“We are seeing some compelling year-over-year shifts in customer attitudes,” said Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO of WE Communications. “Consumers continue to have high expectations for brands to use innovative technologies, but most are afraid of how those same technologies might disrupt their lives. These fears are causing consumers to demand greater accountability from brands."
The study, conducted across eight global markets, examined both rational and emotional drivers that motivate customer choices within today’s environment — to decipher brand movement relative to geography, industry and key stakeholders. Three key themes emerged:
Consumers hold brands accountable to use technology ethically
Across the board, consumers indicated they continue to have high expectations for brands to use technology to drive innovation: nearly 50 percent of Brands in Motion 2018 global study respondents believe technology will either help do more things in less time or create greater sustainability. However, this year’s study also exposed a new precondition to consumer expectations: 97 percent said they now place responsibility squarely on brands to use technology ethically while continuing to drive customer-centric innovation.
Consumers have been shaken by recent technology scandals and are anxious about the promises of unprecedented innovation. Eighty-four percent fear their personal data is not secure, 67 percent dread being a pedestrian in a world of self-driving cards and 54 percent worry artificial intelligence will take their jobs away. In fact, 94 percent said that if brands can’t use technology ethically, then governments should step in. Consumers are giving brands an ultimatum: Self-regulate or be regulated.
Movement on the matrix: consumers want brands to show, not tell
From 2017 to 2018, average global scores of brand motion were up 16 percent for rational drivers and 14 percent for emotional drivers, showing that consumers' need for reason is outpacing their need to feel emotionally connected to a brand. In short, consumers are insisting brands deliver proof over promise.
When mapping these changing perceptions using WE’s Brands in Motion diagnostic tool — the Motion Matrix — the study revealed a notable uptick across every market but one, indicating customer expectations continue to grow at an exponential rate and it’s harder for brands to wow and delight consumers both emotionally and rationally.
Categories were not immune to these shifts. Computing devices, which previously had the highest consumer admiration, fell dramatically. In contrast, smart home — the category that seems like it would have the most to lose in conversations about tech disruption, data privacy and security — is ascendant. Despite 63 percent of respondents saying they were afraid their phone was listening to them, and 84 percent fearing their personal data wasn’t secure, smart home made huge year-over-year gains in 4 of the 6 markets in which it was surveyed.
Collectively the data signals that although the tech halo is strong, consumer anxiety over disruptive technologies and reactions to technology misuse may be stronger. These fears could continue to be a negative influence on tech-heavy categories unless they start to anticipate and get ahead of consumers’ ethical expectations.
Global environmental forces drive increasingly polarized perceptions of brands
With the prevailing societal backdrop of trade tensions, political unrest and technology angst, consumers are raising expectations for greater rationality and responsibility in their relationships with brands. Not only are people expecting more from brands than ever before, they are also more binary in their reactions to brands and categories.
The study found that in 2018, brands and categories are primarily clustered in two quadrants of the Motion Matrix — mover and defender — and the higher average scores mean it’s harder than last year to be a mover. This shift indicates that consumers around the globe are reserving their greatest love and appreciation for a smaller number of brands, and that they have strong convictions — one way or the other — about both sectors and brands. As a result, the issue of brand value has become very stark and polarized, making it harder for competitors of a beloved brand to draw their share of consumer affection.
“Consumer sentiment isn’t surprising if you look at the current global environment — from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, current struggles with content moderation and the GDPR, to the competing promise and apprehension attached to technologies like AI, blockchain and autonomous vehicles,” said Alan VanderMolen, WE’s president of international. “Brands have become the middle man, keeping the peace between lightning-speed innovation on one side and thoughtful ethics and regulation on the other. Consumers have now upped the ante and expect them to do more to drive stability in progress.”
“The Brands in Motion 2018 global survey data and corresponding insights present brands with a tremendous opportunity,” said Kass Sells, president of North America, WE. “With awareness of how customer perceptions, attitudes and demands have changed year over year, they better understand the forces of motion, their corresponding impact, and where they can capitalize to better reach their most important stakeholders.”
About the Motion Matrix
WE Communications developed a matrix to help brands understand and manage their motion against the larger environmental factors in play. The Motion Matrix maps the changing perceptions of industries and brands based on average emotional and rational motion driver scores, separating them into four quadrants:
- Providers have low emotional and high rational scores, making engagement largely transactional. Customers want these brands or categories, but don’t feel emotionally attached to them.
- Defenders are marked by both low emotional and low rational scores. Brands here are often on the precipice of change.
- Movers reflect both high emotional and high rational scores, indicating customers want and need these brands or category products and have high expectations around innovation.
- Agitators show high emotional and low rational scores, indicating that customers love these brands and categories, but may not see the long-lasting benefit.
WE’s Motion Matrix gives a lens through which to view motion not only at the brand and category level, but at the geographic level as well. The study revealed comparable consumer mindsets in the eight markets surveyed, with emerging markets and Singapore viewing brands and categories more optimistically, and the U.K. becoming even more pessimistic as Brexit looms. This awareness gives brands much stronger guidance on how to pivot their marketing and communications efforts to account for the prevailing mood of each market.