• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022

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Fighting back with brand relevance

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Amid societal, environmental and political change, brands are finding ways to connect with their audiences and remain relevant and authentic to young, demanding audiences. Brittany Golob reports

Footwear brand Crocs had been ticking along quite nicely for the past decade or so. It charted nearly $1.2bn in sales in 2014 and saw that number gently rise and fall until 2020, when the brand netted $1.39bn. But, with a handful of key brand partnerships and a strategy focusing on social media, the company hit $2.3bn.

As a result of the 67% revenue growth – and the brand’s massive reach with Gen Z consumers – it was named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company. Michelle Poole, president of Crocs said in a statement, "By partnering with individuals, brands and organisations that embrace our drive for innovation, we're able to stretch the possibilities of design and creative thinking to create one-of-a-kind experiences for our consumers.”

The correlation was clear. Strategic brand associations, creative social media and customised experiences resulted in a massive following, huge sales and a reinstatement of Crocs’ ‘it’ factor.

It’s not always easy for brands to craft this relevance with their audiences, particularly with the Gen Z demographic that demands both authenticity and leadership.

“The most relevant brands demonstrate that they share your beliefs and values. This continues to be a critical driver of relevance and is increasing in importance with younger audiences,” says Marisa Mulvihill, head of the brand & activation practice at Prophet, which releases an annual ranking and research report into brand relevance. 

The Brand Relevance Index examines four key metrics that appeal to consumers’ logical pragmatism and their emotional connections with brands. The result is a top 50 comprised of some of the usual suspects in Apple, Disney and Netflix, but also the likes of Costco, KitchenAid and Calm. Mulvihill puts this down to two key drivers, “Brands need to be customer obsessed and pervasively innovative. Relevance is only achieved through relentlessly adapting to market dynamics and deep listening. Bringing purpose to your work and using that purpose to inspire your people and lead the customer experience.”

For Bristol-based arts organisation, now known as the Bristol Beacon, its commitment to its community was at the heart of its rebrand. Founded as Colston Hall, after an historic local MP and slave trader, the venue “had a pretty major reputational challenge” to face, according to head of marketing Andy Boreham. It was in the midst of a multimillion pound transformation project and decided to take action on its name. 

 

“We speak up for our beliefs and inspire others to do the same. Only together we can change things for the better”

 

So the Bristol Beacon was born, transforming the arts site from a reflection of Bristol’s past to a modern, ever-evolving key to the city’s future.

It found a way to retain its relevance in the midst of change, and did so in a way that authentically connected with its community. Mulvihill says this is critical to brand relevance, “The most relevant brands demonstrate that they share your beliefs and values. This continues to be a critical driver of relevance and is increasing in importance with younger audiences.  I believe how brands deliver on ESG issues and demonstrate their commitment to a positive impact will continue to rise in importance. This positive impact will include how employees are treated, how communities are affected and how easy the brands make it for consumers to minimise their carbon footprint.”

Brands have had to respond to significant social, environmental and political change over the past few years. Social movements have altered the way consumers relate to brands and climate change has caused people to think differently about the companies they once supported. Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer points to a ‘cycle of distrust’ that links the media, businesses, governments and societal instability in a perpetual doom spiral. There was a six point increase in the amount of people saying they fear experiencing prejudice or racism. And, only 44% say governments are taking a leadership role in solving societal challenges. 

For brands hoping to avoid this cycle of distrust, authenticity and relevance are crucial to success. The barometer shows that 58% of people buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. Studies abound – from EY to charity movement Do Something to consultancies and marketing agencies – charting the connection between Gen Z consumption practices and sustainability.

The brands that are getting it right are not only remaining sustainable, but also engaging with their communities authentically. 

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Weekday, a Swedish fashion brand built on a circular model, unveils a new t-shirt design each week which speaks to the news of the day. The Zeitgeist project’s screen prints might be funny or topical or persuasive, but they will inevitably also be labelled ‘sold out.’ Nadine Schmidt, head of communications and inclusion & diversity at Weekday says, “The Zeitgeist project is an amazing way to speak up about certain values, but also just to have fun with our community sometimes.”

Beyond its special projects like Zeitgeist, it makes a point of talking to its community to both share its own messaging about circular fashion and diversity and inclusion, but to listen to consumers as well. Schmidt says, “We get direct feedback and can even include our community in certain decisions. That is why [social media] is so important for us.” 

That two-way dialogue is something april, a vitamin and supplement brand, relies on as well. Helena Aru, the director of april, says, “With the help of social media, we can communicate and connect directly with our community of customers, fans, followers and collaborators. Social media is such a big part of our audience’s everyday lives, so it feels pretty natural for us to have a strong presence there to be able to grow an engaged community and develop our universe to build trust, add brand depth and increase organic reach.”

Social media engagement may not be rocket science for brands operating in the 21st century, but what those brands that succeed at building genuine connections with young people are able to do is adapt. Aru says, “It’s an ever-changing landscape, and we need to constantly stay up to date with new trends and features to stay relevant, which requires extreme speed and openness. We’re also dependent on other profiles to help spread our message to the world, which sometimes affects how our values are communicated and the brand consistency.”

That’s how the Bristol Beacon repositioned itself and its community. By adapting to the changing desires and needs of their audiences, brands can remain relevant and continue to engage in an authentic way. 

In Bristol, it was a matter of listening to the change in conversation people were having. Putting live music at the heart of the brand helped the Beacon build an emotional connection. “Our rebrand is about emphasising the transformative power of music and our role in creating the many opportunities to experience it,” Boreham says. 

Edelman’s cycle of distrust also indicates that companies need to take a stand in the face of change. It noted that 60% of people agree with the statement, ‘When considering a job, I expect the CEO to speak publicly about controversial social and political issues that I care about;’ a five point rise from 2019. 

Aru says this is why april has a well-defined tone of voice and commitment to its community. “Since we’re a brand that lives on the internet, we’re trying to focus on what we believe unites our community. Things that many people can relate to and that aren’t necessarily restricted to countries, such as telling real and relatable stories from our community, sharing transparent and insightful knowledge, and building in the open and leaning on pop culture and internet trends. But in all this, we must never forget to stick to our tone of voice, talk the talk and incorporate our brand personality!”

That approach is echoed by Weekday. Schmidt adds, “We want to empower the diversity of the creative generation. We speak up for our beliefs and inspire others to do the same. Only together we can change things for the better.”

Prophet defines brand relevance through customer focus, pragmatism, inspiration and innovation. Most importantly, though, it says brands should appeal to the heads and the hearts of their target audience. The head may be wanting a brand that is cool – or that others say is cool – or it may want something practical; something that just works. The heart may want that brand to do something; to care.

Just take Crocs. Deemed cool many years ago, it later fell out of fashion. But smart brand associations drove it to front of mind – and feed – for young consumers. But it didn’t stop there. It recently hired its first global head of sustainability and has put the banner of ‘comfort’ at the heart of its ESG leadership. 

A handful of its recent Instagram posts have linked comfort to sustainable goals around mental health awareness and circularity. This marks a shift from the simple, fun product and people-centred posts even a week earlier. Its brand’s strategic positioning is blended seamlessly with its consumer-focused social strategy. 

Head and heart, united, it’s adapting. It’s still authentic – to itself and its community – but it’s also remaining relevant. And that, in a volatile world, is a true brand asset.