‘Most brands could die and no-one would give a toss’

grave 2Brand owners’ attempts to show they are caring, sharing and worthy risk being dismissed by consumers as simply “CSR washing”, with less than half of brands seen as trustworthy and three-quarters could disappear without trace and most people would not care.

That is the damning conclusion of the 2021 Havas’ Meaningful Brands report, a study which has been running since 2009 and finds consumers desperately seeking transparency and tangibility but brands are coming up short.

The survey of 395,000 consumers around the world finds cynicism at an all-time high, with over two-thirds (71%) of consumers having little faith that brands will deliver on their promises.

Despite this cynicism, consumers are desperately seeking brands that will make a meaningful difference, with a similar proportion (73%) saying brands must act now for the good of society and the planet.

Since the bi-annual global survey began in 2009, “brand meaningfulness” has consistently declined. This year’s study, which measures brand “meaning” in functional, personal and collective terms, shows that 75% of brands could disappear overnight and most people would easily find a replacement.

But the 2021 survey, carried out in mid-2020 during the height of the pandemic, also shows a growing lack of trust in brands, with 71% of people having little faith that they will deliver on their promises and only 34% think companies are transparent about their commitments and promises.

Brand trust, as measured in the Meaningful Brands study, is at an all-time low. Only 47% of brands are seen as trustworthy with trust metrics around the world in decline – only 39% of brands are trusted in North America, while only 24% are trusted in East Asia.

Havas Creative Group global chief strategy officer Mark Sinnock said: “This year’s report shows us that consumers have entered an ‘age of cynicism’. They are surrounded by what they perceive as empty or broken promises – at all levels of our society – and we are starting to see the impact of this mistrust on brands.

“Historically, companies have been looking after people’s functional and personal needs, but brands now face a bigger challenge. The more claims they make to be delivering change at a collective, societal level and the more these promises are left unfulfilled, the wider the gap between what we expect and what we actually get, and the deeper the cynicism.”

Despite the growing cynicism, our expectations of brands are at an all-time high, creating a significant expectation gap. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of global respondents believe brands must act now for the good of society and the planet and nearly two-thirds (64%) – an increase of 10 points since 2019 – have entered their own age of action, preferring to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose as well as profit.

More than half (53%) will go even further, saying they are willing to pay more for a brand that takes a stand.

Which issues brands should take a stand on is another matter. Unsurprisingly, priorities shifted during the pandemic – with public health, the economy and politics at the front of consumers’ minds, and the environment close behind.

Globally, consumers increasingly expect brands to strengthen this collective pillar, but it comes with a significant risk. Making promises that they do not tangibly deliver can lead to a trust deficit and accusations of a new form of “CSR washing”– effecting reputation to a level that it can be hard to recover from.

However, there are opportunities for brands in the 2021 report. It shows that two-thirds (66%) of consumers want more meaningful experiences from them. It also found that retail, home entertainment and technology companies have most improved their brand value in the eyes of consumers during the pandemic.

This is likely due to people seeking fast, affordable deliveries of groceries and other essentials, and experiencing constant engagement with content via tech devices in the home.

Nearly 8 out of ten (77%) of consumers expect brands to show support to people in times of crisis. There are immediate opportunities to forge meaningful connections in the short term across personal benefits; namely, to decrease life’s stressors.

However, Covid brought an increase in expectations in three specific areas: more connection, more care for the planet, and more monetary savings and growth.

If one generation stands out it is those pesky Generation Zers, who it seems are not afraid to question the rules,’seek individuality and expect inclusion. This generation is particularly focused on reducing inequalities (across areas including race, sexuality and opportunity) and have more love for brands that take a lead on social issues and embrace diversity.

Compared to pre-Covid times, ‘helpful’ content is also on the rise as consumers figure out how to navigate their personal new normal. It is important to note, however, that almost half (48%) of all content provided by brands is judged not to be meaningful to consumers.

Havas Media Group global chief strategy officer Greg James concluded: “With less than half of brands seen as trustworthy, this report should act as a wake-up call. It’s no longer enough to show up on one metric.

“Delivering the biggest difference to the lives of customers at all levels – functionally, personally and collectively ­– needs to be at the top of every brand’s agenda.”

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