Why Populism is Good

The intersection of popularity and progressivism should be fertile territory for brands, so how can marketers make the most of it?

By Elliot Leavy

Populism has long been a dirty word in the London-centric advertising industry. Whether it be the industry’s collective meltdown over that Campaign cover, or just its more general reluctance to engage with views outside of the M25, advertising has time and time again failed to see the national picture, often opting to lecture rather than nurture audiences instead.

The cost of advertisers’ predisposition to pontification was of course highlighted as far back as 2019, with award-winning creative campaigns being found by the IPA to have little or no effective impact and be no more effective than non-awarded work. Essentially what this meant was that while work might be being lauded at Cannes, it is just as likely to be laughed at in Blackpool.

Three years on and the report, titled “The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness”, seems to have been dutifully ignored. Yet if there’s one agency that got the memo faster than everyone else it would have to be Leo Burnett London, which has been championing ‘Populist Creativity’ for some time now. Indeed, Chaka Sobhani, the agency’s global chief creative officer, summed it up neatly when she said at Ciclope Festival: "I love this industry but I don’t make work for it”.

Late last year the agency even went so far as to create a “Populism Index” — a study that measured campaigns and brands in terms of relatability with the general public. To discover more about the research and what it is that makes brands popular, Creative Salon sat down with Josh Bullmore, Leo Burnett London's chief strategy officer and Mike Treharne, its head of data insights, to find out what populism really is all about.

Explain the two facets of populism as explained in your new research:

Treharne: There are two aspects to how we define populism – where a brand is now and where it is going in future. The first dimension of our Populism Index is Popularity – how popular a brand is now. This is a combination of its perceived scale (the social aspect) and its likeability (the personal aspect). The second dimension is Progressiveness – how in touch with modern culture it is, and therefore how relevant it is to current consumer needs. Brands can be fleetingly popular, a flash in the pan, but it is continual progressiveness that ensures that a brand remains successful over a longer timeframe. Progressiveness is a leading indicator of future growth.

What does it mean for a brand to be progressive in this sense?

Bullmore: As well as our quant study we spent time with people in their homes in a Gogglebox style setting to understand what progressiveness means when it comes to brands. It’s a combination of a few things. It starts with being relevant to the life of me and my family, a sense that you get us and what matters to us, our day-to-day concerns. Beyond that, brands needed to be in tune with social issues. For example, people talked about how important it is that they can see their community reflected in a brand’s advertising. So many groups in society, from ethnic minorities to people with disabilities, are still under-represented in ads. Lastly, brands need to be able to not just respond to culture, but to shape it. Brands need to be half a step ahead of their customers. People spoke about everything from Sainsbury’s encouraging them to mix half lentils with their lamb for a more planet-friendly shepherd’s pie, to McDonald’s opening the UK’s first net-zero restaurant.

Where can the index be applied to?

Bullmore: To any part of the cultural landscape of Britain. Obviously, we’ve focused much of our research on consumer brands, but have also used it to analyse TV shows, musicians, politicians, sport and celebrity.

We’ve spoken to creators across all sorts of fields and what’s fascinating is that we found the same patterns for success wherever we looked. Acclaimed music producer Manon Dave told us how he writes hits with the likes of will.i.am. They might take a sound that feels popular and familiar, from say Aretha Franklin, and then reimagine it for today, so it’s equally progressive. Likewise, Layla Smith, who was controller of entertainment at ITV, and one of the masterminds of its turnaround, spoke about rebooting shows like I’m A Celebrity... by zeroing in on the elements that had made them popular, for instance Ant & Dec’s banter, placing them right at the heart of the show and then shaking up the rest of the format to make it more progressive. It’s been a schedule centrepiece ever since. 

How do Populism and Progressivism interplay?

Treharne: For brands that are seen as popular but not progressive, it’s an early warning signal about future growth potential. They may currently be leading brands in terms of scale, but are they brand leaders, innovating and pushing themselves and their category forward? And for progressive but not popular brands, there is scope for growth, if they can take their cultural relevance and make sure it doesn’t just resonate with a niche, early adopter audience but give it broad, mainstream appeal. 

What can brands learn from this model? 

Treharne: Brands can see where they are on the Populism Map, compared to both immediate competitors and equivalent brands in other categories. And they can understand which levers they need to pull to increase their populist appeal. It shows brands where they are today, where they need to get to tomorrow, and how they can get there. 

Does this model work for all brands?

Treharne: While the Populism Index allows all brands to understand where they are on the map, but of course not all brands aspire to populism. Some, such as luxury brands, are happy to target more niche audiences.

So what should brands be aiming to be when it comes to Populism?

Bullmore: To enjoy sustained growth, brands should aim to be both popular and progressive. To some extent, popularity can be bought – we know there is a strong correlation between share of voice and market share. But to be seen as progressive requires careful curation – factors that influence it include authenticity, distinctiveness, cultural relevance and being socially progressive.

When it comes to populist creativity, it’s not about lowest common denominator, where you simply play back what people already like and expect. It’s about finding the highest common denominator, taking the familiar and popular, stretching people’s expectations with progressive creativity, pushing the boundaries of what people like, shaping what they like. That is a delicate balance to strike and ultimately, it’s an art as much as a science. It’s about evoking emotion, so it requires emotional intelligence, not just brains. It’s about heart as much as head.


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