Which brands are “meaningful” to consumers? Not very many.

What makes a brand “meaningful”? Multinational advertising, PR and research firm Havas SA has studied this topic for the past decade, conducting a survey every other year in which it attempts to rate the world’s most important brands based on consumer responses to questions about select key brand attributes.

According to Maarten Albarda, the methodology behind the Havas surveys is solid:

“It looks at three brand pillars: personal benefits; collective benefits, and functional benefits — and then adds in 13 dimensions like environment, emotional, social, ethics, etc. plus 52 attributes such as ‘saves time,’ ‘makes me happier,’ ‘delivers on its promises,’ etc.”

The Havas research is both global and quantitative — including more than 350,000 respondents in over 30 countries.

The 2019 Havas research shows that ~77% of the 1,800 brands studied don’t cut it with consumers. This finding came in response to the question of whether consumers would care if the brands disappeared tomorrow.

That’s the biggest disparity ever seen in the Havas surveys. Two years ago, the percentage was 74%.

Which brands perform best with consumers? The top five ranked for 2019 are the following:

  • #1 Google
  • #2 PayPal
  • #3 Mercedes-Benz
  • #4 WhatsApp
  • #5 YouTube

Four of these five are brands that are all about “utility” — helping consumers deal with actions (watching, searching and sharing). The odd one out here is Mercedes-Benz — suggesting that there is something enduring about the time-tested reputation for “German engineering.”

What’s equally interesting is which high-profile brands don’t crack the Top 30. I’m somewhat surprised that we don’t see the likes of Apple and Coca-Cola in the group.  On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson comes in at #6, which seems surprising to me because I doubt that J&J has the same kind of consumer awareness as many other brands.

The Havas research reveals that the highest ranked brands are ones that score well on purchase intent and the justification of carrying a premium price. Repurchase scores are also higher, making it clear that a meaningful brand translates into meaningful business benefits.

In addition to reporting on international results, Havas also releases a U.S. analysis. Historically, U.S. consumers have been even more parsimonious in choosing to bestow a “meaningful” attribution on brands.  In fact, the percentage of American consumers earmarking specific brands as indispensable hovers around 10%, compared to the mid-20s across the rest of the world.

The reason why is quite logical: American consumers tend to have more brand choices — and the more choices there are, the less any one brand would cause consternation if it disappeared tomorrow.

Click here for more reporting and conclusions from the Havas research.

Marketing AI and Machine Learning Come Into Better Focus

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are two phrases that have become regular currency in the marketing world over the past several years. It isn’t hard to figure out why, as both AI and machine learning have the potential to help marketers make sense of the ever-increasing volume (and complexity) of raw data that’s become available in increasing amounts, thanks to the digitization of “everything.”

Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but that isn’t exactly right. According to Thorin McGee, director of content at Fast Capital 360, the distinction is subtle yet significant:

  • AI is when you develop an algorithm that allows a computer to “think” for you towards achieving a goal.
  • Machine learning is when you let a computer create an algorithm to find ways to meet the goals you give it, based on large pools of data.

Put the two together, and you have the ability to gain some really deep insights into what your data is actually telling you, thereby improving decision-making success.

On the data front, this great potential is tempered by some significant challenges. Christopher Penn, chief innovation officer of marketing data and analytics consulting firm Trust Insights, characterizes them as the “5 V’s” of data:

  1. Volume — There’s so darned much of it.
  2. Variety — More kinds of data are being churned out.
  3. Velocity — Data is coming at us faster than ever.
  4. Veracity — If data isn’t verified, it can do more harm than good.
  5. Value — In raw form, data isn’t particularly useful. Like oil, data needs to be refined to be of value.

If getting your arms around data seems like trying to hug a stream of water, you aren’t alone in thinking that. Many companies are pretty adept at using data to identify what happened — and maybe even to diagnose problems and why they happened.  But it’s less easy to predict what will happen based on data … and even harder to use data to determine with confidence what should happen.

The biggest challenge — but also the one with the biggest potential payoff — is tapping machine learning to process and use data in forging future business as you wish it to be.

To date, very few companies have come all that close to becoming AI-powered enterprises. But it’s where we’re headed in the coming decade.  It represents one of the biggest opportunities for differentiating one company from another.  But it will require a disciplined and concerted effort:  talent acquisition (developers and data scientists), tapping outside vendors, along with taking available open-source code and building upon that to implement the appropriate marketing technologies.

Oh, and committing to a multi-year initiative and budget even after all of those other pieces are in place.

Surveying the current landscape, are there particular entities that you see as on the leading edge in applying AI and machine learning to their marketing endeavors? Please share your observations with other readers.

Successful marketers reveal the keys to more effective content marketing.

What differentiates B-to-B companies who carry out successful content marketing initiatives compared to those whose efforts are less impactful?

It isn’t an easy question to answer in a very quantitative way, but the Content Marketing Institute, working in conjunction with MarketingProfs, has reached some conclusions based on a survey it conducted in June and July of 2018 with nearly 800 North American content marketers. (This was the 9th year that the annual survey has been fielded.)

Beginning with a “self-graded” question, respondents were asked to rate the success of their company’s content marketing endeavors. A total of 27% of respondents rated their efforts as either very or extremely successful, compared to 22% who rated their results at the other end of the scale (minimally successful or not successful at all).

The balance of the CMI survey questions focused on this subset of ~380 respondents on both ends of the spectrum, in order to determine how content marketing efforts and results were happening differently between the two groups of marketers.

… And there were some fundamental differences discovered. To begin with, more than 90% of the self-described “successful” group of B-to-B content marketers reported that they prioritize their audience’s informational needs more highly than sales and promotional messaging.

By comparison, just 56% of the other group prioritize in this manner — instead favoring company-focused messaging in greater proportions.

Other disparities determined between the two groups of marketers relate to the extent of activities undertaken in three key analytical areas:

  • The use of primary research
  • The use of customer conversations and panels
  • Database analysis

Also importantly, ~93% of the respondents in the “successful” group described their organization as being “highly committed” to content marketing, compared to just ~35% of the respondents in the second group who feel this way.

Moreover, this disparity extends to self-described skill levels when it comes to implementing content marketing programs.  More than nine in ten of the “successful” CMS group of respondents characterize themselves as “sophisticated” or “mature” in terms of their knowledge level.

For the other group of respondents, it’s just one in ten.

Despite these differences in perceived skills, it turns out that content marketing dissemination practices are pretty uniform across both groups of companies. Tactics used by both include sponsored content on social media platforms, search engine marketing, and web banner advertising.  It’s in the messaging itself — as well as the analysis of performance — where the biggest differences appear to be.

For more information on findings from the 2018 Content Marketing Survey, click here.

When companies and brands take a stand on “issues,” here’s a quick way to weigh the potential implications.

In recent years, companies and brands have found it increasingly difficult to navigate the PR waters in a politically polarized environment.

On the one hand, companies want to be seen as progressive and inclusive organizations.  On the other, there is concern about coming off as too controversial.

The environment is about as toxic as it’s ever been. In the “good old days,” companies were able to merrily avoid controversy by supporting universally agreed-upon “benign” causes.  But whereas in the 1970s or 1980s, celebrating Christmas or financially supporting the city’s symphony orchestra or fine art gallery was never faulted, today the situation is different.

Acknowledging a religious holiday risks criticism about offending non-believers or shortchanging people of other spiritual faiths. And dishing out dollars in support of “high culture” invites barbs about the need to divert those resources to more “socially woke” initiatives and away from “high culture” pursuits that speak to only a small slice of the general public.

The recent controversy with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick-inspired “Just Do It” campaign is another case in point. It may be a bit of a coin toss, but the conventional view is that Nike’s campaign was, on balance, a modest victory for the company in that more of the public was favorably disposed to it than put off by it.  And after a momentary dip in Nike’s share price, the stock recovered and ended up higher.

Less successful was Target’s move to direct its employees to forego wishing customers “Merry Christmas,” and instead use the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. Target decided to be “out front” with this issue compared to competitors like Wal-Mart.  But after several years of gamely attempting to enforce this guideline in the wake of negative customer reaction and a barrage of bad press on the talk shows, Target finally relented, quietly reverting to the traditional Xmas greeting.

Simply put, in the current cultural environment there are more risk-and-reward issues for brands than ever — and what actually happens as a result is often unpredictable.

And yet … surveys show that many consumers want brands to take overt stands on hot-button issues of the day.  Sometimes brands are just as criticized for not taking a stand on those very same hot-button issues — such as whether to adopt gun-free zones in office and retail spaces or deciding what kind of gun-related merchandise will be prohibited from being sold in their stores.

To deal with this increasingly gnarly challenge, recently the marketing technology company 4C Insights developed a “decision tree” exercise that’s elegantly simple. It’s a great “back of the napkin” way for a company to weigh the potential upside and downside factors of taking a stand on a socio-political issue that could potentially impact product sales, corporate reputation, or the company’s share price.

Here’s the 4C Insights cheat-sheet:

To my mind, the 4C Insights decision tree can be applied equally well to weighing a potentially controversial social or cultural issue in addition to a political one.

Indeed, it should be a ready-reference for any PR and marketing professional to pull out whenever issues of this kind come up for discussion.

In this environment, my guess is that it would be referenced quite frequently.

Social Media Mashup — 2018 Edition

One thing you can say about social media platforms – their world is invariably interesting. Or as a colleague of mine likes to say, “With social media, you drop your pencil, you miss a week.”

The Pew Research Center makes it a point to study the topic twice each year in order to stay on top of the latest shifts in social media usage trends. Pew has just completed its latest report, and what it shows are some findings that confirm longer-term trends along with several evolving new narratives.

One thing hasn’t changed much: Facebook and YouTube continue to dominate the social landscape in the United States.  Facebook remains the primary social media platform for most Americans – with two-thirds of U.S. adults reporting that they use Facebook, and three-fourths of those saying that they access the platform on a daily basis.

What this means is that half of all U.S. adults are going on the Facebook platform every day.

If anything, YouTube is even more ubiquitous – at least in terms of the percentage of people who access the platform (nearly 75% of the respondents in the Pew survey). But the frequency of visits is lower, so one could say that the platform isn’t as “sticky” as Facebook.

No other social media platform is used by more than 35% of American adults, according to the Pew survey:

  • YouTube: ~73% of U.S. adults report that they use this platform
  • Facebook: ~68%
  • Instagram: ~35%
  • Pinterest: ~29%
  • SnapChat: ~27%
  • LinkedIn: ~25%
  • Twitter: ~24%
  • WhatsApp: ~22%

The chart below shows social media usage trends based on Pew Research studies going back to 2012:

Taking a closer look at social media behaviors reveals some stark differences by age group, and they portend even greater changes in the social media landscape as time goes on. In terms of being involved in “any” social media usage, Pew finds significant differences by age cohort:

  • Age 18-29: ~88% use at least one form of social media
  • Age 30-49: ~78%
  • Age 50-64: ~64%
  • Age 65+: ~37%

So, as the current population ages out, social media participation should go even higher.

But what about the composition of platform usage? Within the 18-24 age group, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are used significantly more when compared to even the next oldest age group.  Most dramatically, for Snapchat the participation level is ~78% for the youngest group compared to just ~54% for those age 30-49.

Other notable differences among groups include:

  • Pinterest is much more popular among women (~41% use the platform) than with men (just ~16%).
  • WhatsApp is particularly popular among American Hispanics (~41%) compared to blacks (~21%) and whites (~14%).
  • LinkedIn’s niche is upper-income households ($75,000+ annual income), which correlates to higher education levels. Half of American adults with college degrees use LinkedIn, compared to fewer than 10% of those with a high school degree or less.

More detailed results from the Pew Research study can be found here.

For brand loyalty … follow the money.

When it comes to brand loyalty, are we mercenaries? Loyalists?  Cultists?

Or maybe we’re just lazy?

With major brands spending billions of dollars each year using various strategies to build and keep brand loyalty, these questions are important.

Recently-published consumer research by Maritz Motivation Solutions and Wise Marketer Group seeks to get to the nub of the issue.

Maritz/Wise surveyed nearly 2,100 American adults age 18 and over via online questionnaires and consumer research panels. The respondents were filtered to include purchase decision-makers or key influencers within one or more of six major consumer categories:

  • Airline travel
  • Banking services
  • Credit card services
  • Hotels/lodging
  • Restaurants
  • Specialty retails

The results of the research reveal that brand loyalty isn’t one monolithic mindset, but consumers tend to fall into one of four categories, as follows:

  • “Mercenaries” – Loyal to brands that pay them to be loyal: ~55% of respondents
  • “True loyalists” – Stay true to a brand because people connect with it above and beyond any explicit incentives to do so: ~30%
  • “Sloths” – Can’t be bothered to switch brands due to inertia: ~8%
  • “Cultists” – The brand represents their personal identity: ~7%

What the Maritz/Wise research also tells us is where people come down on brand loyalty attributes is based more on attitudinal characteristics than something that can be segmented easily based on conventional demographics.

In other words, brand loyalty characteristics aren’t driven by age, gender or income level; mercenaries and cultists are found in their expected proportions across the spectrum of loyalty.

In another finding, when it comes to the “transactional” nature of brand loyalty, the research discovered that the “art of the deal” is based on money.

Gift cards, cash-back and credits are overwhelmingly preferred forms of reward for brand loyalty – and these apply to everyone no matter where they may land on the brand loyalty spectrum.

So, the next time we hear the old saw that “money can’t buy love” … we all know that the truth is a bit more nuanced.