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Havas Meaningful Brands Report 2021 reveals we’re now entering age of cynicism

Despite this cynicism, consumers are desperately seeking brands that will make a meaningful difference – with 73% saying brands must act now for the good of society and the planet and 64% of people – an increase of 10 percentage points since 2019 – say they prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose as well as profit. 

The pandemic has created a shift in consumer mindsets. Customers who are now chiefly online are more engaged with the brands that they follow, and as the 2021 Havas Meaningful Brands Report shows, many feel that these brands have fallen short of their expectations.  

The Havas Meaningful Brands project — now on its ninth year of producing powerful insights for brands and brand marketers — surveyed 395,000 consumers around the world and found that cynicism is at an all-time high: less than half of brands are seen as trustworthy (47%).  A surprising 71% have also said that they have little faith that brands will deliver on their promises. 

Confronting cynicism

Despite this cynicism, consumers are desperately seeking brands that will make a meaningful difference – with 73% saying brands must act now for the good of society and the planet and 64% of people – an increase of 10 percentage points since 2019 – say they prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose as well as profit. 

This creates an “expectation gap” as brands become more involved with social causes but are unable to communicate authenticity in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns. Making promises that brands don’t tangibly deliver leads to a trust deficit and, even worse, accusations of a new form of ‘CSR washing’, exacerbating the sense of cynicism among consumers and affecting reputation to a level it can be hard to come back from.

The 2021 report notes the demand for meaningful experiences. It shows that 66% of consumers want more meaningful experiences from brands. It also found that retail, home entertainment and technology companies have most improved their brand value in the eyes of consumers during the pandemic. This is likely due to people seeking fast, affordable deliveries of groceries and other essentials, and experiencing constant engagement with content via tech devices in the home.

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer of the Havas Creative Group explains, “This year’s report shows us that consumers have entered an ‘age of cynicism’. They are surrounded by what they perceive as empty or broken promises –at all levels of our society –and we are starting to see the impact of this mistrust on brands. 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.”

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Brands have the opportunities to connect

Issues such as public health, the economy and politics are now at front and center in consumers’ minds, and the environment follows close behind. Globally, consumers increasingly expect brands to strengthen their collective contributions to the conversation, but it isn’t about jumping on the bandwagon to help the latest trending social cause. Consumers want to see brands supporting what is most authentic to them and where they have a genuine right to share their support. 

Here are some opportunities in which brands can create meaningful content and engage consumers with transparency and tangibility.  

Lend a helping hand. The pandemic has become an opportunity for brands to reach out to communities and show support to people in times of crisis. This is expected by 77% of the respondents, with this past year bringing an increase in expectations in three specific areas: more connection, more care for the planet, and more monetary savings and growth.

Be Inclusive. The global situation has likewise awakened a mentality that focuses on Oneness. Cultural intricacies matter, in scenarios that bring together segments as East Meets West or the ‘We’ vs. ‘Me’ mentality that influences expectations across personal and collective benefits in different regions and cultures around the world. In this aspect, U.S. and Western Europe consumers are most distrustful of brands, while Latin America and Asia believe more in the value brands add to society. 

Gen Z, which has grown up connected to the world via the internet, is not afraid to question the status quo. They seek individuality and at the same time expect inclusion. This generation is particularly focused on reducing inequalities across areas including race, sexuality and opportunity and have more love for brands that take a lead on social issues and embrace diversity.  

Be helpful. With more people staying home and connected online, the internet has become a vehicle for helpful content as consumers figure out how to navigate their personal new normal. It is important to note, however, that almost half (48%) of all content provided by brands is judged not to be meaningful to consumers.

Havas Ortega chairman and CEO Jos Ortega adds, “Because of this demand for meaningful interactions and a call for representation from brands, the Havas Meaningful Brands study for the first time maps its proprietary metrics to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This is to help brands deliver transparency and tangibility for the future.” 

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Ortega also notes that Gen Z is more empowered as a stakeholder in their future. “They are more than capable of letting themselves be heard, through the power of their pockets and their social-media enabled voices. This can be seen not only in the push for new voters to register, but also in their demand for brands to be more meaningful, more authentic, and more responsible. We feel that this is something that brands can respond to. It is through this study that we hope local brands can use these metrics to plan their roadmap as we all work together towards the next normal.”

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