Did you find it hard to choose what to wear today? Or what to eat for breakfast? If so, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychology Association, 32% of adults are so stressed they struggle to make everyday decisions.
Much has changed over the past two years. From hoarding and unprecedented DIY projects to supply chain disruptions and mass unemployment, to social unrest and the Great Resignation, the pandemic has radically altered our outlook in many ways. The issue of mental space existed well before COVID-19 hit, but the barrage of events over the last two years has made it even more challenging for people.
As the APA study indicates, a large number of us simply have less headspace available than we did before the pandemic. It’s a significant shift, and one that prompts profound questions for those leading brands. Perhaps it’s time to declare a ceasefire in the decades-long battle for mindshare and find a new way for brands to be relevant to people’s lives.
Moving on from mindshare
First and foremost, the old tropes of adland need to be radically overhauled. It was back in 198o that Al Ries and Jack Trout urged brands to seize mindshare. Their book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, famously argued that a key measure of success was being top-of-mind among consumers, to occupy more space in people’s minds than competitors.
The text set the scene for the marketing of the past four decades, in which brands have aimed to position themselves to conquer minds and seeing it not as the minds of people, but merely of “prospects.” Today, the world feels very different, as consumers don’t have mindshare to give–let alone for brands to capture.
Some companies recognize this and are adapting. Nike, as it so often does, points the way for others. Last November, it launched its program Mind Sets, which expanded the brand’s focus from physical achievement to include mental well-being. It’s a recognition that even athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Ben Simmons don’t feel they can “just do it” today.
It’s not only Nike that’s increasingly alert to this cultural shift. Walk into any outlet of UK retailer Selfridges at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday and there will be no in-store music, fewer screens on, and people enjoying its recently introduced quiet shopping hour. Originally conceived for people on the autism spectrum, the initiative now aims further: to offer a calmer environment for shoppers and space for reflection and relaxation for team members.
Interactions over transactions
This is about more than messaging though. The very fundamentals of commerce have changed. There’s no new normal, and consumers aren’t interested in returning to the status quo. Wading through the aftermath of the pandemic, we now navigate mass polarization and a greater collective awareness of social issues. This existential struggle has led many to wholly reconsider the path ahead.
This is well documented in Britt Wray’s recent book, Generational Dread: Finding Purpose in the Age of Climate Crisis. She shows how eco-anxiety is resulting in burnout, avoidance, or a disturbance of daily functioning. For the most part, people are coping with it by becoming more selective and more intentional in their consumption choices.
Brands and businesses don’t sit outside cultural aftershocks: They must respond to them. In fact, they’re more subject to rising consumer expectations than ever before. The pandemic accelerated the technological metamorphosis that was already underway. According to a McKinsey study, over the course of eight weeks, people adopted as many new forms of digital communication as we’d expect to see in seven years. Fuelled by the pandemic, installation and implementation of self-service and contactless kiosks and mobile check-ins jumped by 66% in U.S. hotels alone.
Where brands used to focus on human interaction and real-time, personable responses, they now must offer platforms that can provide personal agency and optimized human experiences. Automate the simple, repeatable elements of the experience by all means, but also find new ways to connect in real time with people. Allow them to check into the hotel on their phones, but perhaps have someone call their room to make sure they have everything they need for their stay.
In many cases, the shift in organizational mindset will need to be even more profound. Where brands add value in our lives has fundamentally changed. Thirty years ago, people may have welcomed the noisy, brash intrusion from brands–to a point. From United Colors of Benetton’s thought-provoking and confronting suite of print ads that included the faces of death row inmates to Tango’s video of an orange man slapping people, this was a time of unashamedly in-your-face marketing. But this is 2022, not 1992. Times have changed.
None of this is to say that brands can’t play a role in our lives. It’s more that they need to ensure they’re relevant there. And in many cases, this is about meaningfully aligning a brand’s ethos with culture.
Brand makers of today could take note from the likes of Ben and Jerry’s. In the midst of ’80s materialism, the brand chose to extend itself beyond ice cream and labeled itself as a “social justice company that sells ice cream to be able to fuel its advocacy work.” Today, the brand continues to meaningfully engage in the conversation with campaigns like “Silence is NOT an Option” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In recent years, it’s been joined by others. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was revolutionary, using bodies of all shapes and sizes in their marketing, paving the way for a new cohort of inclusive female representation, from plus-size models to Lizzo, arguably one of the most recognized faces of inclusive beauty. Crayola’s “What If?” positioning emphasizes the importance of imagination over product in order to inspire the next generation of creatives and individuals. The key to it all is ensuring that it’s done in a way that feels authentic. Especially today, consumers have become very wary and critical of greenwashing or, worse yet, empty statements that aren’t backed up by real action.
Ad by ad, brand by brand, day by day, the orthodoxy of capturing mindshare is giving way to that of allowing for mental space. We are seeing audiences become freer and less pressured into buying specific products, and instead being more mindful of brand purpose and goals–and that’s what creates true brand loyalty in 2022.
Bryan Goodpaster is VP of foresight and cultural strategy at global brand design and experience agency Marks.
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