| posted by

Meaningful retail brands: Q&A with Kate Cox of MPG Media Contacts

In today’s difficult economic conditions, how can retail brands maintain their consumers’ brand loyalty? Perhaps the answer lies in brands playing a bigger part in consumer wellbeing, therefore becoming more meaningful.

The Drum caught up with Kate Cox, head of strategy at MPG Media Contacts, to talk about the company’s recent Meaningful Brands research and how retailers might become more meaningful in 2012.

What makes a meaningful brand?

We define a Meaningful Brand as one that makes a positive difference to personal wellbeing and the collective wellbeing of society. It is a brand that can deliver on individual needs and wants at a fundamental level and does so within making a positive impact on the community and society that it operates within.

Our research, Meaningful Brands for a Sustainable Future highlights this geographic division. This project surveyed 50,000 people in 14 countries about what is important to them in their world as well as their views on 300 brands. Globally, we discovered that most people would not care if 70% of the surveyed brands ceased to exist but in developing regions like LatAm, this figure was only 47% whereas in the UK, this hit 95%.

We see this as a key indicator that the connection between brands and consumers has changed and in many cases really suffered, and ‘Meaningful Brands’ is our response to this disconnect. The resulting analysis and framework allows us, for the first time, to statistically connect brands with our quality of life and wellbeing.

We analyse the individual factors that make up our sense of wellbeing (health, fitness, happiness, values, social relationships, financial security, lifestyles and habits) and the collective drivers (such as how brands improve communities, societies and the environment).

Do you think retailers are doing enough to understand consumers? Have they some way to go in terms of knowing what consumers want?

The issue with large scale retailers is the same set of issues that every large business is facing in the UK. How do they compete in an ever more aggressive market place with competitive threats seeming to appear from nowhere and which can succeed in taking large market share? How do they cope with the higher level of transparency and openness demanded from a world in which corporate business practices are becoming open to all to see via digital media? How can they re-engineer their decision-making processes to encompass the additional complexity of working with the huge amounts of data now available and how do they react quickly and speedily to market and cultural changes in order to win in this new environment? And all this is happening at a time of economic uncertainty with people significantly changing their shopping and purchasing habits.

We believe that the answer has to lie in greater understanding of customers – not just about individual customer needs and desires but also the relationship the retailer can play in its wider community. True meaningful retail brands will be the ones who embark on, and communicate a strategy that offers positive solutions to the unique set of personal and collective demands and expectations.

This is definitely about achieving balance within the business in order to find ways to keep the things that matter to people and the things that can drive the business in harmony to deliver for both. Even in the cynical UK, our Meaningful Brands study has shown that whilst 79% of people do want businesses to be actively involved in helping to solve environmental and social issues they also believe that they do so currently, only to improve their image (66%).

We think that the only way to resolve this tension is to make the business motivation behind actions incredibly clear for people to understand. The M&S programme with Oxfam is a fantastic example of this in action; every bag of clothes donated was rewarded by a £5 voucher off at M&S. A key driver of positive individual and collective wellbeing has been identified as ‘enables me to reduce, reuse and recycle’. This programme not only makes people feel better about their actions it does so in a way that makes the business benefit for both M&S and Oxfam really clear; M&S drive people to their stores to buy new clothes and Oxfam incentivises donations.

We also see this duality in action within the recent B&Q trial around loft insulation. They offered a service that included loft clearance and taking the unwanted items to a charity shop, installing insulation and then boarding up more areas of the loft to create more storage. Quite simply, it made people’s lives easier – a key driver to of personal wellbeing and helped them ‘reduce and recycle’. It was also clear to people what business benefits B&Q might accrue from this programme in the short term and how this programme might drive loyalty to the B&Q brand.

People in the UK expect their businesses to be successful and make money, but if they can do so in a way that also enhances the wellbeing of people and society they are more likely to make money in the long term.

Unilever have recently described this dual approach towards a focus on both the collective and the individual as a way of smoothing the peaks and troughs of the economic cycle; the boom times might not be so high but the lows are not so deep if customers have faith in the brand or business to do the right thing in the long run even if their products or services fall slightly down in the short. Our research also highlights this conclusion – the correlation between a brand’s meaningful score and intention to repurchase a brand is higher than the correlation between meaningfulness and consideration of a new brand or to put it another way – being meaningful is a key tool for retention and loyalty whereas initial purchase is driven by other factors such as ‘quality’, ‘price’ or ‘image’.

Our conclusion is that retailers need to focus on the big things that really matter for the wellbeing of the UK population and then ruthlessly deliver on the ones that offer them the greatest opportunity to stand out. The top drivers for UK retail are”, “delivers quality products”, “listens and cares”, “delivers useful products and services”, “ delivers responsible products and services”, “shows me respect” and then “helps save money”.

The response to this from UK retailers is split. Supermarket giants such as Tesco and Asda are focused on people’s personal wellbeing and providing personal outcomes, such as making our lives easier, helping us adopt better habits or learning new things with initiatives such as the Tesco Big Price Drop and Tesco Diets and Asda’s Household Budget Planner and the Aisle Spy. Other equally successful UK retailers focus more on collective wellbeing - good quality, healthy products (M&S and Waitrose) and being responsible within society and the environment (The John Lewis Partnership and M&S).

It is also interesting to look at the global retail results to see what lessons we could learn in the UK. For example, when thinking about retail outlets, consumers in regions such as Latam and Asia Pacific are focused on factors that drive a greater sense of collective wellbeing such as the community, job creation and the environment.

How might retail brands use marketing channels like social media to become more ‘meaningful’?

Activity using the social media space lives or dies on whether people think it offers a meaningful contribution to their quality of life – either their personal wellbeing or collective. They simply do not have to engage unless it does so. Key drivers that work particularly well in the social space include a brand ‘that helps me feel part of a community or cause’, ‘inspires me to make the world a better place’ or ‘makes me feel fitter and get healthy’.

Brilliant examples of the use of social media really tap into these key drivers of wellbeing. For example – Nike Plus – Nike’s web based behaviour change programme is a high profile example of success in this space – it not only helps you get fitter through its ability to share fitness goals but since it does so in an inherently social context – through sharing of routes, sharing success and making goals open it helps people ‘connect, exchange and build relationships with others’. This is another key determinant of personal wellbeing.

Social media also allows brands to assess their current ‘meaningfulness’ in real time through the use of social listening to understand how their programmes and activities are landing and by responding to people’s views and altering the programme where appropriate.

How can retailers use the difficult economic conditions to become more meaningful?

The difficult economic conditions have changed people’s priorities around their feeling of wellbeing and importantly the increased need for financial security with drivers such as ‘gives me access to the finances needed to achieve my financial goals’ and ‘helps me feel financially secure’ becoming more important overall.

Retailers such as Asda have recently launched programmes that directly tap into this need such as the Online Budget Planner launched in February 2012 in conjunction with the Centre for Economics and Business Research. This allows people to analyse the health of their household finances and compares them with other households of the same size, income or other families in the area.

Emotive advertising seems to be making a comeback (the John Lewis Christmas advert, for example). What role does emotion play in establishing brands as meaningful? And should brands be going down this route for their advertising?

Emotional advertising is a proven driver of greater brand attachment and using it can be an effective way to drive larger business results. There is no disconnect between the use of ‘emotional’ advertising and the brand desire to be more meaningful on a personal or collective level. There are a large number of emotional drivers of personal wellbeing such as ‘this brand helps me feel more satisfied with my life’ and ‘helps me express my beliefs, identity and lifestyle’ and brands can play a key role in improving a person’s quality of life.

Woman shopping image via Shutterstock

Featured by The Drum