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Brands can’t be trendsetters, or even followers. They need to build movements

Radical empathy and long-term effectiveness are the keys to staying relevant. We look at some of the brands doing just that

By Matthew Henry & Marina Glavan

Somewhere along the way we somehow managed to lose the definition of what a trend actually is. Trends in their modern form provide answers and comfort to unpredictability. They provide a sense of progress. But they are ultimately empty. If you asked 100 people what the top 10 trends are or mean, you would get blank stares, because a large amount of trends that we obsess over as an industry aren't engaged with in the real world. 

Ephemeral trend culture is exhausting and as brands, we can’t keep up, even if we could work with stakeholders fast enough to try. The truth is that engagement for engagement’s sake is not a sustainable strategy and ephemerality has a notoriously low ROI.  

So where do we go from here? We’re in the business of building long-term brands, so why should our activity on social media be any different? Instead of jumping on fast-moving trends we should align ourselves with quieter movements that resonate in culture and speak directly to our target audience about things THEY care about. Then we can start to build long-lasting relationships.  

As an agency, we’re big on what we call Radical Empathy, built off of the belief that if you want to make highly effective work, you have to drive emotion in your audience. To drive this emotion, you have to be radically empathetic in the way that you see the world; and importantly, the way that you see people. 

The concept of radical empathy is more relevant when we talk about brand building on social channels.  Traditionally, brands have approached social media with a box-ticking mentality, asking questions such as, “What is our Instagram strategy?”, or “This cat named Maxwell is trending, how are we going to jump on it?” or even ‘Would you still love me if I was a worm?’. This approach often prioritizes the platform itself over the audience that the brand is striving to engage and connect with. Being radically empathetic in social means planning and activating for people over platforms.  

While social is a space that behaves differently from traditional mediums, long-term effectiveness doesn’t. When brands focus on a sustained combination of empathy and experience, above all else then they have a real chance of building a community that actually cares. Here are two quick examples to bring that to life.  

Mars Petcare brand Sheba has aligned itself to ocean restoration in a way that sees the whole business inextricably linked to the health of the world's coral reefs. With 30 sites around the world, Sheba is dedicated to restoring coral reef beds with a lot of help from the coastal communities that lie adjacent to these sites. This concept of community extends into the Hope Grows Collective, a channel set up to propagate proof of the incredible restoration work that is happening all over the world. The channel doesn’t only allow consumers to get up close and personal with the restoration effort but even allows them to affect it in tangible ways.

Bodyform, the Essity feminine hygiene brand, aims to push against taboos and shame surrounding  women+’s bodies and health, from making women+ feel seen, even in the dark with their  #Periodsomnia campaign, highlighting the unfiltered realities of sleeping on your period. To giving a voice to the unseen, unspoken, and unknown truths about our wombs in #Wombstories. Bodyform’s consistent commitment to eradicating taboos has created a movement that empowers women+ to have open conversations about their intimate health and bodies without shame and stigmas. 

Of course, it doesn’t mean that brands can no longer capitalize on moments or moods when they are relevant to a deeper and more intrinsic strategy.

Guinness is a brand that is rooted in culture and an iconic product that its audience is passionate about. This means that they can capitalize on moments such as the singing foam trend on TikTok in their most recent work for St Patrick's Day and bring them to life using their incredibly strong black and white pint as a consistent and distinctive asset.  

So to conclude, relevance on social media doesn't always mean jumping on ephemeral trends. In fact, in many cases, ephemerality can burn a brand out before you even start to see ROI. In reality, success almost always boils down to offering value to an audience. Building movements that resonate with a group of people is one way to do that; galvanizing around something that your brand has a reason to believe in, and a reason to talk about. The true value, however, comes with commitment over time and providing value to an audience. If you can achieve that, then your social channels can be fundamentally connected to long-term brand growth.

Matthew Henry is the innovation lead, and Marina Glavan is the senior social strategist at AMV BBDO 


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