• The influence of Gen Z has been realized
  • The traditional purchase funnel has collapsed
  • Brands are expected to match their consumers’ vulnerabilities

When we ask ourselves, what has really changed in the last year? The truth is that everything has. Consumers are feeling the pressure from every corner of our world - from the micro, everyday things like paying their bills to the macro, big picture things, like the smog outside their city windows. Meanwhile in the back of their minds, they’re wondering when the rug of their rights to freedom will be pulled out from underneath them. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Collapse of the Purchase Funnel is not a data story, it’s a human story.

These new and heightened consumer vulnerabilities that have taken shape over the past year have also radically and transversely transformed the world of marketing. The problem is that many brands, and many brand leaders are still operating as if it were 2022. New data from Edelman reveals three major shifts occurring in the marketing landscape, changing the business of brand building, and three major mandates for marketers:

First, the influence of the Gen Z consumer has been realized. Over the course of a single year, there has been a 7-point increase in people who say that Gen Z has influenced where and how they shop, from 61% to 68%. In particular, there has been an astounding 12-point increase for consumers over the age of 59, and a 9-point increase for consumers between the ages of 43 and 58. Consumers feel Gen Z’s influence in their expectations for a brand’s environmental friendliness, diversity in its advertising, and even diversity of its employees.

Notably, Gen Z exhibits the highest need for brand trust, with 79% saying it is more important to trust the brands they buy today than in the past (a full 8 pt increase from 2021). As their influence is realized we expect this urgent need for trust to continue to rise across all generations.

Millennials may have killed the doorbell and the top sheet, but Gen Z killed the purchase funnel.

Second, the traditional purchase funnel has collapsed. Millennials may have killed the doorbell and the top sheet, but Gen Z killed the purchase funnel. The purchase funnel, which for decades has served as the foundation for any marketing strategy, does not reflect the modern-day brand-consumer relationship. The funnel is a one-way conversation, representative of only the consumer actions, and ends with purchase. According to Edelman’s new study, 78% of consumers say that they uncover things that attract them to a brand and drive loyalty after the first purchase. Purchase is just the beginning.

The new funnel formula isn’t a funnel at all, but an infinite loop of interaction and engagement between brand and consumer. Consumers want interaction - 79% openly interact with brands, through engagements like consuming content, participating in brand activities, sharing feedback and connecting with brands on social media. During these exchanges, consumers evaluate a brand’s competency, ethics, and relevancy, ultimately determining if they can trust the brand or not. When brand trust is established, 59% of consumers say they are more likely to purchase new products from the brand and/or buy the brand even if it’s not as cheap as competitors, and 67% say they are more likely to stay loyal to the brand and advocate for it, even sticking with it during a public misstep. Brand action fuels consumer action, and with the right inputs and interactions, the loop builds brand trust.

And third, brands are expected to match (and share) consumers’ vulnerabilities. What are those right inputs and interactions? 73% of consumers said they are attracted to brands that increase their sense of safety and security (a 9-pt increase year over year), compared to just 27% who are more attracted to brands that spark a sense of adventure and thrill-seeking. This finding coincides with Edelman’s 2021 Power of Gen Z report which in 2021 uncovered that 7 in 10 Gen Zers want safety and security in their lives. Our macro cultural climate and global communications infrastructure have made safety and security paramount.

This need for safety is making consumers more discerning and thoughtful when it comes to their purchases. Functionally we’re putting brands through much more scrutiny than we ever have before. As a result of the turmoil in the past year, 58% are doing more research before they buy a brand, and 55% are more likely to consider a product’s environmental impact before buying. 77% of consumers say there are brands they won’t buy because of the country in which the company is based. When scrutiny is this pervasive, especially where it concerns buying behavior, and consumers are feeling vulnerable, the need to trust a brand becomes more urgent. Influencers and channels have a key role to play here. These voices should not be one-size-fits-all. In fact, engaging different voices enhances the trust and credibility of a brand. As we see in Edelman’s data on potential brand ambassadors, a scientist or academic expert is seen as just as credible as an everyday person, and even an employee of the brand is seen as credible by many.

When you put all this together, brand leaders have a very clear mandate for the year ahead.

  1. Brands need to hold themselves accountable, communicate their societal actions, and address consumer vulnerabilities to have a shot at earning trust. They need to nurture the consumer relationship with ongoing actions that build trust – things like owning their mistakes, being transparent about climate impact, and developing an emotional connection with consumers.
  2. Make trust your growth engine. When we think about the new buying model – the trust loop – it certainly brings with it its advantages. But, that doesn’t mean that there’s no risk. The loop can break when trust breaks. And often where things go wrong for a brand is when they lose sight of their consumer (76% say brands’ attempts at direct consumer engagement go wrong when their interactions lack relevance) or if they lose sight of themselves (51% say things go wrong when a brand is inauthentic or out of touch).
  3. Work with Gen Z. The lynchpin to all this, of course, is Gen Z. If a brand wins with Gen Z, the trickledown effect to all other generations will be substantial. This generation is changing the face of global commerce.

This new world of brand building is equitable to a new world of consumers. It marks a shift away from the traditional modus operandi for being a successful brand, towards one that connects deeply and consistently with today’s vulnerable, yet challenging consumer.

Jackie Cooper is Global Chief Brand Officer.

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