The vital role of PR as brand loyalty plummets

Last week, I attended the latest of the MPA ‘Big Debate’ series, this time discussing brand loyalty. Taking place at Bruntwood’s Neo building in Manchester, we heard from a panel comprising Jamie Dodds, head of marketing at BBC Children’s, Caroline Sanger-Davies, director of marketing at Chester Zoo, Chris Garrett, founder of Bert, and Liz Bielinska, founder of Planning Express. 

Hosted by Christian James, MD of the IF Agency, it was a lively debate centred around declining brand loyalty and the reality that a great product or service is no longer 'enough'.

Instead, consumers are increasingly questioning social purpose, ethical operations and authenticity, and are more critical of brands and companies that fail to deliver on promises and live up to expected standards of behavior. 

Social purpose, ethical operations and authenticity are essential.

Liz Bielinska opened the debate by talking us through the Reputation Institute’s RepTrak report, with an overview of those brands performing well and those that aren’t living up to expectations.

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While Wednesday evening's discussion focused predominantly on brand strategy and behaviour, it's an issue that also raises important considerations from a PR and communications perspective. PR plays a core role in brand management and reputation and, at a time when brand loyalty and trust is falling, its value is magnified. 

Research from Ocean Tomo revealed 83% of a company’s value is in its intangible assets - brand, reputation and social capital; the very assets that hinge on brands retaining their place in consumer’s affections. Yet it needn’t be all doom and gloom - for businesses and brands with a clear purpose, strong social capital and authenticity, there is real opportunity to both cement and expand their customer base, achieving game-changing growth.

But what is causing brand loyalty to slump? Aside from a failure to embrace new expectations, trust also plays a key role.

This year's Edelman Trust Barometer revealed a ‘flatline in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs in the UK’, indicating the challenge ahead for many brands that, in the past, have traded successfully on product alone, neglected their reputation and - crucially - failed to appreciate the emotive impact they have on people. The way a brand makes someone feel will dictate whether they buy or vote with their feet.

However, we should note that the results herald opportunity for some, with trust in business figures - executives, CEOs, regulators - improving markedly and offering clear opportunity to lead the agenda in a positive way.

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Thought leadership is a core means to position a business as the leader in its field, or an individual as a key authority in a particular subject. It’s a way to improve credibility, increase trust in ability and expertise, and boost influence. It sets a company apart from its competitors. 

The changing status quo - the increasing focus on the operations behind a business and the way it makes people feel - should be grasped with both hands by PR professionals and businesses alike.

However, it’s also important to note changes underfoot regarding trust in media outlets - while brands that do good can capitalise on the changing mood, the fact is, messages are harder to deliver.

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Social media has its place as a vital communication platform for any business, yet it's important to note that only a quarter now trust social media as a source of news and information. But on the flip side there has been a significant increase in trust in traditional media to levels not seen since 2012. 

Effective PR can make all the difference, but it must be targeted. 

So, while trust - and loyalty - is falling for many global brands, the door is open for businesses that focus on engendering trust, utilising effective PR to share their story and values. It's an opportunity for a new breed of brands to make themselves heard.