Pete Coates: Consumers are searching for brands they believe in

The digital economy has redefined the relationship between brands and their customers.

Pete Coates of iProspect in Leeds

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>10 questions with Alan Hirst >Huddersfield Unlimited aims to attract investmentThe sheer volume of information that is available to us today, coupled with the fact that anyone with an internet connection and something to say can share the same platform as major brands, news corporations and politicians, has created a credibility vacuum that leaves people unsure what to believe.

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In the halcyon days of broadcast communications, brands could carefully curate their image; marketing directors could decide how they wanted their customers to feel about their brand.

The internet has transformed the brand-customer relationship from a vertical to a horizontal one. The balance of power has shifted; the information flow between consumers can be as powerful and far reaching as the media communications brands pay so much for to talk to their audience. If you’re not authentic you’ll be found out; often quickly and painfully, which in turn will have a significant impact on your profit margins.

Regardless of the size of your business, there is no room left for cynicism. Customers expect authenticity; they want to spend their money with brands who stand for something and have a point of view. This new landscape is pushing marketers outside of their comfort zone; forcing them to step off the tightrope they have walked for so many years, avoiding controversy at all costs.

Last year when Nike celebrated the anniversary of their Just Do It slogan by featuring Colin Kaepernick on a major ad campaign alongside the strapline, “Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything”, the reaction was instant. For every applause emoji adorned retweet on Twitter there was a video of burning trainers as the anti-Kaepernick lobby vowed never to buy from Nike ever again.

Enough to give even the hardiest of executives sleepless nights, but the positive impact on sales was instant, with online transactions growing by 31 per cent over the following public holiday weekend

Fast forward to July this year and Nike’s decision to scrap their independence day trainers featuring an early design of the stars and stripes that had once been used as a symbol of the American Nazi party led to online pandemonium again – this time the Governor of Arizona announced he was pulling $1m in state aid that had recently been granted to Nike to support the development of a new manufacturing facility. Once again shareholders grew in confidence adding another $3bn to Nike’s market cap.

The extreme reactions we have seen are symptoms of the unprecedented polarity we are now seeing across our society.

Much closer to home we saw Heck Sausages recently align themselves with Boris Johnson’s leadership bid by getting involved with a leadership campaign photo opportunity. This led to the emergence of the #Hashtag #BoycottHeck across social media and was covered in all the major national titles.

Commercially this wasn’t necessarily the worst decision. There are more than enough sausage-buying Boris fans out there for Heck to tap into to grow their business. Their subsequent attempt to de-politicise their involvement with their sit-on-the-fence comments, however, leaves them in the crosshairs of both sides and prone to a consumer backlash.

Ultimately, consumers are looking for organisations to put their trust into. They want to know where they stand, and they don’t want the rug to be pulled out from underneath them.

To win in the digital economy brands need to take a long hard look in the mirror and make some serious decisions about what they represent and who they want to appeal to.