FITCH identifies the global phenomenon of Generous Brands
We have identified a loose family of successful, growing brands we call Generous Brands that share commonalities of attitude, behaviour and communication. By ‘generous’ we mean that these brands are prepared to make gestures that are not just commercially motivated but empathise with consumers: these brands show their heartbeat.
The evident success of these brands indicates that they have tapped into a rich vein amongst consumers. They are creating relationships with consumers based on affection which results in loyalty between them and their consumers. The study of these brands provides clues as to how a brand might deepen and broaden its relationship with consumers, as a key to future growth.
This paper looks at the observations which led to Generous Brands hypothesis; describes the current collective consumer mindset which has led to these brands having particular resonance by looking at some ad hoc quantitative research we conducted; and articulates the implications for the process of branding.
The Generous Brands hypothesis We noticed that some brands have standout because of their distinctive style of behaviour and communication. What linked these brands is a ‘generous’ attitude.
This ‘generosity’ does not describe simple value propositions such as a gift with purchase, or even those brands whose main reason to exist is highly ethical, such as Fairtrade or charity brands.
Generous is a general attitude. Brands can be generous in different ways – from the tone of their communication, to the experience they provide, to the service they deliver, to the functionality they build into their products and services. Typically, a generous brand is one that shows its heartbeat by acknowledging the emotional and rational requirements of consumers.
Brand generosity On a global level, Amazon, for example, provides consumers with the best book reviews you’ll ever read by individuals who have no real commercial interest: other consumers. Added to this, they now offer second-hand books for sale, as well as allowing other traders to compete on their site with the same products at potentially more competitive prices. There is clearly a strong business rationale to this approach, but there is also an unmistakable spirit; consumers connect with its openness and transparency.
Here are some observations on brand activities that go from complex to simple, generous gestures. The Apple Store has installed a seminar space, seating up to 75 people, and runs free training and software demos every day. The ‘genius bar’ is a place you can go and get expert advice relating to any problem you might have. Starbucks stores across America, at one point, gave you free Hot Zones, offering anyone the opportunity to use their laptops in-store, with connection costs picked up by the brand. Currently in some stores in London, they package used coffee grains in an attractive way and offer them as free compost ‘to enrich your soil and garden’ and provide ‘nutrients for your acid-loving plants’.
In their UK bookshops, Waterstones show their generous communal spirit by telling you as soon as you walk through the door what each member of staff is reading, thereby engendering a real sense of connection between consumer and staff. Oddbins shows a similar spirit by staff handwriting individual reviews of all their wine stock.
Orange’s approach is more practical. They have put re-chargers in the back of black cabs in London that can be used by anyone, regardless of network. In addition, during a recent refurbishment of one of their stores on Oxford Street they provided a rickshaw to take disappointed customers to a convenient alternative store.
This attitude is not exclusive to premium brands. B&Q are employing retired tradespeople to give expert advice to consumers where there is no obvious and immediate revenue return. They are likely, and have been known, to say: ‘you should use X, it’s better and it’s cheaper’.
The RAC recently implemented an entire ad campaign devoted to tips on driving and car maintenance. One of the ads they ran frequently informed consumers that a squeaky windscreen wiper does not necessarily mean that you need to replace it, instead advising consumers to ‘try rubbing vinegar across the blade of it… that should stop the squeak’. This was the sole intention of this ad, and added to this, the branding was subtle and recessive.
Criteria of generosity These are just a few examples of a growing trend. As we began to observe this behaviour, the criteria for what we describe as generous started to become clearer.
The principles guiding the behaviour of these brands are: 1. they understand there has to be an attitude of ‘we will make the first move’, without insisting on any kind of transactional, commercial or even moral obligation from consumers 2. the motives that drive this behaviour are not just about self gain 3. they believe that consumers are, on the whole, very fair-minded, and understand the principle of give and take 4.they enjoy interaction with consumers. The principle that binds these criteria together is that these brands ‘show their heartbeat’ – they show their humanity through their understanding of consumers.
Consumer understanding In order to get a fuller understanding on the dynamics of Generous Brands, we set out to define the underlying attitude of consumers that makes these brands relevant. What is the collective consumer mindset to which these brands are responding?
Fitch commissioned quantitative research amongst the UK population, looking at specific attitudes that may be responsible for the rise of generous brands. The research revealed perceptions that provide a psychological gauge of where consumers are currently. It also gives a snapshot of the stages that they have been through to get to their current state.
Disillusionment: consumers have been exposed to some critical events recently that have led them to question the fundamental principles on which many of our social and commercial institutions are based. Recent events have created a collective sense of anxiety; they are disillusioned – over 62% of the UK population neither trust nor rely on the institutions they deal with day to day to meet their needs.
Despite the recent and evident efforts of these institutions to appear to be more user/consumer-centric in the way they deal with people, there is evidence that this is not having the desired effect – 66% of the UK population do not think that institutions have changed for the better over the past few years.
When we relate this specifically to brands, we see that 68% of those we surveyed do not believe brands are genuinely interested in improving the lives of people who use them.
Growing up: consumers have responded collectively by changing the way they view the world. Against a background of disillusionment, along with an acute selfconsciousness of their commercial value, consumers are questioning the established principles of authority, trust and honesty. Rather than dismissing them totally, they have reinterpreted them for the creation and maintenance of two-way relationships. The characteristics of growing up are as follows. 1. Maturity. The attitude is characterised by a level of maturity, where responsibility is not deferred but embraced – 61% would prefer to take an active role in their relationship with these institutions, rather than being told what they should do or think 2. Confidence. With this new found sense of self-reliance comes a sense of communal confidence. More than half believe in the power of the collective to affect social and political change. 3. Brand acumen. In the world of brands, 42% of consumers feel that the best demonstration of honesty amongst institutions and brands is to be transparent in action and motive. 4. Realism. We believe that the main driver for this is the realisation that both people and institutions can never act and behave in a purely unconditional way. Everybody has their own agenda, their own goals and objectives. It is just a case of understanding clearly what these goals and objectives are.
Getting involved: for those who are sceptical about consumers and their interest in brands, there is a surprise. Consumers want to get involved with brands, but not in the same way we have thought about in the past. While 80% think that it is realistic to have a relationship with a brand, the caveat is that 68% of consumers believe that all good relationships, including those with brands, are about give and take.
Sharing: what is driving people’s expectations of brands is the kind of relationships they are having with other members of the community. People believe that the kind of relationships they want are best represented by the relationships they can have with members of their own respective communities. They can easily identify and empathise with common needs amongst individual members of the various communities they are part of, which they don’t see in institutions (commercial or not). This is where we see the battle lines being drawn. The agenda is clear for things like eOpinions, Blogging and Freecycling. The collective are flexing their power in order to secure individual and collective value. This can be everything from economic (letsbuyit.com), to environmental (car pooling) to social and entertainment (book clubs and flash-mobbing). They also have a growing belief in their collective power as it relates to brands – 40% believe that consumers as a group are capable of changing the attitude, communication and behaviour of a brand.
Crossing the line: generous brands are those that connect with this consumer mindset. Our research reveals consumers want brands to be more empathetic to their current state of mind. They value openness in this context – 68% say they trust brands that have ‘a tell it like it is’ mentality. Brands need to allow consumers to know who they really are, not who they are pretending to be – 83% of consumers say brands should more openly acknowledge that marketing is aimed at selling product.
Implications This research shows that consumers have been forced to be more realistic, take responsibility and generally have a more grown-up attitude about the world they live in. They have applied this attitude to how they interact and relate to brands. Some brands have either implicitly or explicitly understood this and have responded to this changing consumer mindset both strategically and creatively, in some very interesting and instructive ways. The result is a stronger relationship with consumers, resulting in greater brand permission to do other things for consumers as well as the franchise becoming brand advocates.
The trend towards generous brands indicates we are now moving into a new era that challenges the way we have thought about creating relationships between brands and consumers. As we use this thinking in working with brands there are evident challenges: 1. Service and retail brands are leading the way. FMCG and product brands (with some notable exceptions such as Innocent) are less successful in developing the type of brands that we have described in this paper. The perception amongst FMCG and product brand marketers is that they have less control over the brand experience. Commercial constraints are greater than for service and retail brands. They feel handicapped because they think they have less freedom to create a generous attitude. 2. Brands with heritage also find it difficult to understand how they can be generous, usually citing legacy structures and processes, as well as residual brand perceptions. But there are brands that have managed to overcome these handicaps. Selfridges have attained generous status by continually providing interesting exhibitions and experiences to delight their consumers. Virgin, a brand that has been around for over 30 years, continues to show its heartbeat through empathy with consumers.
This conceptual framework is a new way of thinking – it forces us all to re-evaluate the conventional ways we have thought about branding. There are some basic principles that inform the generous branding process: 1. Consumers need to be viewed as active, autonomous and mature entities who are happy to enter into a relationship as long as the terms and conditions are transparent and evident. They are not passive receptors who require manipulation. 2. No matter how counter-intuitive it seems, brands need to be open and transparent about who they are and what they are selling. 3. Consumers want to be included: the inclusive nature of a brand will create welcome opportunities for consumers to feel part of helping to build a brand. 59% of those we surveyed said they are happy to give advice, opinions and ideas in order to improve a brand 4. We emphasise continuity of brand identity, not consistency. We have started to think of brands as organic living entities which both interact and react to the environment and the people around them. This emphasises the humanity of the brand.
The good news is that it is not about formulating and creating expensive ways of ‘wowing’ consumers. On the contrary, in a world of mature consumerism, it is usually the small, uncontrived gestures that have most impact. This is the basis of strong long-term relationships. Gestures that show a brand’s heartbeat and credit consumers with the rational and emotional intelligence they have. After all, generosity is a peculiarly human characteristic and when 31% of consumers say that brands they prefer are more than just brands, they become people to whom they can relate, we expect this figure to grow significantly.