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Marketers connect with humans to shape the future of their brands

A few weeks ago, I was at the WFA’s Global Marketing Week in Toronto (#GMWTO), where I was confirmed in my thinking that marketers and brand owners face similar challenges as the insight industry: they both depend on humans to shape and build the future of their brands. David Wheldon, WFA President and CMO at RBS, put it very clearly in his state of the union for brands: “Put People First.” That means that brand marketing succeeds by building connections that fulfil enduring human needs. “Only through knowing what is of meaning and value to people will you truly find a way into their lives,” he stated rightfully. And this was clearly reflected in many of the presentations at the GMWTO.

According to Raja Rajamannar, CMO & CCO at Mastercard, the company realizes we live in an expectation economy, where people (1) are better informed, (2) are looking to be delighted (and not just to have their needs fulfilled), and (3) are seeking to be rewarded constantly. With an abundance of content available today, people are seeking for uninterrupted experiences which brands are often cut out of. Mastercard seeks to cut through this by means of establishing human connections through story making (not telling) in its nine passion points (i.e., sports, movies, music, culinary, philanthropy, travel, arts & culture, shopping, and a sustainable environment). They created four platforms around Priceless Cities, Causes, Specials and Surprises. For the latter, they created over 600,000 surprises which, according to Rajamannar, “costs less than TV campaigns and generates bigger impact,” – sic (without giving any further details).

Burger King Facebook page

Such attempts to stand out boil down to getting people’s attention. Marketing seems to suffer from ADD as people’s attention spans are now shorter than that of a gold fishCoca-Cola’s Ivan Pollard (SVP Strategic Marketing) stated that it may also be that (young) consumers’ processing power has gone up because the brain is better trained than ever to process the mass of stimuli around us. Whereas a brand like Coca-Cola was ubiquitously present in the ’50s, it is now about being present at the decisive moments – another way of saying the brand must be timely relevant.

For Vice’s Mark Adams (VP of Innovation), brands often play the role of the embarrassing drunken uncle due to the boardroom first communications model. The model linearly decides which product to talk about and in which media, and slaps a creative execution on it to make it noticed.

But it leads to reduced absurdity like in Burger King’s Facebook activation “Can you find the hidden chicken nugget? ‘LIKE’ when you find it.

The boardroom (or is it bored-room? 😊) first model creates a lot of meaningless and expensive NONTENT. In fact, when you ask people what they are passionate about, they will almost never mention a brand spontaneously. Because people would not care if 74% of all brands would just disappear. Instead, we need to evolve to an audience first model and relate to people’s passions! Brands should create content which only they can make. As Byron Sharp would state it: we need to create distinct memory structures and then refresh them with reach and frequency at an efficient rate that keeps these top of mind. But the distinct memory structures are the key. Finding these content white spaces, however, can only be done by generating real empathy with audiences and truly understand them.

The party was closed with the comeback marketing case of Barbie. Lisa McKnight (SVP & Global Brand General Manager at Mattel) explained how the brand went back to its original purpose and insight of founder Ruth Handler when she invented Barbie. For girls, playing with a Barbie offered them a platform of imagination, as “through the doll, a girl can be anything she wants to be.” After a prolonged period of success, the brand came to a halt as it was hardly considered a role model and no longer served its purpose. Mattel faced the mission to change the way the world perceives and talks about Barbie, and their brand management undertook three bold moves:

1. Get buy-in from parents. While girls are the users (and are often still delighted), the brand did not speak to moms. Moms needed to be reacquainted with what Barbie enables to do. The brand manifesto “You can be anything” went viral, with over 50 million views and over 718 impressions and a series of creative awards to follow.

The brand shifted from mass marketing to mass mattering, and the core of the success was that people do not buy products but buy into them. Current and future campaigns will be more inclusive, e.g., by focusing on dads – see Dads who play Barbie – because dads play a big influence in the overall development of girls.

2. The product line got a complete diversity overhaul, now including different skin tones and reflecting multiculturalism.

Barbie various body styes

3. The body style of Barbie was altered, now offering curvypetite and tall, as imagination comes in all shapes and sizes.

The results McKnight reported were impressive, with over five billion media impressions, a number-one global news story, and a positive brand sentiment of nearly 100%. But there is also a clear business impact: Barbie now comes first as girl toy property, and third in overall toy property, with sales having increased by 10%. As an insight professional, I was glad to hear Lisa McKnight conclude the key to such success is to constantly listen to people and create a story that is true to your brand’s purpose.

The connecting thread throughout all these presentations was that marketers (and the insights professionals that help them) live in an age of relevance. Brands should be loyal to people, not the other way around. Brand owners are not their own consumers! So, brands need to rely on human insights and collaborate with people to shape their future, more than ever before.

Want to explore how your brand can connect with the next generations, and Gen Z in particular? Discover what our research toolbox and expert power can do for your brand!

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Gen Z are the digitally native generation: social-media-literate, always-on and hyper-informed. With many Gen Zers coming of age during the pandemic, the past two years put a mark on their lives and outlook on the future. In this report, we shed a light on what makes Gen Z different from the generations before them and what they expect from brands.

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