Why brands must embrace their human side in 2018
A view from Jem Fawcus

Why brands must embrace their human side in 2018

Marketing will need to be geared towards compassion, decency, accountability and transparency in these troubled, digitally-saturated times, says the group chief executive of insight agency Firefish.

So that was 2017, the year that the hype around machine learning and digital disruption finally came to fruition and to transformative effect. Cars started to drive themselves and digital assistants went mainstream as Alexa and Cortana made a compelling and accessible case for the role of artificial intelligence in our daily lives.

Meanwhile the convergence of cloud, big data, analytics and mobile has seen a growing number of businesses morph into digital enterprises making expansion into new markets and countries easier than ever thought possible.

Yet it’s a momentum tempered by some negative undercurrents. Post-Trump, post-Weinstein, post-Brexit, it has been a tough year defined by an often-divisive doom and gloom from remainers vs brexiteers to communities such as that around Grenfell tower exposing the stark difference between the haves and the have nots.

Against this backdrop, the flipside of some technological advancement has come into sharper focus and troubled our conscience. What does the march of automation mean for our jobs? Will algorithms become our boss? And where does the responsibility lie for some of the bile spouted on social media and disturbing content on YouTube?

We can expect to give short shrift to brands that reek of tokenism and insincerity

While the #metoo campaign in the wake of the Weinstein allegations is a reminder of Twitter’s ability to galvanise and empower, it remains a medium which can channel plenty of hate. Indeed, led from the top down by a US president for whom this has become a go-to channel for vitriol and reactive threats, online communities have become an increasingly toxic hot bed of trolling and harassment.

This divergence between the acceptance, and indeed willingness, to outsource many of our purchase decisions to smart algorithms and a growing unease with the ubiquity of technology and its less favourable effects will shape our demands and expectations as consumers as we look ahead to the New Year.

As a result, we can expect the brands we buy into and the messaging that resonates to be geared towards compassion, decency, accountability and transparency as we hanker for something that is both simple and deeper in these troubled, digitally-saturated times; notably, a more human touch. Businesses that recognise the value of the customer and embrace more human-centric qualities in their approach by prioritising sincerity and fairness and respond with agility to changing demands will prosper over those who don’t.

Make good cheese

It’s a trajectory fuelled by the growing volume of customer data and how it is being used to transform entire industries, notably the financial sector with the move to open banking. Here, the traditionally private domain of an individual’s financial data will be shared with third parties via secure open APIs to innovate and add value to the service offering. The caveat is the consumer will demand enhanced protection around their personal information and heightened transparency; banks that don’t respond and fail to instil this trust will lose out in a saturated and hyper competitive market

In a similar vein, we can expect to give short shrift to brands that reek of tokenism and insincerity. Inflated claims and ill-judged alignments to broader causes in a bid to demonstrate brand purpose in the manner of this year’s prime culprit, the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, will be a called to account by consumers that expect better. If brands are going to claim social purpose and join bigger conversations, they need to make sure they have the right and get it right.  Otherwise they are perhaps best advised to find a purpose that they can really live up to.  If you make cheese, make the best cheese.  That in itself can make the world seem a better place.

By contrast, marketing which embraces the power of nostalgia stands to make more meaningful connections.  In turbulent and uncertain times people instinctively look back to the past for its comfort factor - think of the continuing appeal of the ‘90s supermodels with their familiar faces and backstories.

Brands that understand and resonate with core human values and needs such as the desire for community and human interaction or the real and immutable – both seen in the hyper-craft movement – will succeed. With Brexit still to play out and the world waiting on the respective whims of Trump and Kim Jong-un, not to mention the shadow of fake news, it seems we all need a little honesty, kindness and things we can trust.


Jem Fawcus is the group chief executive of Firefish

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