Be bold or fall behind

Be bold or fall behind

British brands are struggling to compete on the world stage, falling behind their peers in countries such as China and the US. Kantar analysis showed that while the 100 biggest global brands grew in value by 5.8% in 2020, the top 75 UK brands declined by 13%. Vodafone was the only British brand to make the global 100 this year and if the current trend continues, none will be included in the ranking by 2023.

The problem goes beyond pure valuation metrics. Relative to other markets, UK brands typically perform weaker on measures associated with communication, innovation, consumer trust, reputation and digital transformation – all increasingly important factors dictating consumer satisfaction and brand growth.

Of course, there are UK companies that are thriving, but the general trend is a worrying one, particularly as organisations seek to reset after Covid and establish themselves post Brexit. So, what is going wrong and how can marketers be part of the solution?

Diagnosing the issues

There is a sense that British businesses are holding back, failing to be brave enough in their creative execution and innovation. Digging deeper into the valuation data, we found that they can over-rely on their own fame, trading on a position of historic or current market salience rather than doing something fundamentally new or different to engage consumers. That’s a risky place to be at a time of such rapid change in consumer expectations and behaviour.

It’s a challenge, especially for larger corporates. Legacy structures and a reliance on doing things the way they’ve always been done can stifle real transformation. Often motivated by a desire to protect short-term performance, the incremental gains that come from maintaining the status quo and innovation at the margins are too easily countered by competitors. Routine and inflexible budgeting may also restrict what is possible by marketing teams.

These issues go right to the heart of a business and marketers may not always have the power to address them. However, there is a compelling case that marcomms professionals should be putting to senior stakeholders for boosting investment in brand building and consumer engagement. Kantar data shows that stronger, meaningfully different brands deliver superior returns to shareholders and are more resilient during crises, recovering quicker. If there was ever a time for greater focus on marketing and advertising, it is most certainly now.

Roadmap for successful brand building

If marketers can secure a mandate to do things differently, then the most important thing for them to do is trust their instincts and remember the fundamental principles of great marketing. These have not changed – looking at the key pillars of communication, innovation, trust, reputation and digital transformation. Finding the human connection with consumers across them is vital to creating genuine and long-term impact.

Take advertising as an example. British advertising has lost some of its cachet and audiences increasingly claim it annoys rather than entertains or inspires them. 30 years ago, around one-third of people said they enjoyed ads as much as broadcast programmes. Now the figure is closer to 15%. How did we get here from the heyday of the 1980s and 1990s?

The proliferation of formats and channels will have played a role in saturating audience attention but there is a suggestion too that British brands have lost some of the advertising flair they were once renowned for. Why?

Increasing regulation or fear of trial by social media could be partly to blame for making teams feel the parameters for creativity are getting narrower and narrower. But (appropriate) risk-taking is vital, and marketers will know when they’ve got it right – when they have found that human truth that audiences can relate to. Walkers’ recent #CrispIN or #CrispOUT campaign is a brilliant example of that in action. Crucially, if brands find that magic element, then they need to stick with and maintain it. Our sector gets bored by campaigns long before consumers do.

Purposeful impact

Of course, much has changed in the past three decades and if there is one trend for marketers to champion to their boards, it is that brand purpose really does matter – it is critical to building consumer trust and lasting positive reputation. Finding a fun and engaging message is not enough on its own for consumers any more. Brands can’t sit on the sidelines – people now expect them to play a role in making our world a better place.

Yet we see purpose paralysis. Only 10% of marketers say that their brand purpose goes beyond their product or service promise to include a societal commitment. That has to change. Our research shows a clear trend towards a brand’s purpose and corporate reputation becoming more and more important in customers’ decision-making, outweighing perceptions of fair pricing and a “leading” offer. A commitment to working in a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable way must permeate all areas of a business and its operations, not just its external positioning.

It’s a challenging time for many British brands, and marketers are right at the coalface when it comes to understanding changing consumer behaviour, how to reach people in a digital age and what ethical business looks like. But it is also a time for teams to show just how much good marketing can make a difference – its ability to lead wider change within an organisation and drive commercial success on a global scale. British businesses need to be bold and grab this moment, and it’s up to marketers to light the way.

Jane Bloomfield is chief growth officer at Kantar UK