-have ones in the seventies and eighties, before reaching peak spend on them in the nineties.

Since then, consumers have become less engaged with mass market brands that ‘everyone else’ seems to be wearing, carrying or using. Nowadays, they typically seek the niche, the bespoke, the well-kept secrets; they want to be respected early adopters to confirm their unique cultural position and their affinity with smaller, ‘elite’ groups of ‘in-the-know’ trendsetters.

The Truth Report 2018: The trouble with Real People, which revealed that the majority of consumers (51%), are unable to even identify a favourite brand, whilst the vast majority (74%), often feel confused by brand advertising and messaging.

It means that any ‘brand loyalty’ that exists these days is very fragmented, on a much smaller scale and far more fleeting. The monolithic icons that dominated for decades are, if not quite dead and buried, slowly dying on their feet.

This is borne out by FKC’s recent research, The Truth Report 2018: The trouble with Real People, which revealed that the majority of consumers (51%), are unable to even identify a favourite brand, whilst the vast majority (74%), often feel confused by brand advertising and messaging.

Tour operators (41%), department stores (35%), shopping centres (32%), car models (34%) and casual dining (33%) were all highlighted as sectors suffering particularly poor consumer loyalty, with infrequent or irrelevant brand messaging frequently cited as the reason.

This trend is borne out on the struggling high street, with 2017/18 the worst period since the Millennium for UK store closures. John Lewis/ Waitrose, HoF, Mothercare, New Look, Carphone Warehouse, M&S, Poundland, Maplin, have all suffered a spate of profit losses/store closures and Poundworld folded completely, as did both Toys R Us and Maplin, while the likes of Prezzo, Byron and Jamie’s Italian all announced restaurant failures. And the list goes on.

Among the few people who could name a favorite brand, Amazon came top of the loyalty league, followed closely by supermarket chains Tesco and Asda. The Top Ten list of favourites was wholly dominated by fashion and supermarket brands – all of whom have invested millions introducing offline and digital channels to engage customers, with what appears to be relatively little success.

The survey confirmed that the boom times of unquestioning consumer loyalty are long gone. A sea of consumer choice has diluted customer commitment to brands – even for the tech giants.

And it makes the ‘Christmas payday’ that can make or break the major retailers’ year an ever-more bitter and undignified annual dogfight among increasingly desperate chains. Not only must they compete with each other to recapture waning public affection, but also with widespread Black Friday fatigue and fleet-footed online providers who offer lower costs throughout the year.

For that reason, brands should mark this festive season by finally addressing the issues they face.

If they want to be forever, rather than just for one more Christmas, they must be brave enough to go deep with their research and quiz their markets much more rigorously than they ever have before.

Inevitably, these will throw up some home truths – and they should do for any brand struggling to influence consumers into choosing it.

Marketeers and strategists must actively interrogate consumers on why they have little or no loyalty to their brand. How can they retain their attention? What information must they communicate to key audiences and how?

Do consumers trust the brand – if not, why not? Do they feel it is dated – if so, why? What is their image of it – if poor, why? If they aren’t active customers, what would convert them, make the brand relevant and aspirational for them and their networks? How and when would they like to be engaged with and contacted?

Many of the answers will be challenging and unpalatable, but that’s exactly the point: it’s ‘harsh truths time’ and this research simply can’t be geared to returning insubstantial flattery.

And, of course, directors must get to grips with the lack of warmth for the brand model itself. How can big groups as a sector reverse negative perceptions and tailor their offers to far smaller, ever more self-aware consumer ‘splinter groups’ who seek boutique retail experiences?

With this in mind, they would do well to examine the consumer engagement and goodwill that challenger brands and the growing community of high street pop-up competitors attract.

Responses will often be emotional ones. For example, the big challenge for brands that are more of a considered, rather than everyday, purchase (e.g. designer clothes or electronic devices), is how do we stay front of mind?

Emotions play a much greater role for such buys and marketeers must gauge to what extent decisions about their products are dictated by feelings or logic – and how they can tap into these when communicating with customers.

Conducting hard-hitting research will help brands understand how to communicate better with their target audiences, shedding light on some of the common errors and misunderstandings linked to the changing behaviours of everyday people in a turbulent, ultra-competitive retail world.

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