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Mass-sharing in the social-media age is bringing new meaning to the term 'information overload'. Speaking at the Facebook f8 developers' conference last year, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, said: 'Our development is guided by the principle that every year the amount people want to add, share and express is increasing.'
Digitally savvy consumers are disassociating themselves from the enjoyment of the moment to record it, with huge implications for brands. Dan Hagen, head of planning at Carat, says the trend is fundamentally changing the way in which human need states are met.
'Now the essence of who you are isn't about going to an event and having an experience, but defining yourself through telling and showing others you were there,' he says.
According to Hagen, this trend will only accelerate over the next 12 months, making the 'i-Everything generation' a key audience for marketers.
Henry Mason, head of research and analysis at Trendwatching.com, says that 'frictionless sharing' will continue to be a key consumer trend in 2012. He points to the success brands such as Spotify and The Guardian have had in integrating with Facebook, so consumers can passively share what they are listening to and reading. 'We will see less of consumers actively sharing through functions such as the Like button', adds Mason. In short, social sharing will become the wallpaper of daily life, making content curation and standout increasingly important.
From news reports about the Arab Spring to concerts where 90% of the audience seems to be there primarily to record the gig, in the new experience economy nothing counts unless you film it on your iPhone.
While there is a risk that marketers will get caught up in the hype surrounding Facebook, Apple remains the marketing industry's Gold Standard. Although Facebook is reported to have made $1.6bn in the first half of 2011, Apple is alleged to make that much in just nine days. In an age of diminishing profit margins, the continued success of Apple, a brand that very rarely resorts to discounting, is a telling reminder to brands that they do not need a dominant market share to win.
The economic downturn continues to have a dramatic impact on consumer behaviour. Ben Hammersley, the prime minister's ambassador to TechCity and editor-at-large of Conde Nast's Wired UK magazine, says the single biggest consumer trend for 2012 is the fact there is simply 'no money left'. 'From both a corporate and consumer perspective, there is less money and, as the economy gets tighter, people's patience for marketing will rapidly run out,' he predicts. 'A lot of consumers are [being] more careful with their money, but the idea that all consumers were frivolous with their money in 2006 and 2007 is bogus.'
Research from JWT suggests that brands should now view the recession as a source of long-term pressure on consumer behaviour. The agency urges brands to 'navigate the new normal' stating that, in the developed world, more brands in more categories will develop offerings in smaller sizes, stripped-down ranges and more accessible products and services. In the US, for example, Heinz has introduced several products in reduced sizes with a suggested retail price of 99 cents, including a 10oz Ketchup pouch and mini sauces.
If 2011 was the year of brand engagement, 2012 will be the year in which the very notion of engagement is placed under the microscope.
Brand engagement comes from the assumption that the brand is very important to consumers, which just isn't the case,' argues Hammersley. He believes the idea that consumers want to take time out of their busy lives to watch content or even co-create it – spending time and money interacting with a brand – is under threat. 'This is a luxury activity and, in many ways, we have been in an "attention bubble" – when you don't have time or money, these types of activities become in poor taste,' he adds. Indeed, brands such as Lexus and Littlewoods touched a nerve in the run-up to Christmas by suggesting cash-strapped consumers express their festive cheer through conspicuous consumption. In the 'forever recession', brands that are insensitive to consumers' economic anxiety risk a public backlash.
For a generation of marketers bought up on the assumption of an increasingly 'ageless society' the widening divide between the Millennials and previous generations has substantial implications for brands. Hammersley points to the notion of a 'chronological civil war' as an important trend for brands.
'You have people in their 20s and early-30s looking at the world and saying "Thanks very much",' he says. While Europe and the US have not been immune to civil unrest, Hammersley warns: 'We haven't seen the anger at all.'
'To think of society as ageless is complete nonsense,' he adds, highlighting the economic divide along generational lines, particularly in relation to the housing market.
This trend presents a huge challenge for brands seeking to bridge the generational divide.
Tim Crow, chief executive of sponsorship agency Synergy, says: 'One of the key themes this year will be the redefining of what it means to be British and how the country will define itself around the Jubilee and the Olympics. While the world is watching, there will be two Olympic stories: that of the athletes and another of how Britain defines itself as a modern nation.'
Crow characterises the Games as equivalent to '17 days of a royal wedding' – a mood of national celebration and recession escapism will present a welcome relief to brands. Whether or not the capital's transport system grinds to a halt, many in the industry believe that, in the end, consumers will come together.
Carl Ratcliff, executive planning director at integrated agency Elvis, says that British consumers still love the notion of the 'British Bulldog' and the notion of an enduring spirit, resilience and personality. This presents a major opportunity for brands.
Generation Y has higher expectations than previous generations for brands not only to act in a sustainable and responsible way, but also to actively take the lead on social issues.
In a paper for Harvard Business Review, Michael E Porter extolled a new model of capitalism based upon 'creating shared value'. In 2012, this redefinition of capitalism, to create a value model where both economic and societal benefit is generated, is set to be a key theme for brands.
This will be a year in which consumers place unprecedented pressure on corporations to align themselves with consumer ideals. In the US, brands such as Starbucks, with its 'create jobs for USA' recruitment programme, have already responded to this trend with campaigns. In October, ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry's pledged its allegiance to the Occupy movement, stating: 'We support this call to action and are honoured to join you in this call to take back our nation and democracy.'
The pressure is on UK brands to follow suit.
Trust, authenticity and values are key to success in 2012 as the dominance of social media means there is nowhere for brands to hide. Ratcliff explains that in an uncertain world what consumers really want is leadership, whether in politics or the frozen-food aisle.
'The key is not to spend your whole life in research; indecision breeds indecision,' he says, pointing to the idea that consumers in all walks of life, having failed to find the leadership they seek, are increasingly turning in on themselves, creating a 'little village' mentality.
Last year, brands including The Co-operative Group proactively released a statement on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and withdrew their advertising support from the newspaper. In 2012, consumers will continue to demand that brands take a point of view and show their values to consumers.
In the social-media age, consumers are demanding that brands tailor their products to their every whim. Burberry Bespoke, the fashion house's digital customisation service, claims to offer a potential 12m variations on its classic trench coat.
Forrester Research predicts that mass customisation is a consumer trend that is here to stay, stating: 'Higher shopper expectations, the dawn of tablets and apps, and the rise of cheaper, more-advanced web technologies will make the phenomenon take off in the next decade.'
However, Jenny Biggam, partner at media agency the7stars, says that in 2012 brands must move beyond customisation to meet the ever-increasing expectations of consumers. 'The interesting role for brands is the growing opportunity to become a facilitator of that information rather than simply branding apps,' she adds. With HTML5 driving down the cost of cross-platform development and allowing apps to be downloaded directly from publishers, freeing them from the restrictions of Apple's distribution platform, for many brands in 2012 the only way is app.
The flight to heritage and tradition is a well-worn trend noted by historians in previous recessions. In the social media age, these trends are manifesting themselves in a return to craft and domestic pursuits such as baking. According to figures from the7stars, during 2011 21.1m adults, and 6.4m 16- to 34-year-olds, watched BBC series The Great British Bake Off last year. By comparison, 4.7m adults watched Big Brother, which switched from Channel 4 to Channel 5 in 2011.
At times when the economy is tight and individuals are facing up to a wealth of competing pressures, brands need to do more to support their customers. Nick Gray, managing director of retail specialist Live & Breathe, highlights the emergence of a new breed of service-oriented brands.
'The future is brands such as iTunes, which effectively sacrifice a short-term sale in order to inform consumers they are attempting to buy something they already have,' he says. In short, brands need to be kinder to their consumers, regardless of the immediate impact on sales, to reap the benefit in the longer term.
From bath-shaped and double-dip to the eurozone crisis and subsequent economic turmoil in the past 12 months the recession has been a lingering presence in the lives of Britain's consumers. Even for those who, as a result of declining mortgage interest rates, are actually better off in the short term, the 'emotional recession' has led them to place the brands and products they purchase under unprecedented scrutiny.
Ratcliff says the climate is right for brands to work harder to offer consumers more in the service economy, and become a trusted figure in their lives. 'Brands need to invest in long-term projects, not campaigns,' he adds. 'When times are gloomy, it's vital to understand what consumers really want.'
With analysts warning that the UK will face a post-Olympic 'investment hangover' as brands scale back their spending, marketers would be forgiven for replacing the weather with the recession as the catch-all excuse for poor sales.
However, consumers are just as tired as marketers of the recession, and the media's obsession with it. For brands that have thrived on offer-based marketing, such as 'Dine in for two for £10', 2012's challenge will be to put the excitement back into their campaigns.
Over the next 12 months it will take more than a good deal to hold consumers' attention and, more importantly, sustain their investment.AUTOFEED INTERACTIVE SPECIAL
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk