Developing your brand and highlighting your organization have never been cheaper, yet never more difficult.
The rise in online marketing has been a boon for startups looking to make a splash among young consumers. Plenty of marketers salivate over the term “disrupt” with an eye to dislodging manufacturing juggernauts.
For brands that used to enjoy marketplace dominance, keeping their hold on their market share has become more tenuous. Some consumers even report not being a “brand person.”
Think about the last time you went to the supermarket. You probably spent no more than a few seconds choosing from all the different brands of toothpaste, frozen peas or oatmeal.
Those few seconds used to be the Holy Grail for brands, the moment you would get hooked forever on that Tide detergent or Heinz ketchup — an event referred to as “the first moment of truth.” But lately, the moment of truth has moved to the Internet. What’s more, ripples from the 2008 recession have changed us as shoppers.
More and more people have started saying: “I’m not a brand person.”
Those five fateful words come from Juliet McFadden, 23, an office manager in Boston. For consumer brands used to owning American cupboards and closets — that sentiment spells trouble and signals a turning point: evolve or wither.
The changes have already hit some legacy brands.
Some of these names remain longtime favorites among loyal older shoppers. In a 2018 Morning Consult poll, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark were the two top brands preferred by boomers, far more than U.S. adults overall.
Meanwhile, tech investors have been funding startups to bring Silicon Valley “disruption” to products such as toothbrushes, vitamins and tampons. Wall Street has become cautious about once-dominant consumer brands. Shares of companies like Kellogg, Kraft Heinz and General Mills recently hit their lowest levels in years.
“They’re in a bit of a pickle,” says Americus Reed, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Like in the music industry, very few artists can continue being successful in the sophomore and junior album, right? … It is a big challenge to reinvent yourself over and over again.”
Social media a panacea?
For marketers looking to reach new audiences and reinvent themselves, social media has been a popular option. Publishers have used online platforms to fuel content marketing, brand journalism and customer engagement. However, these nascent practices have become increasingly expensive as major players Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others look to increase profits.
Facebook in particular has changed its algorithms to limit the organic reach of branded content in an effort to coax communicators to spend big dollars on distributing their message. The change was announced in early 2018 and has drastically changed how many organizations approach social media.
Plus, the concern over fake news and growing public mistrust have many platforms clamping down on how users interact with content from brands.
“In many ways, 2018 was a tumultuous year for brands, marketers and customer experience leaders,” [Hootsuite CMO Penny Wilson] said. “Concerns around fake news and data privacy led individuals to question their trust in politicians, media outlets, social networks and businesses alike. Those same concerns extended to how brands forge relationships with customers and the data they use to do so.”
She continued, “The slowdown in organic reach on social required that marketers dive deeper into paid strategies to get their messages across. And the constant need to prove the return on investment of marketing spend remained, demanding that chief marketing officers and their teams balance brand and performance marketing to optimize the impact of their efforts against broader business objectives like brand health, revenue growth, customer retention and profitability.”
The rise of the influencer
One of the fastest growing segments of the online marketing sphere is influencer marketing, in which celebrities and social media stars use their online platforms to boost and advertise organizations large and small.
2018 saw the rise of the micro-influencer and the birth of the nano-influencer. Organizations are increasingly turning to these online spokespeople to reach all demographics, but there might come a tipping point in 2019.
In 2018, many criticized the lack of regulation and formality in the influencer marketing realm. Unilever made a big splash by promising to avoid influencers who bought fake followers. A report in The Atlantic revealed that some influencers are creating phony brand endorsements on their feeds.
A decade ago, shilling products to your fans may have been seen as selling out. Now it’s a sign of success. “People know how much influencers charge now, and that payday is nothing to shake a stick at,” said Alyssa Vingan Klein, the editor in chief of Fashionista, a fashion-news website. “If someone who is 20 years old watching YouTube or Instagram sees these people traveling with brands, promoting brands, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do everything they could to get in on that.”
But transitioning from an average Instagram or YouTube user to a professional “influencer”—that is, someone who leverages a social-media following to influence others and make money—is not easy. After archiving old photos, redefining your aesthetic, and growing your follower base to at least the quadruple digits, you’ll want to approach brands. But the hardest deal to land is your first, several influencers say; companies want to see your promotional abilities and past campaign work. So many have adopted a new strategy: Fake it until you make it.
Holly Jackson, lead consultant of influencer strategy at Traackr, says:
Make sure you choose the right partners and be creative with your sponsorships. This way, audiences can better identify the difference between posts that are really sponsored and which aren’t. For instance, if someone with a full face of overdone makeup says they are sponsored by Glossier, would you believe it? No, because Glossier’s brand is known for fresh, natural-looking makeup. Go outside the traditional pay-per-post model where someone holds up a product with #ad. Allow your influencers some creative freedom to build in the sponsorship in a way that fits their own brand and aligns with yours.
The need for trust
Online marketers still have a big mountain to climb in winning back consumer trust. Facebook is still reeling from its data scandal of the past year, and many companies have proven less than capable in protecting consumer data.
2018 was full of brand crises, and many marketers can expect to put out fires in 2019, too. Being able to right any ship will require a consistent brand voice and deep relationships with consumers.
Those essential relationships might not be built on your social media efforts this year.
Trust in social networks is on the decline. Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer found that 60 percent of respondents no longer trust social media companies, and independent research firm Ponemon Institute said Facebook was hardest-hit, as trust in the largest social network is down 66 percent.
The latter is no surprise, as Facebook’s 2018 was marred by numerous issues, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal over its handling of user data, appearances before Congress, failure to appear before foreign governments, the use of its platform to sway the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., issues with the analytics it reported for video ads, security breaches that compromised user data, its ongoing fake news problems and questionable tactics by Definers, a public-relations firm it hired.
Facebook was not alone, as Twitter dealt with fallout from the use of bots and fake accounts on its platform.
There are no easy answers for marketers and communicators in 2019. Content marketing and brand journalism are solid solutions but constitute a long-term strategy requiring heavy investment. A good reputation is harder and harder to come by—and easier than ever to lose.
One thing hasn’t changed: A strong communications and PR program has never been more essential for business success.