Contagious ideas – how to tackle 2020's brand challenges

7 min read
Dec 11, 2019 12:00:00 AM

Last week I attended Most Contagious 2019, the signature event from our partner Contagious that showcases the big brand movements of the year just gone and gives a heads up on what will shape the year ahead.

Throughout the event, three themes stood out for me:

1. Understanding people and their experience journey has never been more important

Whether you want to attract the younger generations (Millennials, Gen Z) or are trying to be relevant to the generation with the highest average wealth (Baby Boomers) - being insightful and acting on what matters most to them can open up huge opportunities.

For example, as we know, Esports is hugely popular with millennials and GenZ and is considered to be the next global sporting revolution.

Esport’s players have a much bigger reach with their online fans than traditional sports players, and that’s why big brands such as Adidas have moved from using traditional sports players as brand ambassadors to their first signing with Esport player Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins (Fortnite) earlier this year.


Other brands capitalising on Esport’s players, games and live streaming platforms are McDonalds with their ‘blast pro-series’ campaign and DHL with their ‘Moments that deliver’ sponsorship.


But don’t be fooled, it is not easy to play in this arena, and if you are considering to be a ‘game changer’, you need to find the right influencer for your brand, speak your audience’s language, and most importantly be true to yourself, finding authenticity and relevance in this space for your brand.

When it comes to older generations, it may not be a surprise to you that the majority of current advertising not only glorifies youth, but also reinforces old-fashioned stereotypes, so no wonder that the ‘most valuable’ generation (in terms of wealth) does not feel represented in advertising.

Brands that have taken a stand on this include Adidas with Billie Jean King, Celine with Joan Didion and L’Oreal partnership with Vogue on The Non-Issue.


These brands have not only become more relevant to this audience by better representing them, but interestingly, they have also attracted younger generations who highly value diversity and reward brands that are more inclusive.

Looking at the experience journey, digital was called out as an area to be reconsidered, especially following issues with insecure data, privacy concerns, shady programmatic and wrong KPIs.

Adidas has been one of the first brands to recognise getting digital wrong, by over investing in it with the expectation to drive e-commerce sales, when in fact it was brand activity driving 65% of sales across wholesale, retail and e-commerce.

They also realised that, when they stopped investing in paid search, they got a similar amount of traffic and revenue from organic search, so the investment they thought they were putting in a channel to drive ROI was actually not needed, as those were sales that they were going to get anyway.

Adidas' lesson is that digital is not the silver bullet, and that interplay and interdependence in our media is still needed across the consumer experience journey.

How are you deepening the understanding of people and their experience journeys to make your brand more relevant to them?

2. Brands play and will play an increasingly important role in galvanising positive change and being part of the solution

Mainly due to climate change emergency, the drive to consume less and waste less has never been more top of mind for people and is driving the choices they make on what to buy and which brands to engage with.

Is this a conundrum for marketing which could be accused of fuelling a ‘buy more’ mentality? Or can brands be part of the solution to lighten the environmental footprint?

brands can’t afford to ignore the consumption crisis anymore

Regardless of the answer, the reality is that brands can’t afford to ignore the consumption crisis anymore, and those who have embraced it have found out new business models, new revenue streams and/or new ways to build their products and brands behind four emerging trends: reuse more, own less, waste less and think more.

Examples of companies who have embraced these trends include H&M Repair & Remake service, Carlings launch of the first digital clothing collection, Lush naked (no-packaging) products and Doconomy's DO Black – a credit card that caps spending according to CO2 emissions caused by your consumption.


Other ways in which brands are driving positive change include Oatly - which has voluntarily put the carbon footprint of their products on pack and is encouraging the food industry to show their numbers, and Gillette – who stirred a fierce debate about modern manhood in order to remove toxic masculinity stereotypes.


In addition to sustainability and unstereotyping, placement of media investment was called out as another area of corporate and brand responsibility. Matt Rivitz from Sleeping Giants is on a mission to persuade companies to remove their advertising spend from sites that showcase hate, racism and bigoted stories.

Whether it's that you're working on defining or activating your brand purpose or where to place your ads - have you found a way for your brands to galvanise positive change?

3. Creative bravery and excellence are indispensable to successfully build brands

The case for creativity has been well argued by Les Binet and Field, especially as creativity delivers its lowest effectiveness in the past 24 years.

Peter Field says that we are in a ‘creative crisis’ driven by short-termism, and he makes a call to stop encouraging ‘disposable creativity’ and start empowering and celebrating the value of long-term creativity and effectiveness (WARC, June 2019).


Creativity has always been at the heart of brand building, but whereas in the past this may have been a task delegated to a creative agency via a client brief, nowadays it demands to be a collaborative effort between the creative agency, the brand and even the consumers as co-creators or shapers of the creative idea.

This is incredibly powerful, especially when it comes to delivering that long-term value and effectiveness outlined by Les Binet and Field.

So how do we encourage and enable creative bravery and excellence? Brands that have done this very well, embrace the following elements:

i. They connect at a human level and make you feel something - Ruavieja’s social experiment ‘we have to see more of each other’ is a powerful example of how emotion can transform a small unknown brand into one of the most talked brands and a Cannes’ Gold Lion winner. Leveraging data, Ruavieja helped people calculate how many days they had left together and created a movement that encouraged them to see more of each other. John Lewis Christmas ads were another example that emotion sells and builds brand over time, something that is backed up by Les Binet’s 40/60 rule for short term/long term brand building investment to deliver best effectiveness over time. Having said that, emotion is no substitute for insight, and great business, brand and consumer/shopper’s insights still need to be at the heart of creative bravery.


ii. They co-create in agile ways with their audience and build ideas over time. Once you have committed to the big idea, the braver it is, the higher the risk you may be feeling. If this is the case, you could leverage technology and programmatic marketing to track consumers’ response and then use agile ways to iterate, iterate and iterate with your audience until you get it right. This is how Black & Abroad won their audience with their campaign ‘Go back to Africa’, which turned an insult into a tourism drive and a community.


iii. They have deliberately built a systematic way to deliver creative excellence consistently. Such a way could be built by (i) establishing a common language for how to judge creativity, (ii) actively pursuing diversity and creative curiosity, (iii) adopting a structured approach to collaboration and feedback, whilst encouraging radical candour – this is especially important when working with more than 3 agencies at the same time and (iv) celebrating and rewarding creative teams by recognising excellence, the ability to inspire greatness in others and learning. On all the examples showcased at this event, what really stood out was the quality of the client-agency relationship, and the importance to have an agency that really feels trusted and empowered by the client and where there is a genuine partnership of joint risk taking and investment.

Contagious then concluded that the key skill for 2020 will be the ability to reconcile:

  • profit and sustainability
  • humans and machines
  • traditional and digital media
  • short-term sales and long-term brand building

In short, the ability to reconcile what is changing with what isn’t and use what will change to deliver what won’t.

The fundamentals of great brand building are still there

It was an intense and thought-provoking day, but at the same time it was comforting to see that the fundamentals of great brand building are still there. Despite brands facing new and interesting challenges, human centricity, brand purpose and meaningful experiences across the consumer journey are not only relevant but critical to succeed and deliver positive change, today and in the years to come.

If you want to find out more about how we could help you build your brands, grow your business and embed capability in your organisation, please get in touch.

Oxford partnered with Contagious to define what it takes for brands to be ‘Fit for the Future’ and this is summarised in their book The Contagious Commandments – Ten Steps to Brand Bravery’.

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