Reflections on 2016

2016: a year of flux, disruption and the triumph of discontent.  When history looks back at this year past, it will be regarded as a pivotal point in early 21st Century socio-economics. Civil war in the Middle East, typified by the horror of the struggle for Aleppo, rumbles on, with little prospect of peace any time soon, whilst in the West the disgruntled masses exercised their democratic rights to deliver a political earthquake in the UK & US by delivering Brexit & the Donald. Wildly different vehicles that deliver the same anti-establishment, anti-status quo message.

What 2016 showed was that it’s now wise to expect the unexpected and to never write off an outsider.  We are after all living in a post-truth world, one where spin is swallowed wholesale and facts are written off as establishment propaganda.  The result is a loss of any semblance of certainty.

So where exactly does this leave the world of brands?  Well, to be blunt it presents a massive opportunity.  As people have lost faith in pillars such as government, financial institutions and even the media, they will increasingly look elsewhere for reassurance and anchors that they recognise and can trust.  In a period of wholesale upheaval and change, anything that represents a constant will win out.  This explains why brands that leverage heritage, provenance and longevity retain an edge over novelty which implies transience.

It’s also perhaps indicative of why many brands in 2016 reverted to more functional messaging in their comms, abandoning more abstract high level emotional positionings to drive home more rational product benefit messages.  Cadburys move away from their wildly successful ‘Free the Joy’ campaign to ‘Tastes like this Feels’ and Coke’s binning of ‘Open Happiness’ for the eerily similar ‘Taste the Feeling’ are two prime examples of this reversion to product led comms.

It’s important to note the fact that brands tend to take less creative risks in times of uncertainty.  The opportunity this safer approach provides is for those brands that are brave enough to disrupt their categories either through comms or innovation. After all, standing out is less difficult if you’re shouting against an increasingly quiet crowd.

All this is fertile ground for the upstart and the outsider.  Those challenger brands that are already admired for their dogged can-do attitude and ethos can break into mainstream consciousness by doing one thing well and providing a counterpoint to the tried and tested, provided there’s credibility in their offering.

And so, whilst it’s undeniable that 2016 will go down as a decisive year, riven by division and change, it also sets up 2017 as a year where brands, established or fledgling, can make a significant impact on their business.  Some will rise to the challenge; others will die trying.  2017, it’s over to you…

Alex Beattie, Senior Consultant,