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6 A.M.

How Brands Can Disrupt

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The pace of change in marketing and the marketplace continues to accelerate. Unicorn companies are challenging long-established brands, and categories are being re-imagined. Upstarts question the safety of ingredients, the integrity of the supply chain, and the sanctity of long-held business models. Consumers have new expectations of brands, with 62 percent saying they refuse to buy a brand if it fails to meet its obligations to society.

In this context, the 2016 Edelman Earned Brand study identifies and quantifies a new territory for marketers that can augment the classic purchase funnel — where committed consumers themselves will drive new and repeat sales as they advocate for and defend a brand against these kinds of disruptions.

We asked 13,000 consumers in 13 countries about their relationship with their favorite brand (one they already buy) in one of 18 categories — from food to financial services — and created the first-ever measure of the strength of the consumer-brand relationship. The newly codified Edelman Brand Relationship Index reveals that the average global relationship strength, by our measure, is 38 out of a possible 100 points. This suggests a tremendous, yet-unexplored opportunity for brands to strengthen their ties with consumers.

Interestingly, the index score is similar across all surveyed markets (four in Europe, four in North and South America, and five in Asia, with highest scores in China at 53 and India at 52), all categories (OTC medicines lowest at 33, cars highest at 43), and all generations (Matures the lowest at 28, Millennials highest at 44), and gender (Males at 40, higher than females at 36).

Beyond “Involved”

The index confirms that, on average, consumers have reached what we call the “Involved” stage, but these buyers indicate they are willing to go much further than simply purchase. In fact, they signaled a desire for a deeper connection—relationship stages we quantify and define as “Invested” in or “Committed” to their favorite brand.

Our study shows that a clear majority of consumers who reach these stages will buy first, stay loyal to, advocate for, and defend their favorite brand. These stronger relationships bring much-desired benefits: 77 percent will adopt innovation more quickly; 79 percent will pay a premium price; 82 percent will recommend the brand through liking and sharing; and, 80 percent will defend it against critics. In short, “Committed” consumers will work for you.

The good news is that some consumers have reached the “Committed” stage in all 18 categories we tested, including low-involvement businesses like utilities. On average, 12 percent of consumer-brand relationships fall into the “Committed” stage. How do we create more of these “Committed” consumers?

Towards commitment

The data shows that the mix of paid, peer, and owned media must be reconsidered at every relationship stage.  At the early stages “Indifferent” and “Interested,” consumers need paid strategies to spark awareness and consideration, but at the “Involved” stage, we begin to see a significant shift in their usage of media: peer and owned now are as important to the consumer as paid.  Consumers who are in the “Invested” and “Committed” phases consistently engage peer and owned media over paid.  In fact, the data shows that the 8-point advantage paid has over peer and owned in the earliest relationship stage shifts to an advantage for peer (+ 7 points) and owned (+ 8 points) overpaid in the “Committed” stage.  “Committed” relationships require greater brand interactivity, and committed consumers thirst for that interactivity.

The study shows that brands can most easily address consumer expectation and desire through purpose, storytelling, and listening. The Earned Brand behaviors that scored lowest are “acts with purpose” (33), “tells a memorable story” (34), and “listens openly/responds selectively” (35). These brand behaviors have the greatest potential to unlock a more committed consumer relationship through strategies that entail collaboration, participation, shared values, and shared actions—the difference between presenting consumers with a campaign and empowering them to join a movement. The consumer now wants the brand to act, and to be a meaningful presence in his or her life and in the world.

Although the respondents of our study might be termed “brand loyalists” (they were asked to volunteer their favorite brands), it isn’t our intention to wade into the debate, fueled by Professor Bryon Sharp, over whether or not brand loyalists count in the final tally of marketing success. Our study is designed to take a sidelong view of the new realities shaping the consumer-brand relationship, with the goal of helping marketers, who have long studied this connection, to better prepare for disruption — and be disruptors themselves.

We’ve learned that when a consumer moves from a relationship rooted in “me” to one powered by “we,” a new world of buying and advocacy opens up for a brand. Instead of worrying about potential disruption, brands can be creative societal disruptors — because their consumers will be right there by their side as committed partners in a better life.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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