For most brands, the relationship they have with their consumers is passive; meanwhile, others have been able to enter a different space, where consumers share their content and participate in the brand. iris Sydney’s Celia Garforth asks whether we're building brands with people or just for them.

Peoples’ relationships with brands have reached a crossroads. On the one hand, advertising is facing its toughest test yet. One in three Aussies now use ad-blocking software, while 89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered at all. Today’s consumers are able to live within their own networks, on their own terms, without brands telling them what to think and do.

On the other hand, people are letting some brands into their lives like never before. These brands are endorsed, promoted and meme-ed. Their products fetishized. Their founders elevated to cult-like status. These brands are not just surviving, but thriving.

So what’s the secret?

We intuitively know that people like ideas more when they feel like they come from an audience’s world, not a brand’s world. That people are influenced primarily by other people, not rational brand persuasion. And that cultural relevancy must be baked into a brand’s core offering, not just its communications.

But can any of this be codified?

Our Participation Brands Index study sought to do just this, and gain a deeper understanding of the brand-building levers successful companies employ. Using data from 14,000 people across five markets – including Australia – the study revealed several interesting considerations for brands locally:

1. Age matters for brands, too

As marketers, we often look at audience attitudes and behaviours by generation, but rarely explore brands through the same lens. Yet the research suggests that successful participation-brand behaviour comes more naturally to ‘millennial brands’. For example, of the top 5 performers in the study, only one was born before the 90s.

Brands considered ‘most relevant today’ and ‘important for the future’ were also overwhelmingly young, from the usual consumer tech suspects (Google, Apple, Uber), to disruptors in other categories like Aldi, Subway and Little Creatures.

Clearly, digitally-native brands are at an advantage, having engineered their business models for our new world from the start. But it’s not all doom and gloom for older brands, with some notable strong-performers including Toyota, BMW, Tim Tams, Domino’s and Harvey Norman. Each of these have actively sought ways to innovate their product and service offerings to keep pace with change.

If you’re simply a legacy option within a category, you’re only one disruption away from being displaced. But there’s no reason why that disruption can’t be made by your brand first with preemptive pivots or acquisitions. Just look at how the likes of Disney, Virgin, 3M, Lego, Calvin Klein and Gatorade have reinvented themselves over the decades, for example.

On the other hand, Blockbuster passed up the chance to buy Netflix in 2000...

2. For brands, ‘excitement’ trumps ‘love’ on the emotional spectrum

Love has long been posited as the ultimate response to provoke with our brand-building efforts. Yet in the study it was ‘excitement’, not love, that presented the strongest correlation to overall brand performance. This was measured in relation to metrics including ‘first choice’ and ‘willing to pay more for’.

Here in Australia, the automotive category is considered most exciting, with Tesla and Jeep gaining the highest scores. Measures that drove excitement included: being provocative, fueling passions and interests, being ‘hot’ right now in culture, staying ahead of the competition and creating experiences people want to be part of.

For brands to be considered exciting, they must take an active role in shaping categories, experiences and culture.

3. Consistency can be sexy

In a world of fragmented and saturated media, consistency has never been more important in driving brand salience, but its’ true value is often overlooked as something of a hygiene factor. The reality is that being consistent across all touchpoints and experiences does far more than just building memory structures and aiding recognition; it actually drives deeper emotional measures like desire.

iris’ study revealed that there is a correlation between brand consistency and both ‘attractiveness’ and ‘desire’ metrics. This isn’t just visual consistency either, but a deeper ‘togetherness of experience’, whenever and wherever the brand is encountered.

Nowhere is this more evident than in high-value categories like automotive and technology, where Google and Apple lead the way with seamlessly connected cross-channel experiences. But close behind them are brands like Aldi, who have demonstrated that being consistent can give them an edge over more entrenched premium players.

4. Gen Y most influenced by social impact

Gen Y are the group most passionate about the need for brands to behave as good corporate citizens. Half of 25- to 34-year-olds were bothered about a brand’s impact on society, versus only one-third of the 45-plus audience.

Across all age groups, automotive brands, followed by consumer tech, are expected to be the most socially responsible (VW take note!). Conversely, people are less sensitive to the broader impact of FMCG and alcohol brands, with confectionary brands like Snickers and Allens scoring the lowest in terms of care factor.

5. Return on involvement

In 2017, three out of four brands are failing to build any emotional engagement with people, which is in turn driving higher than ever levels of apathy. Marketers who choose to approach business as usual risk being left behind.

Amidst this climate, the imperative has never been greater to design meaningful, culturally relevant product and marketing experiences that people seek out, rather than block out. Ultimately, only brands built from people up, rather than brand down, will survive.

Scoring highly in the Participation Brand Index overall was found to correlate with a series of brand performance measures, including memorability, the ability to charge a price premium and net promoter score. Indicating that audience involvement in your brand-building isn’t just a feel-good move; it impacts the bottom line.