As we’re awaiting the final results of our end of year study to gain a more in-depth understanding of the Zeitgeist, we’ve been discussing what’s next for brands in 2013 based upon our learning from CultureQ over the past Summer and Autumn.  As always, we’ve been reviewing the data from our research in the context of socio-cultural and political events.

The highly anticipated IPO of Facebook, the largest in the technology sector and the second biggest offering ever, kicked off Summer. Surely, there was no clearer symbol of Facebook’s market dominance. Anticipation quickly led to speculation about the integrity of the offering, Facebook’s revenue strategy, and many of the company’s policies and strategy, and the public became more cynical about the extent to which Facebook values the people it connects.

Consumers are growing notably more frustrated and less forgiving of brands they judge as taking more than they give

Although participants in CultureQ respect brands such as Facebook as leaders, they are growing notably more frustrated and less forgiving of those they judge to be taking more than they give. Facebook is one of the few leadership brands that our participants did not also name as a top favorite brand. Increasingly, people’s favorites offer a mutually beneficial relationship that recognizes their contributions to brand development as well as their role in bringing a brand to life. Engaging with users as people rather than just consumers is especially important for brands that want to connect with Millennials.

As summer wore on, Chick-fil-A aptly demonstrated the danger of a brand being associated with views that are misaligned with many of its consumers and employees. A few weeks before the Gay Rights gaffe, a study by Technomic, rated Chick-fil-A as one of Millennials favorite restaurants. A small number of CultureQ 2011 participants named Chick-fil-A as a good brand citizen, noting it gives to charities and the community. By August, however, the tide had rapidly turned against the brand. According to YouGov its approval ratings plummeted. More proof that social media can marshal opinion quicker than marketers can manage brand reputation. And importantly, the need for good brand citizens to strike a balance between advocating for issues that are authentic to the company’s – not necessarily its executives – values, while remaining relevant to their users’ views. In a transparent world, a CEO must walk a tightrope between his or her personal views and the company’s values.

Millennials, in particular, have complex, highly emotional connections with their favorite brands

It’s clear from CultureQ that Millennials, in particular, have complex, highly emotional connections with their favorite brands. Although assurances about value and quality are important measures of brand leadership, positive advocacy is rooted in the extent to which a brand’s mission ultimately translates into adding value for an individual first then society at large.

On the other side of the pond, the high point of Summer was London 2012. While crowds cheered on the contenders, London’s “brand army” officially sensored ambush marketing techniques and vetoed the use of gold, metal, Olympic, and anything close to a reproduction of the 5 rings, even for the small Greek café in Hammersmith. For many local merchants, the Olympics was too shiny and tightly managed. A disconnected, autocratic corporate machine that had grown away from its authentic heart as a democratic citizen embodying the spirit of human endeavor, with the power to unite diverse communities. In a Twitter world where people can hijack official hash-tags, jump in front of television cameras wearing Pepsi, rather than Coke, t-shirts, and take pictures where they’re not meant to, which they post on every social network, brands that try to control and constrain are considered to be out of step with how people live. Our respondents advocate for brands that collaborate with them, empathize with their views and listen to their opinions.

Summer quickly turned to Autumn and Halloween in the NE US was destroyed as Tropical Storm Sandy left her mark on the mid-Atlantic region. If ever being a good citizen really meant something it was after the 29th of October as people of all demographics sheltered neighbors and collectively bonded over shared losses. Millennials in particular were praised for stepping up to help the people of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Staten Island. Often criticized for wanting a medal just for turning up at work, young people’s actions during the storm proved how complex a generation they are, as well as the continued emergence of the Me/We paradigm we first identified during 2011. First and foremost, Millennials are engaged with issues that directly impact their daily lives. After they have satisfied their needs many are likely to involve themselves with movements, which give back to society at large, or macro issues facing the planet.

A few days later when spotty Internet service was restored, digital power took over for mass manpower. As the repair effort kicked in, one Millennial initiated a petition that would gain momentum and ultimately result in the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon. His actions prompted criticism from Gen Yers that Baby Boomer leaders such as Michael Bloomberg consistently fail to engage with the issues that matter most to a younger generation.

While it wasn’t a record-breaking year for getting out the vote in the US, unprecedented numbers of young people or Millennials did vote. Those aged between 18-29, accounted for 19% of the vote, largest percentage ever (Huffington Post, Nov 2012). In our 2011 end of year CultureQ study, Millennials and Baby Boomers alike told us that real leadership was what was missing from Government. As a socially progressive and diverse generation, Millennials emphasized the apparent philosophical divide between the candidates, which many attributed to generational differences as much as lobbying funds. That said, CultureQ revealed more areas of commonality than difference between Baby Boomers and Gen Y, especially when it comes to identifying some of the principles that define brand leadership. Treating employees fairly, ethical business practices, and helping people to feel like better people are considered by all, regardless of age or generational cohort, to be important to brand leadership, suggesting the desire for fair play and doing good are increasing in the Zeitgeist as we head into 2013.

Consumers want leadership brands to advocate for the things that are important to their users without being overtly political

As the year started to close, the tragedy in Newtown left people shocked and, to echo Obama’s word’s, heartbroken. Have Walmart’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods efforts relative to pull the Bushmaster from shelves been enough? Do people judge each of their responses as being sincere or simply a crisis management strategy? Are these brands shaping social policy ahead of government regulation or simply smartly responding to current events? And, what of brands overall, what role should they really play in shaping society beyond consumerism? How much freedom of choice should they give us? Should they indeed help us to help ourselves and make more responsible choices? Amongst the many questions an event such as this raises is the extent to which leadership brands have a responsibility to respond to societal sentiment and/or shape social policy by taking action ahead of government regulation. According to our latest CultureQ Millennial panel, people want leadership brands to advocate for the things that are important to their users without being overtly political.

Seven lessons for brands in 2013

So given the range of events that came to define the second half of 2012, the question for marketers is what lessons will define the year ahead?  Here are the seven we believe are the most germane:

1.  Successful campaigns will be about enriching lives not aspiration.  Brands will further emphasize basic values such as integrated service and product excellence, durability and reliability.

2.  Good brand citizenship will become an operating principle. Brands that integrate philanthropy, employee volunteering programs and best operational practice into a platform simultaneously based on and supporting brand values will stand apart.

3.  Good citizenship will be leveraged across the brand experience to cultivate deeper consumer loyalty. Companies will begin to widen their definition of good citizenship to include uplifting people’s daily lives and integrate meaningful initiatives into routine experiences of their products and services.

4.  Delivering locally will give brands global credibility. Leadership brands will address more local issues that are pertinent to their consumer’s lives before they campaign on behalf of global challenges.

5.  Big data will enable individual freedom. Favorite brands will leverage big data to understand the lives of consumers and develop relationships and personalized experiences with individual people, allowing them to feel more freedom and less constrained rather than spied on.

6.  Digital platforms will enable brands to better integrate into people’s lives. Digital, including social media and apps, will further evolve to enable brands, regardless of their category, to engage more in people’s daily lives while simultaneously allowing people to participate in development of the brand.

7.  New will continue to be the new normal. Since constant advancement is the norm, brand favorites will continue to innovate to remain relevant and since people have deep loyalty with a highly selective few favorite brands more new products will be launched under existing brands rather than new ones.