Brands have lost the power struggle

We’ve all read articles recently on marketing campaigns that have flopped less than majestically. In the past the industry would have acted as judge for the brand at large, but increasingly consumers are grabbing the gavel and sentencing brands to eternal social damnation.

What are the weapons the consumer army are using, and is all fair in brand love and war?


Have you ever skipped an ad on YouTube out of spite because you were sick of seeing the same creative? (Here’s looking at you, Grammar.ly…)

The content internet users engage with informs the messaging that user can expect to see in the future – either in a paid or organic capacity – in a way that offline and mass media never could. For example, reading a newspaper insert in the Daily Mail in the comfort of your own home won’t out you as a Brexiteer and advertise St George’s Day flags to you for the rest of the pages. Pausing to glance at a tub of Slimfast won’t mean you’re chased around by billboards suggesting you join a gym. The thing is, on digital channels that’s exactly what it means, and consumers know it.

Here’s what’s going on:

Many online platforms, in and outside of the marketing arena, rely on algorithms in order to function. Algorithms are programs that can be written to spit out an answer to a query at scale. For example, when you search for something on Google, it’s the Google algorithm that figures out which listings to show you to best suit your search query. Similarly, YouTube and Facebook will use algorithms to identify which pieces of content you are choosing to consume and present you with similar content to keep you engaged for a longer period. This act of leading the user down a rabbit-hole of their own creation is designed to up activity on the website for commercial gain, through either data collection or by leading the user to purchase.

Consumers are increasingly aware that their online activity leaves an indelible fingerprint across their devices, and that views, clicks and engagements have a powerful part to play in the success of brands online. And with that great power comes great responsibility. Consumers can choose to report your ads to the digital powers that be for irrelevance or low quality. They can choose to skip your ad instead of giving you the satisfaction of a 30 second view.

Too many skipped videos, too many un-clicked ads, or too many scrolls past your content from a discontent audience and your perceived ad quality will dwindle, driving up media costs thanks to the customer-obsessed algorithms, leaving you firmly in the red. This collective omnipotence of the audience could alternatively cause your campaign to ‘go viral’ across the globe overnight, reaching more customers than you ever planned. If you want the latter more than the former, you’ve got to get your audience wilfully engaging with you, lest you become exponentially ignored by your would-be customers, and the machines that serve them.

Privacy & Data

As well as the power to withhold engagement to scupper you on an algorithmic level, users can also withhold any detail about themselves, effectively becoming a faceless ghost on the shop floor.

Most of us have experienced the employee approaching us in the shoe shop asking if we need any help and pointing out appropriate shoes we might want to purchase. Imagine you could turn yourself invisible so the shop assistant barely knows you’re there. Any advice you could get would become super generic and likely only overheard from other conversations they’re having with different customers, but at least you get to shop in peace.

This is often the option online shoppers choose; hiding their digital identities so advertisers don’t know how to speak to them personally, if they allow advertisers to speak to them at all, that is.

Audiences can opt out of your marketing messaging, send your emails to spam, unfollow you, block you, report you, reject cookies, uninstall your app, delete their account with you, and all of this will mean you lose sight of all the insights you had attached to them.

Such a shift has been seen in this area that the new iOS 14 update everyone is talking about blocks advertiser tracking by default at a handset level. This means users will need to actively choose to give brands access to their data in their settings menu before advertisers can benefit from any of that user’s details.

As cookies are dying and Apple in particular is on a privacy rampage, the focus for brands should be in identifying the user data that allows a higher number of mutually-beneficial interactions, and identifying the appropriate value exchange to obtain that data in a GDPR-friendly manner.

Value Exchange

The ‘value exchange’ is not a new concept (think of all the life insurance ads that offered new customers a free pen). The newer concept is that consumers expect this value exchange not only in fiscal currency, but in emotional and social down-payments.

With the rise of social and technical conscience thanks to movements such as Pride and BLM as well as highly publicised data scandals such as that of Cambridge Analytica, consumers are increasingly aware of the brands with whom they’re sharing their data, time, and money. Past transgressions must be answered for (Nice work Uncle Ben’s on the logo change btw) and a benevolent approach must be relentlessly pursued (of course we’re not here to make money – “Will someone PLEASE think of the children!”). 64% of consumers say they would buy from a brand or boycott it solely because of its position on a social or political issue. (Edelman 2019). This value exchange has become about heart and soul as much as prices and promotions.

You’d be naïve to think this simply means a change in messaging. With today’s ‘woke’ generation, whacking a Pride flag on your website once a year won’t quite cut it.

You say you’re a genuine, altruistic brand? Prove it. How much have you donated to not-for-profits in the last fiscal year? What’s your gender pay gap? What are your views on parental leave for adoption? How come you’ve only started caring in the last 12 months? Why are you still using palm oil in your products? You didn’t seem so concerned in that TV ad you ran in the 70’s.

86% of consumers say that authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support (Stacla, 2019) so you better be ready to put your money where your mouth is.

As far as today’s consumers are concerned, they’ll take a pass on a free pen and choose a culturally and environmentally aware player instead. For brand strategies, this means a clarification of brand values, the impact on profitability of this emotional value exchange, and whether the juice is worth the squeeze. If you’re looking to build long term relationships with your consumers instead of just using them to make a quick buck, investments need to be made in content, partnerships, and CSR initiatives to prove you’re worthy.

It all comes down to one thing: brands need to be better. No more empty sentiments, no more lazy ‘can I email you your receipt’ data gathering. The investment of the ride-or-die consumers you’re chasing will dictate whether you’re still in business this time next year. They deserve more in return than a free pen.

By Niki Grant, Director of Search