Interviews

“Consumers are voting out of interacting with brands on a daily basis.”

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Creative on what brands should know about the age of cynicism.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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Creativity can change the world. It can challenge and shift culture, it can change entrenched behaviours and smash stereotypes. It can provide laugh out loud moments of brightness in the darkest of times.

Yet 75% of brands could disappear overnight and most people wouldn’t care.

It’s the suckerpunch stat that is a mainstay of Havas’ annual Meaningful Brands survey; a statistic that Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer describes as ‘the inconvenient truth’. Yet it is a truth which roots the study in honest, transparent insight as opposed to vanity metrics. 

The 2021 study was completed at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and Sinnock, who was promoted earlier this month to the newly created role of Global Chief Strategy Officer, points to the fact that the pandemic has made everyone ‘fragile, nervous and scared’. A fact that makes facing these uncomfortable truths; recognising them and acting upon them business critical for progressive marketers. 

Sinnock, who joined Havas in 2015, having previously held Group CSO roles at Fallon, Ogilvy in Asia and M&C Saatchi, as well as a stint as Marketing Director at ASDA (Havas recently picked up the ASDA creative account), is the strategic engine driving Havas forward. He ensures that the agency’s  Meaningful Brands methodology, which asserts that brands which contribute meaningfully to people’s lives are rewarded with stronger attachment, deeper connections, greater trust and investment, sits at the heart of Havas CX, its dedicated customer experience network, which launched in October 2020. 

The age of cynicism 

This year’s research underlines that not only are brands facing up to an era of cynicism; but also one of exhaustion. Sinnock explains that when you compare the data from 2019 with 2021 you can’t escape the fact that people have become more fatigued and apathetic to brands which is having a significant impact on trust levels, particularly in more developed markets. 

“Brands saying they have fixed diversity, or that everything that they do will be sustainable by 2025. Brand marketing is the wrong sort of vehicle for that message,” explains Sinnock. It is a message that consumers simply aren’t buying, for as Sinnock explains brands might be extolling these big messages, yet on a human level people simply don’t feel like these issues have moved on. “These are big human issues and they are bigger than a single campaign,” he explains. 

Yet while the industry narrative when it comes to purpose has centred around a binary; purpose versus profit argument, Sinnock is eloquent on the tensions at play when it comes to meaningful brands. “Consumers do want brands to make a difference and there is a desire for brands to do more,” he explains. 

 

“The market will increasingly move towards products, services and brands on the right side of history.”

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Creative

Consumer activism

Yet doing more is not always centred in a marketing campaign. As Sinnock explains: “There is a tension with brands getting involved in these huge narratives and big issues that are way bigger than them.” A fact that he believes leads to some consumers rejecting the messaging, particularly when it is not delivered with transparency or humility.

For all the criticism landed at Gen Z for virtue signalling, the Meaningful Brands research points to the huge influence and positive potential of this activist generation. “This is a generation finding their feet and looking for opportunities. They need to disrupt the status quo because there is no room for them to be themselves.”

He believes that these consumers aren’t looking for ‘either/or’ purchasing decisions; convenience and compassion they instead desire the best of both worlds. “They want to exist in communities where brands can enable them to express themselves as individuals. They aren’t seeking permission to be the person they want to be.”

It's an attitude which Sinnock describes as ‘optimistic’. A gereatric Millennial (such as the author of this piece) might perhaps view an age of cynicism as a framework of apathy which explains why positive change, or perhaps any change in business won’t happen. Akin to the ‘it will never work’ school of marketing; when in fact the opposite is true. If the past year has taught us anything it is that frustration can be an engine for innovation, exploration and progress. 

The activist consumers of Gen Z are actively using their cynicism with the status quo as a force for change. As Sinnock explains: “They are looking for brands that share their values, that have a sense of community, that don’t make judgements and don’t reflect homogenised views of society,” he explains.

In the same vein while the survey underlines the transactional and functionality that these consumers’ demand, this doesn’t override their sense of community. “These consumers are actively asking questions such as what is this brand’s position on employee rights,” Sinnock adds. 

71%
of Gen Z consumers are looking for differentiated products and services which allow them to express their individuality.
48%
of all content provided by brands is judged not meaningful to consumers.
77%
of consumers expect brands to show support to people in times of crisis.

Choosing better

Perhaps historically the desire to make more ethical choices hasn’t always been followed-through when it comes to purchasing decisions. “There are so many choices you can make, and given the choice people will always choose a more conscious decision,” explains Sinnock. Yet he notes that “for many people that is an exclusive choice”. Historically buying better has often involved an additional cost, whether that be investing more of your time or money. 

In the wake of the explosion of ecommerce and direct to consumer routes Convenience is a driving force. Are consumers therefore espousing the importance of sustainability, while also single handedly punching a hole through the Ozone layer through overuse of Amazon Prime? “Convenience is such a driver of brand choice,” says Sinnock “price, speed of delivery; they all have an impact.”

Nonetheless, he believes the direction of travel is firmly towards a more conscious brand of consumerism. He explains: “The market will increasingly move towards products, services and brands on the right side of history.” A shift he believes is all about access, choice and compromise. 

Welcome to the hyper-local age

Then there is the shift towards hyper-local in marketing; where global brands such as Google and Mastercard have aligned themselves with supporting local communities and local businesses in the midst of lockdown. For the lucky white collar workers able to work from home in the midst of the pandemic their centre of gravity has also shifted; for every headline beamoning the impact of the pandemic on Pret-a-Manger, there are positive stories of new local coffee shops and hybrid work spaces thriving. A trend that poses the question what will this shift towards hyper-local mean for brands?

For Sinnock it is in this local community space that brands have the opportunity to overcome consumer cynicism to show in a tangible way their benefits. He explains: “Increasingly we live locally, we are meeting our colleagues in local environments. For brands that understand  that opportunity there is a real opportunity to get more involved.”

In a shift from the broadcast-style ‘marketing overclaim’ that perhaps reflected the greenwashing era of the nineties; the current climate demands a different approach. Rather than broadcasting their claims brands should instead ‘elegantly live their promises in local communities’. A shift Sinnock believes is an elegant way to close that cynicism.

Brands and businesses need a more humble and authentic approach and one that isn’t always fixed in a campaign or advert.

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Creative

The power of humility

Action on a local scale is also a way for brands to tackle the thorny issue of trust. “The truth is the advertising voice is not always the most trusting, or the most humble of voices. It’s been a slightly hyperbolic part of the entertainment agenda,” explains Sinnock. “Then it's taking on these hefty subjects and you have to ask is this the right way to communicate?” he adds, noting that many of society’s biggest challenges will not be solved in 30 seconds.

So is now the time for a change of tone? Absolutely.  “Brands and businesses need a more humble and authentic approach and one that isn’t always fixed in a campaign or advert”, Sinnock explains.  He believes that there is sometimes a disconnect between the marketing agenda and the weight of the big topics it seeks to address. 

It is difficult for businesses because they build these content studios and infrastructure around content, which in turn means they feel they should be producing more. It becomes a cycle of production.

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Creative

The content obesity crisis

In the midst of the rise of ecommerce and the shift to e-commerce the number of topics any given brand is seeking to address is ever-increasing. Ask marketing recruitment leaders right now what the highest demand roles are both brand side and within agencies and they will tell you they are firmly rooted in the content space.

Yet as the research underlines, there remains a disconnect between what consumers want (utility and useful content) and what brands produce. While many brands deliver on ever increasing volumes of content.

“Businesses are guilty of using direct channels as broadcast channels,” explains Sinnock, who believes brands should be encouraged to adopt a ‘less is more approach.” Far from capitalising on the era of ‘subscription everything’, brands risk consumers hitting Unsubscribe on mass. “Consumers are voting out of interacting with brands on a daily basis,” explains Sinnock.

From personalisation to relevance

For Sinnock, the question for brands is simple: how do you make every interaction with consumers more valuable, more useful? For brands to shift their thinking to ensure that their content fits in with the realities of consumers lives, not their cadence.

It is a shift he describes as one from ‘personalisation to relevance’. “Just because a brand knows your name doesn’t make it relevant,” he explains.  It means that brands need to bring the same scrutiny and quality to direct channels as they do in above the line marketing.

“It is difficult for businesses because they build these content studios and infrastructure around content, which in turn means they feel they should be producing more. It becomes a cycle of production,” he explains. A cycle of production which ignores the fact that time is a finite resource.

In the wake of a year in which professionally and personally people across the globe are reappraising and reconsidering how they spend their time there has perhaps never been a better moment for brands to reconsider their role in consumers lives and society at large. For as the Meaningful Brands survey underlines truth well told is still one of the biggest competitive advantages and creative engines in marketing.

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