Welcome to the age of cynicism

Say less, do more; what brands should know about the Havas Meaningful Brands Survey 2021.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


75% of brands could disappear overnight and most people wouldn’t care. This year’s annual marketing reality check provided by the Havas Meaningful Brands Survey came in the midst of a global pandemic which has seen consumers reappraise what matters most to them on an unprecedented scale. Once again it provides marketers with the reminder that consumers’ relationship with their brands is often fleeting.

The 2021 study, which took place in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, surveyed 395,000 consumers around the world. The results provide a snapshot into the competing forces impacting brands amidst the economic and emotional turbulence of the pandemic. The research underlines the challenge facing marketers who are grappling with a growing lack of trust in brands. The research reveals that 71% of people having little faith that brands will deliver on their promises

Activist consumerism

Yet, while the research underlines that consumers are acutely aware of greenwashing; it also underlines that the industry narrative suggesting brands have reached ‘peak purpose’ is out of tune with consumer values. 

For while consumers are cynical, this cynicism should not be mistaken for apathy when it comes to social, cultural and environmental issues. 

73% of global respondents believe brands must act now for the good of society and the planet. Crucially this shift is about more than just good intentions and the research reveals that  64% of people – an increase of 10 points since 2019 – have entered their own age of action and are voting with their wallets making a preference  to buy from companies  with a reputation for purpose as well as profit. While over half (53%) of people are willing to pay more for a brand that takes a stand.

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Creative, explained: "Historically, companies have been looking after people’s functional and personal needs, but brands now face a bigger challenge. The more claims they make to be delivering change at a collective, societal level and the more these promises are left unfulfilled, the wider the gap between what we expect and what we actually get, and the deeper the cynicism.”

Key takeaways: The opportunities for brands 

Consumers want more meaningful experiences from brands: 66% of people are actively seeking these experiences. By sector retail, home entertainment and technology companies have most improved their brand value in the eyes of consumers during the pandemic. A steady diet of streaming services and delivery on demand have been core consumables in the midst of the pandemic. 

Consumers expect brands to step-up and support: The research reveals that 77% of consumers expect brands to show support to people in times of crisis. The emotional and economic impact of the pandemic has ushered in an increase in expectations from brands when it comes to caring for the planet and connectivity; as well as delivering consumers monetary savings.

Consumers from the USA and Western European are most distrustful of brands: The research reveals significant cultural differences when it comes to brand trust; with Latin American and Asia believing more in the value brands bring to society as a whole. 

Gen Z demands inclusion as the norm. This open-minded generation has no qualms in questioning society’s rules. Comfortably speaking their minds they are particularly focused on tackling inequality and building communities and societies in which individuals can truly be themselves. In line with this 71% are looking for differentiated products and services which allow them to express their individuality.

Brands have a utility role to play. Consumers are looking for brands for practical help and compared to pre-Covid times, ‘Helpful’ content is on the rise as consumers are still figuring out how to navigate their personal new normal. Brands are failing to meet this demand and the research reveals that almost half (48%) of all content provided by brands is judged not meaningful to consumers.

of respondents have little faith that brands will deliver on their promises.
of respondents believe brands must act now for the good of society and the planet.
of respondents are willing to pay more for a brand that takes a stand.