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Overly Ambitious Brand Promises: Consumers Are Over It and Here's Why

Angie Tran

Content Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

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Consumer cynicism toward brands is higher than it has ever been before. In a sea of brand promises concerning social action, equality, and eco-friendly supply chains, consumers are starting to look past empty words and dig deeper into what’s really going on.

The latest “Meaningful Brands” survey from global communications group Havas confirms these findings. Havas surveyed 395,000 consumers from regions worldwide, reporting that 71% of those surveyed said they have little faith that brands will actually deliver on the promises they make.

The survey also found that less than half of all brands are seen as trustworthy (47%), and consumers believe that about 75% of today’s companies could disappear and be replaced without much trouble. 

That’s a serious blow to brands that work hard to build customer loyalty. If there’s a general sense that all brands aren’t worth the promises they make, it could make it harder for anyone to build a base of loyal, engaged consumers. This environment makes it more likely consumers will assume brands are “corporate social responsibility (CSR) washing,” making false brand promises about their work in the community just to get a competitive advantage.

Don’t give up, though: Use this as an opportunity to work harder for your customers and their communities. After all, any brand able to bridge the trust gap should have an easy path to set itself apart from the competition.

For more on building brand trust with top-of-funnel customers:

The Consumer Loyalty Landscape

Just because consumers are cynical about the promises that brands make doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential for loyalty. Yotpo’s The State of Brand Loyalty 2021: Global Consumer Survey found that the number of consumers willing to call themselves “brand loyal” went up from 24% in 2019 to 26.4% in 2020. 

These consumers are more likely to join a brand’s loyalty program (68% in 2020 compared to 59.8% in 2019) and far more likely to pay more for a brand they prefer (56% in 2020 compared to 34.5% in 2019). Yotpo’s findings were corroborated by Havas’ report, which found that 53% of consumers are willing to pay more for a brand that takes a stand.

Judging by these reports, consumers are saying loud and clear that they are willing to pay to support brands that walk the walk. Cynicism is left at the door when a brand can prove its promises aren’t just empty words. 

COVID-19 has also had a direct impact on how consumers see brands and their place in the community. Of those surveyed by Yotpo, 30% said they found themselves becoming more loyal to brands that they feel have helped them through the pandemic, with that number growing to 36.3% among Gen Z consumers.

Examples of Brands with Strong Loyalty and Engagement

Building loyalty with consumers goes deeper than just making favorable statements about popular causes. The University of Southern California’s Online Master of Science in Applied Psychology found five core dimensions that explain how psychology plays into a brand’s perceived personality:

  • Sincerity
  • Excitement
  • Competence
  • Sophistication
  • Ruggedness

All five dimensions play a role in the subconscious loyalty that consumers can develop if a brand’s personality matches the values they hold. For example, USC researchers pointed to Starbucks as a company that inspires loyalty through a mix of clever branding and corporate action. The green that is ubiquitous in Starbucks branding represents their commitment to fair trade coffee and other CSR initiatives, according to the report. 

This cohesion helps differentiate the worldwide coffee chain from its competitors, resulting in a customer loyalty program that is one of the best in the business. Researchers said that obtaining a higher status in that loyalty program gives customers a feeling of belonging while encouraging them to make further purchases.

Social issues are among consumers’ top concerns, but the buck doesn’t stop there. Reliability and utility in a product or service can also be major factors in how loyalty is formed. Ford is a leading auto manufacturer in the United States due to how consumers perceive the ruggedness and safety of purchasing one of its vehicles. More than 44% of consumers that purchase a car or truck from the company already have another Ford product sitting in their garage. In this case, reliability is the motivating factor — and it’s a powerful one.

The takeaway from this report is that actions go much further than statements in the age of consumer cynicism. A brand’s values should be inherent in everything it does, allowing those actions to speak for themselves and helping them to target audiences in their marketing that will be open to their messages.

For more on building brand trust through video marketing:

How to Turn the Trust Crisis Into an Opportunity

These studies all come to a similar conclusion: the closer a brand is to living out the promises it makes, the more likely consumers are to purchase their products and engage in loyalty programs. This means there is a significant opportunity for growth if a brand is able to prove it can provide meaningful experiences that its competitors can’t. 

In the Havas survey, 66% of consumers said they want more of these meaningful experiences from brands. Another 64% said they prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose over profit. To become one of those brands, Havas recommends actions that can be interpreted as meaningful, defining meaningful as a blend of three qualities:

  • Functional, meaning the actual value of a product or service and how easy it is to use
  • Personal, governing how a brand works its way into people’s lives
  • Collective, describing a brand’s role in their society

This can be seen in how consumers have reacted to brand promises related to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 77% of consumers said they expected brands to show support for people in times of crisis — acting proactively to help their communities instead of seeing how much money can be made in the disruption. Consumers have become especially sensitive to issues concerning more personal connection, more ecological-friendly activity, and more monetary savings and growth for hard times, according to Havas.

For more on the importance of brand transparency: 

As a side effect of this post-COVID attitude, consumers are also demanding more helpful content from the brands they trust or want to trust. About half (48%) of all content produced by brands is not considered meaningful to their lives, according to consumers. This makes a case for a robust content development team for every brand, successfully targeting the topics and interests most helpful to its customer community.

Trust on a Global Scale

Interestingly, the issues consumers have with brand promises are not the same around the world: Consumers in Latin America (67%), India (69%), and China (74%) expressed much higher levels of trust in brands. Meanwhile, the United States and Western Europe were responsible for the dip in the overall score. East Asia, Australia, Hong Kong, and Korea expressed the lowest level of trust for any region at 24%.

If your brand is trying to build its trust level with consumers, the first step is to avoid making brand promises that are either impossible or conflict directly with the values of your best consumers. The only way to truly know how to reach your community, however, is to invest in advanced marketing tools like AdRoll to find lookalike audiences that will continue to be receptive to your messaging, whatever that may be. 

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