As advertising loses its potency, do brands need to move towards a more product-led approach to marketing?

A recent report from Nielsen showed that over the past two years, there has been a marked decline in the level of trust across a variety of the most popular advertising channels. In fact, so pronounced is the drop that only the three least trusted formats – mobile ads and texts and social media advertising – showed an increase in their trust levels, although even with this boost none of them are trusted by much more than one third of people.  Whilst TV, radio and print adverts are trusted by just over half of the UK population, personal recommendations and online consumer reviews are trusted by 81% and 58% respectively.

What’s happened to the good old TV ad? Why are people shying away from them?

In Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman’s wife reminds him why they bought their refrigerator, why, she says, “they got the biggest ads of any of them”. This mindset of ‘bigger is better’ dominated the TV adverts of my youth during the 80s and 90s when, sitting there in their Nike trainers eating Findus ready meals, the UK public witnessed the “Cola Wars” unfold in front of them, along with the advent of celebrity endorsements, and, I seem to remember, the “it’s American, so must be good” message cropped up regularly.

Yet, in the more transparent world we now live in, we know the reality of Nike’s previous production processes, have had our stomachs turned at the thought of just which animal the meat in those ready meals came from, and have come to appreciate that – whilst he is pretty good at golf – Tiger Woods may not have been the role-model we thought he was and, anyway, even if he was, when did he become an expert on shaving or skincare? Most recently a brand whose image was built around reliability, precision and Teutonic efficiency has been dragged over the coals as it transpired that their cars weren’t perhaps as impressive as we were led to believe. What can be trusted? And what does this changing landscape mean for brands and the way they represent themselves?

On paper, the concept of pushing spend from above-the-line advertising to the more targeted social media adverts or online banners makes sense, yet Nielsen’s findings suggest that most consumers don’t trust these channels, and also, there is an element of psychology involved here: just because we consciously ‘don’t trust’ an advert, it doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t had the advertiser’s desired effect on us! Furthermore, other research shows that ‘targeted’ online banners which recycle information from your browsing history are unpopular and are actually likely to push a consumer away from clicking, and also label the brand as an annoyance.

Many consumers these days look for provenance, ethical production and exclusivity in the products they buy, so will brands focus on this aspect? If so, surely it would affect the make-up of the products we see on the supermarket shelves, and perhaps the changes needed are not compatible with the ongoing plans of the global FMCG giants who produce them. Or will these massive corporations split into smaller business units to offer the markets what they are looking for?

Either way, the coming years will no doubt present us with a shift in the way brands engage with their audiences – to find out exactly what direction this will take, we will have to wait and see!

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