What social distancing can teach brands

Is your brand rising to the occasion in this time of Social Distancing?

Our question arises as entire countries are in lockdown, where the population has been instructed to stay at home, unless people have an essential reason to move around. Individuals and communities have been determined that the distance between them will remain purely physical, taking steps to develop alternatives for sustaining their social relations with each other and with brands. Drawing on Kingfisher expertise across multiple markets and categories, we set out how brands can adapt to emerging trends and by doing so, could turn 4 key challenges of distancing into innovation opportunities.   

Remote Working

 Cocooned in our homes, the internet has become vital for seeking medical advice, working remotely, keeping entertained and informed, or staying in touch with vulnerable friends or family members. Tech companies, including Google and Microsoft, have anticipated this increased dependence on the internet, and they have taken steps to improve these connections by reducing the internet traffic of video streaming and game downloads. Therefore, the bandwidth available on some streaming and downloading platforms, such as YouTube and Netflix, have been narrowed

As the demand for advanced virtual solutions has spiked during this period of distancing, so has the urgency among countries to establish a widespread 5G infrastructure that could support the transference of this content. Indeed, making more cyber room available for a home-based workforce seems likely to continue into the future, as brands including BT, Three, and EE compete in the UK to slash prices on their fastest home broadband connections.

If the office retreats further into the home, businesses would need to question the kind of oversight they wish to have of staff practices. Shashank Khattar, one of our Insights specialists at Kingfisher India, suggests that businesses could be compelled to explore “a new encryption method that works across screens and platforms”. This may expand opportunities for companies specialising in these goods and services. Businesses would also need to ask themselves, “how to operationalise company policies, including health and safety, in people’s homes?”

Amidst pronounced anxieties about a mass switch to remote working, it is clear that some businesses have identified that the COVID-19 / Coronavirus pandemic, and the distancing measures, offer a rare opportunity to improve virtual connections while many employees are likely to be at home. However, this is not to say that brand lessons stop at implementing virtual technology.

As Paul Thomas, an Insights Specialist from Kingfisher Germany, observes, the impersonal nature of many virtual solutions is jarring uncomfortably with workers expecting the personable interactions that they would encounter during their face-to-face communication.

“Virtual meetings currently tend to be very well timed, very to-the point, and may therefore feel rather formal. This doesn’t always allow you a chance to get to know the client outside the context of that meeting, which might have happened during the pre-meeting, face-to-face coffee and informal chat”.

In a market like Germany, where businesses have traditionally preferred in-person communication, Paul suspects that this demand for more personable online communication might be stronger. One solution that could become increasingly preferable is to counterbalance solitary working with more social, leisurely contact between colleagues, even while at home.

Nick Vaus, Creative Director at design studio Free the Birds, has just had to relocate his entire team online in the wake of distancing measures. He was cited in Design Week, saying that his colleagues “will be sharing what we are having for lunch” and “the team even want to arrange a Friday kitchen disco session”, just as would be the norm in the office. Beyond simply learning to use remote working apps, like Slack, Dropbox, Zoom, and FaceTime, increasingly, business teams are customising their experiences by bringing their in-office culture online while working from home.

“As more of us work from home, it might be considered more normal to see your colleagues without makeup and surrounded by their children’s toys as they join the video conference,” suggested Nicolette Bostock, an immigration lawyer living in the UK.

While remote working technologies are tailored to echo in-person interactions, Nicolette reminds us that further norms would need to develop to accommodate these new ways of using technology at home. Long-standing conventions, such as smart work attire and formal office environments, may be relaxed, appearing outdated and unnecessary in this context. Brands need to be a part of this conversation on rethinking remote working culture, matching the cultural shift within their own organisations to stay relevant and in tune with their people.  

Personal Care

 Returning to India, it is worth noting that new attitudes are emerging towards care and vulnerability. Shashank observes that the nationwide emphasis on handwashing, especially using disinfectants, has not just been adopted by family households but individuals who employ domestic helpers are increasingly ensuring their employees also take part in community-conscious hygiene practices.

“Rather than expecting domestic helpers to already be demonstrating these behaviours, employers are owning the responsibility of communal care, showing employees what the mutual benefits can be”. Shashank added that other steps to protect the health of domestic workers, including providing all household members with emergency food parcels are fast becoming popular across the country.

These new levels of cooperation suggest that social divides are increasingly being bridged, thanks to the overwhelming sense of collective responsibility to evade the virus.

Brands who have expressed solidarity with this sentiment in their messaging and have actively shown how they are taking responsibility during this moment of crisis have received positive recognition and much social recommendation online. Diageo India is one among many companies who have diverted resources to making sanitizers and pledged funds towards the health insurance of employees in hospitality. Ride-sharing services, Uber and Ola, have meanwhile welcomed drivers to pick up free masks and sanitizers from their walk-in centres. Hygiene has quickly becomes a concern for all communities to address together, and some brands have done well at contributing to this drive by living up to their brand purposes.

Dr Nick Gadsby, Kingfisher’s Head of Semiotics, warned that brands in Euro-American markets should beware cultural factors in understanding notions of hygiene.

“In countries like the UK and U.S, we often think of hygiene as a personal matter, something that we all do for our own sakes or those closest to us. This may be why our instinctive reactions to someone wearing a mask, for example, could involve judging them as wanting to protect themselves from germs in the environment. We might not think that they are wearing it for the sake of others, that is, to stop themselves spreading germs to their wider community”.

As more of us are implored to stay at home to protect health systems or vulnerable people, Nick suggested that this notion of hygiene as an entirely personal matter could be challenged, even in Euro-American contexts. Brands could benefit if they support, rather than enforce, this change in mindset. For example, some travel brands have joined with local communities to warn against tourism in regions which may not cope with a mass outbreak. They accompany these alerts with online slices of those destinations and information on when it might be safe to travel. This hints at a growing opportunity for brands who can emphasise the role of shared responsibility in the communities built with consumers.

Notably, many consumers around the world are overtly embracing healthy living as a fun activity rather than treating it as a chore, or everyday habit. A prime example of this trend is found in China, where during the lockdown, millions took part in the ‘joy in cooking’. With restaurants across the country shuttered, downloads of the most popular recipe apps, such as Xiachufang, surged from 1 million in January to 2.25 million just a month later. 

One of Kingfisher’s Insights Specialist in China, Keyue Yan, unpacked this shift in attitude and behaviour, identifying and unpacking the emerging trend "cooking as play”. Xiachufang, for instance, “opens up people's minds to think more creatively about the food they cook, encouraging them to experiment and transform the aesthetic, shape, and texture of everyday ingredients". Presented like Instagram stories, Keyue described how the app “guides users through quick, precise steps to make healthy food using daily ingredients and easily-accessible home appliances”.

Such consumer behaviour-driven trends urge brands to innovate how they approach care. Far from being a typical and well known aspect of personal responsibility, consumers’ reactions in the last few weeks call for a revised future where being healthy is a playful, creative, and most conspicuously, a sharable experience.

Accessing Experiences  

“I’ve just started an online class In Essentrics, which is said to be a form of immunity-boosting exercise,” explained Katja Fieguth, this week. 

From her position as Kingfisher’s Cultural Insights Expert in the Netherlands, Katja observes how the closure of public venues, like gyms, auditoriums, and galleries, amongst many others, has inspired many producers of creative and leisure content to now present direct to audiences without the lens and distribution of traditional mediators. She highlighted how some night clubs in Berlin teamed up to offer streaming DJ sets and virtual raves - raising funds for their workers and artists. The DJs perform live or broadcast pre-recorded sets, while people at home can comment live or even post videos of themselves dancing, presenting the illusion of being together at a party. This culturally novel response has recognised consumers’ thirst for immersive content, whilst respecting their acutely heightened sense of personal values – that they want to be part of a bigger purpose to give back and do something positive for the wider world - especially at this time of self-isolation.

Meanwhile, Natalie Winsor, an experienced performing artist, raised an important question that many people in the creative and leisure industries are currently asking.

“Should distancing become the new norm, then how would performers come together to create new productions? Even if the performance is eventually streamed virtually, artists may still need to be in one space and time, to make and record it”. 

While alternatives to physical rehearsals have not emerged concretely, performers and audiences are devising creative methods which are likely to provide vital supplements to in-person rehearsals in the future, particularly when artists are not able to access venues. Many have been inspired by Wuhan’s quarantined residents who started singing to each other out of their windows back in January. 

Delays in hearing and responding to sound online, resulting from poor or intermittent internet connection, is one glitch that could be addressed by consumer tech and mobile network brands as more content producers and UX teams experiment with and enhance workaround solutions. 

One organisation overcoming this current hurdle of live streaming whilst encouraging mass contribution is Common and Kind who bring together recording artists, instrumental musicians and choirs from around the globe to produce music for positive change purpose. Their latest single ‘Mo Li Hua’ (Jasmine Flower) is in support of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and their purpose-led mission feels timely as contributors are encouraged to get involved in online immersive workshops then record their individual parts so that virtual collaboration is symbolically and literally harmonised to produce a unified record for online distribution, social sharing and individual download.

Consumers’ increasing participation in virtual communities suggests they are not simply seeking “social-glue” content, but maintain an appetite for tailored and personally motivating experiences. 

In the retail category, we are seeing some forward-thinking brands are already learning valuable lessons about providing such experiences online. Big Girls, an Australian lingerie brand, invite online shoppers to try on their products virtually and seek advice from experienced staff via Skype. To give customers a sense of browsing through a range of choices, a drone view of the store is provided which can be manipulated as if people are moving around the shop floor.

“Companies will need to recognise that we will be spending more of our time at home,” said Marie-Louise Bichon, an Insights Director at Kingfisher France. She explained that if businesses do take their experiential products and services online, they cannot forget that these are still being consumed within physical spaces which could affect the consumers’ experience of a brand’s virtual touch points.

Brands can expect to be tasked with considering how their virtual products and services could complement the aesthetic and social norms of the home. Whereas location-based experiences can have specific demands for their environment, in-home virtual experiences will need to be versatile and integrated within their surroundings.

“Whereas many of our well-known apps focus on connecting us with people far away, we might need more help connecting with those who are physically closer,” said Marie-louise.

“With more entertainment being digested at home, it will be necessary for brands to acknowledge anyone else occupying the same domestic space, including children, flatmates, or older members of the family. Considering the sheer variety of homes and occupant types out there, there is likely to be a higher demand for more diverse content with greater, tailorable personalisation.”

For brands, these shifting demands highlight the potential of reaching new audiences with flexible content. The call to further tailor the personalised could meanwhile open valuable conversations about accessibility and the demands of too-often marginalised audiences, which may yield more socially purposeful ideas for enriching brand experiences. 

Brand Trust

According to Kingfisher’s CEO, Crystal Evans, “Now is the hour to re-evaluate your perceived notions of consumers’ brand trust and firm up your measures internally to deliver positive change with community focused actions. At the very least, every brand can help protect their consumers by challenging the dirge of misinformation out there that is exacerbating the spread of Coronavirus”. 

The last few weeks have begun to see examples of governments and international bodies, like the World Health Organisation, intervening to correct untested cures and unsupported origin stories which (perhaps alarmingly) are now flooding the internet. Facebook and Google, have intensified their efforts to combat “fake news” online but more engagement is needed. Helpfully, it’s certainly one campaign idea that unites all responsible brands.

Despite some critics calling it panic-generating, UK and U.S news coverage on mass media outlets, including television, radio, and newspapers, have addressed the virus on an end-to-end, daily basis since February. The fact that online research interest in the virus grew alongside the level of mass media coverage reveals that this period of distancing has given these outlets a chance to win back public attention. This might be the stellar opportunity that many mass media brands need to carve out a renewed position for themselves as credible sources for trustworthy information.

Beyond new demands on media and technology, this period of economic uncertainty is forcing brands to prove their commitments to people, before profits. For example, trying to seek government support on uniting families separated by the current crisis, Nicolette has found that her firm cannot do all the work on their own. They have instead found it necessary to form alliances with organisations, including competitors, across borders to win government attention. She observed that these cross-border collaborations could open opportunities for the future of legal businesses to adapt and diversify in order to be sustainable in this new age.

As shown by budding hopes of recovery in China, a future beyond COVID-19 across all markets, will emerge. Brands can help themselves be ready for this new dawn if they proactively harness the new cultural truths that are identifiable today. 

Critically, helping people cultivate positive behaviours that accommodates their desire for social collaboration and personal connection, will speak to the kind of generosity of spirit and community consciousness that consumers are seeking right now. As a result, this will deliver long lasting proof points against brand loyalty where demonstrating social responsibility has never been so important for sustaining brand trust.  

By Harsha Balasubramanian, Cultural Anthropologist at Kingfisher Consultancy 

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If you want to elevate your brand strategy or you have any questions or comments, please contact us at and our specialist Senior Insights and Strategy Team will be able to help.


Sustainability - A Conscious STRATEGY

What does it mean to "go green"?

Brands play an ever-increasing role in our lives, and people are engaging with them like never before. Meanwhile, the global population is ever more conscious of the damage being done to our planet, and the large-scale effects that multi national corporations can have on economic and social environments. Your customers are searching for new ways to engage with you on sustainability issues. Increasing numbers of consumers look for sustainability focused solutions for their everyday needs - selecting more socially and environmentally conscious products and services over and above those who put profits before planet. 

Sustainable brands making a real positive difference are those that hold values that go beyond solely making money. They maintain an ambition to make the world a better place, and are willing to ignore profit in the quest for better reputations and environmental support. 

In 2018 a Sustainable Brands conference described five essential considerations for any eco-friendly company. These were:

  1. System-wide brand influence.
  2. Net-positive products and services.
  3. Purpose beyond profit.
  4. Regenerative operations (recyclable materials and sustainable processes).
  5. Transparent and proactive governance.

Several businesses fall short by not acting on several of these key criteria, and even more do not engage in the sustainability agenda at all. One of the main reasons for this is that they do not incorporate sustainability strategy into their business working at a high enough level, and for the laggards, often delay to take action is due to not having yet grasped what a huge opportunity sustainable branding can provide them in terms of consumer desirability, growth, competitor differentiation, and innovation opportunity. 

Several statistics reflect on the growing importance of embracing the sustainability agenda. A recent survey by Unilever estimates a $1 trillion dollar market opportunity for businesses that effectively market themselves as eco-innovators. Meanwhile, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, over 90% of CEOs state that sustainability is important to their company’s success. The ‘next generation’ seem to agree to, as 88% of business school students in the same study believe that environmental and social issues should be priorities in business. 

And these opinions are reflected in consumer beliefs, too. According to a recent report published by the Shelton Group 86% of US consumers believe that companies should take a stand for social and environmental issues. 

Ever increasing numbers of new businesses and start ups are focusing on building sustainability into their brands from the ground-up, for example by focusing on durable, eco-friendly, and recycled products. 

So, who’s getting it right?

One of the world’s foremost examples of sustainable business is Patagonia, who operate with the desire to ‘build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis’. They then apply this belief into their entire business structure. 

To start with, in terms of the materials they use, they only use certified organic cotton, and are bluesign certified for 56% of their fabrics. Meanwhile, a high proportion of their fabrics (polyester, nylon, and wool) are made from recycled materials. They belong to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and 1% For the Planet. They purposefully create high quality, lasting products, and even discourage their own customers from purchasing too many of their products by offering a repair and reuse program. 

In terms of their labour policies and supply chain, they stick to their Supplier Code of Conduct, which ensures they trace and audit their facilities (and even their subcontractors) and publically list their suppliers. They are members of the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct and strive to ensure a living wage for all members of their supply chain. 

They also publically advocate for animal welfare by not using animals products such as angora, leather or fur. The only animal products they use are recycled wool, and down feather that has been accredited by the Global Traceable Down Standard (which they helped develop). 

The most high profile of their sustainability efforts was the ‘Don’t Buy Our Jackets’ campaign, in which they ran a full-page New York Times ad, questioning consumers as to whether they really needed to buy their products, in a backlash against the consumerism's annual peak on Black Friday. In 2016, they donated all profits from their Black Friday sales to local environmental organisations. In doing so they gained substantial brand awareness and loyalty, and in 2016 their profits still reached $10million. 

Another major winner on the sustainability front is Cisco Technologies, who were named one of the 2018 Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World. 

They’re committed to using renewable energy in their worldwide business operations, with 80% coming from renewable sources. They have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 41% since 2007, with an aim to reach 60% by 2022. 

On sustainable social purpose measures, they have been on the Forbes ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list for 21 years, and ensure they maintain an inclusive and diverse company culture. They have also received 26 industry distinctions and ‘inclusive leadership’ awards, while scoring 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for 14 consecutive years. With 46% diversity in their executive leadership team, theirs is one of the most diverse in the US. 

Apple has also made significant strides towards sustainable branding. They endeavour to create highly innovative, but also environmentally friendly products and services. As of 2018, they state that they power all of their facilities, including retail stores, offices and data centres, with 100% renewable energy, as well as reducing their power consumption by 70% in the last 10 years.

They’re constantly innovating in order to boost the eco-friendliness of their business operations too, most famously by setting up their own factory robot (named Daisy), which safely and easily disassembles old hardware to be recycled. They state that their goal is to one day achieve a closed-loop supply chain. 

In the Foods sector, we also see strident changes afoot... The owner of household brands including Cadbury, Oreo and Toblerone, Mondelez are adapting their strategies for growth to meet the growing consumer desire for more sustainable food products and ways of living. They recently announced that packaging reduction was to be treated as a priority in order to give them purpose beyond selling their snack brand, and gain (and retain) customers with prevailing purchasing habits. They promise to make all of their packaging recyclable by 2025, and to do so, will eliminate 65 million kg of packaging by 2020.  Meanwhile, their packaging redesigns will also contain greater amounts of information on recycling as part of a larger behaviour change initiative aimed to educate consumers on the importance of reducing waste.

Their sustainability strategy also goes further than just packaging. Claiming to be the first company to go beyond third-party certification by taking direct accountability for building a sustainable cocoa supply via their Cocoa Life initiative. They demand that their palm oil suppliers adopt forest protect and sustainability policies for their entire supply chain, not just to Mondelez. 

Food for thought... What your brand can do right now (and we can help you)

  1. Employ a dedicated Chief Sustainability Officer to give your company a competitive edge as the sustainability trend gains momentum. Your CSO should set sustainability goals, define strategy and policies, and develop an insight-driven action plan in order to change your company’s image for the better. 
  2. Make sure any existing or future sustainability and social purpose initiatives are truly relevant to your brand, products, services and organisational values. Choose to pursue a cause that is within the realms of your industry.  An incoherent or irrelevant choice- say a London-based software company advocating for saving the Rhinos in Africa- might be jarring to a customer and not deemed credible. Instead, choose a sustainability cause and social purpose that your company’s process and people can directly influence. This will create a more emotionally meaningful story for your consumer. 
  3. Once your business relevant direction and sustainability strategy is in place, ensure this vision integrates into your new brand positioning communications. It’s no good telling your customers you are campaigning against plastic waste if your packaging still contains un-recyclable plastic. Ensure you’re aware of the materials being used in your products and throughout your supply chain. Not only does this display leadership by example, but it provides brand comms opportunities throughout the business at all levels, as your sustainability values can be conveyed in everything from your website to your logo. As an example, Lush are able to highlight their environmental consciousness front and centre on their website and in stores and staff at all levels are trained on the brand's mission. 
  4. Transparency is key! Be honest and authentic in the goals you set, and your progress in achieving them. Publish sustainability reports. This will also promote discussion with your audience, and can cultivate an active and engaged community.

The future is green. Are you?

The adoption and propagation of sustainability strategy can be a brand’s secret weapon to future proofing their business and striving for a positive legacy. An understanding of the social,  environmental and economic impacts of your business, your supply chain, your products in consumers' lives, and your services, can all help determine which specific environmental and social issues your brand and your people can have a positive and meaningful impact on. To ensure success, credible sustainability 'missions', 'purposes' or 'causes' should be integrated into your brand's core values and the very fabric of your organisation's culture. 

Sustainability should never be just a footnote on your company website. Consumers demand more than lip service and are skeptical of half-baked strategy.

An effective sustainability strategy delivers a purpose-led brand which is differentiated in your market and helps your people make a positive difference to the world they live in. 

Not only that, it's good to do good. 

By Nico Binns, Cultural Trends & Insights Consultant at Kingfisher Consultancy

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If you want to learn more about developing a Sustainability Strategy, Leveraging Consumer Trends for Good or Actionable Insights for Social Purpose, email us today at quoting reference 'SUSTAINABILITY'.  We look forward to helping you.


Lest we Forget the 'Personal' in 'Personalisation' AI

Artificial Intelligence, AI, hints unprecedented opportunities for brands to understand and hence meet, sometimes even pre-empt, customers' personal needs. Yet 2018 has been littered with warnings, most famously the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach, which bolstered fears of personalisation AI.

Much of the resulting debates have agonised over risks of mishandling sensitive data, manipulating audiences' views, and furthering automation. Few have explored how personalisation complements or jars with consumers’ notions of personal relationships and intimacy.

How much is too personal?

Talking to Campaign UK, Liz Wilson, Chief Operating Officer at Karmarama observed: "Digital personal space has to be respected in the same way as physical space". For instance, it would be agreed that barging in front of someone during their commute, even if to help them, comes with the risk of obstructing them against their will and hence the etiquette to call "excuse me!" Ads, notifications, and recommendations, especially when not requested or expected by the user, seems to be the digital equivalent of unannounced barging or suspicious stalking. Personalisation tactics, despite their potential value for consumers, also require brands to engage with social, cultural notions of "personal" that have been cultivated in human relationships.

Health care is a key category in which wearable tech and AI-POWERED mobile health apps promise significant change, but it is also a context in which sensitivity to patients' ideas of personal relationships is crucial. Digital health guides track vast quantities of intimate data, including sleep patterns, pulse, blood pressure, and various biomarkers- like those in sweat. Therefore, rather than being tools used during sickness, these technologies become daily health advisors, offering minute-by-minute, bespoke nudges towards personal goals.

Brands must consider how they would replicate patients' trust of the doctor's authority in the rapport with health technology. A basic element of this trust is arguably showing sensitivity to consumers' circumstances, including how the personalised technology will affect them in their personal relationships. As per the warning from Rachel Barton, Managing Director of Advanced Customer Strategy at Accenture Strategy, this is more difficult with AI, because it can self-teach- based on data obtained and hence could "run loose and make its own judgements, which could be to the detriment of customers who may feel a level of intrusion they didn't necessarily sign up to". It is worth noting a father's horror in 2012 after finding out about his teen daughter's pregnancy from Target, an American retailer, which had guessed the pregnancy based on recent purchases and started marketing baby clothes to the young mother. 

YouTube's "next up" function may seem to be elementary levels of personalisation, and yet, brands could still benefit from understanding how such attention-grabbing digital experiences sit beside consumers' face-to-face relationships. Andrew Sullivan, a renowned political blogger, complained in 2016 that his sustained attention for social media caused him to lose many offline connections, convincing him to switch off from his devices at regular intervals. So while personalisation is a sought-after experience, brands should consider how to provide it in a way that acknowledges and respects non-digital, personal relationships, without which customers may indeed turn away.

Is your AI personalised or trying to be human?

A 2018 study conducted by Sensum suggested that we are not polite to our personal assistants, by which they mean Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, and Microsoft's Cortana. The research revealed that users disengage from their techy helpers, sometimes swearing vehemently at them, if they don't understand instructions. Users wanted tech to get things done and did not have as much patience as they would for humans. Reviewing this research for Medium, Ben Bland writes that his own relationship with the assistants was adapted according to their associated devices, rather than the persona, such as Siri in iPhone being used on the go and Alexa, imbedded in a larger Echo, being for home usage. Therefore, although consumers may expect personalised technology to appreciate the wider context of personal relationships into which they are integrated, these devices are not encouraged to approximate human-like relationships.

Is your personalisation creepy or cool?

According to 45 percent of respondents in a May 2018 survey by Accenture Interactive, apology emails after bad in-store or online experiences ranked as the "coolest" brand engagement tactic. This is a response that consumers may have expected, based on practices in their personal relationships, but there is no attempt here by the technology to appear human. Chatbots have arguably found the sweet spot in accommodating consumers' notions of personal relationships without themselves becoming human. 

Though chatbots can simulate human conversations, they are couched in popular communication platforms, like instant messaging apps, appearing to only slightly enhance the regular human interaction that goes on here. On Facebook, for instance, Chatbots serve as channels for customers to contact businesses or access services without waiting times. Transparency is offered through sustaining the same interface across platforms and making chat history attainable. Most significantly, chatbots are usually based on assisted learning and therefore require human intervention.

Retail personalisation is an important area in which chatbots are making their mark. The chatbot from linggerie and apparel brand, Aerie, encourages shoppers to select preferences and body type- through an engaging game, based on which it makes recommendations for the final purchase. Lauren Kunz, CEO of Pandorabots and the company behind this particular bot, said: "We worked closely with the Aerie team, including copywriters, designers, and brand voice to create a chatbot with a distinct persona that celebrates body positivity and promotes confidence in young women". 

While the persona and the values may help consumers settle into discussing potentially intimate topics, the bot's refusal to make recommendations without customers first selecting preferences indicates respect for norms of personal interaction and stresses its difference from human judgement.

To conclude then, the call for brands to personalise through AI is actually a challenge to understand the "personal" and what it means in our society. In that vein, the divide between human and non-human seems to be a key notion in consumers' definitions of personal relationships, which brands using personalising AI would do well to remember.

By Harsha Balasubramanian, Cultural Anthropologist at Kingfisher Consultancy 

If you want prepare your business for the future of personalisation, email quoting reference 'PERSONALISATION' and one of our specialist Senior Insights and Strategy Team members will get in touch to answer your questions.  


Become an Industry Leader


Are you a leader when it comes to disability inclusion?

Ask your colleagues today if brands are now more inclusive than they have been in the past, and the reply is likely to be a bold "yes!" A quick Google search would expose how major brands have launched ground-breaking adverts and proactive consumer outreach to attract disabled customers and even featured disability in the marketing campaigns. But they need to ask themselves: is this enough to show that brands are now more inclusive, let alone leaders on this topic?

With an estimated spending power of £212 billion a year, it's hardly surprising that brands would want to tap into the disabled consumer base. Mars, Nike, Uber, and Burger King are just some of the disrupters hoping to make an impression. Nike produced an easy grip trainer in response to an open letter from a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, whilst Burger King cast a cute guide dog and its visually-impaired owner on a hunt for burgers in its Whopper Dog ad. Lego has diversified its collections with a population of disabled characters, and Uber UK now encourages disabled passengers to call specially-trained drivers with an UberAssist app.

Considering this rise in marketing to disabled people, and with it the related increase in researching these consumers, it may be tempting to proclaim the success of campaigns fighting for disability inclusion in business. My argument is that any such proclamation would be premature. Brands may market to and market with disabled people, but are any of the people doing the marketing, for instance, identifying as disabled?

A diversity survey by Marketing Week in 2015 uncovered that half of the respondents (51%) reported not having worked with a disabled colleague. As long as brands are not transforming internally to integrate disabled workers, the ads and services designed to capture disabled consumers seem to be, at least, feeble lip service and, at worst, suggestive of lies and unsubstantiated brand purpose. Now if you are not disturbed by that inconsistency, consumers are. The same Marketing Week survey (cited above) suggested that only 22% of consumers believed disabilities are well-represented in the British marketing and advertising industry. This would unnerve Martin Chitty, Partner at Gowling WLG, who said in 2011, "...mirroring the diversity of a customer base within the workforce can help maintain a long-term proposition that people buy into more readily".

Employers and employees, beginning with the marketing departments, are responsible for demonstrating their brand's commitment to disability inclusion. 

Here are 3 tips for you to get ahead in doing so. My comments draw on experiences as a visually-impaired member of the Kingfisher Consultancy team and my role as Employment Coordinator in a national employment charity, Blind in Business.

Tip 1: Talk about disability

Perhaps ambushed by the terror of being politically incorrect, employers still tread very carefully when talking about disability or just avoid addressing the subject altogether. Therefore, employees do not tend to talk about disability either, and the vicious circle continues.

Growing a company culture- through all levels- that helps staff feel comfortable when speaking openly about their experiences, including their challenges and how they creatively solve them, is vital. Channel 4, for instance, found that it already employed more staff with a disability than its records indicated once it had run an internal campaign, "This is Me", which welcomed people to discuss their disability. Combining the revised statistics on existing disabled employees and increased hire of disabled candidates, Channel 4 increased the total number of staff identifying as disabled from 2% to 11% following the 2012 Paralympics. Quite simply, talking about disability will be one way of spotting and including the disabled person in your department.

One in five of the world's population, or 2 billion of us, are affected with a disability. So there must be many stories you could tell about yourself or others. Urging discourse on the topic first diffuses the tension that seems to surround it, and crucially makes way for the dialogue that will bring people with experiences of disability out of their isolation.

Tip 2: Prepare to learn about disability

Through openly talking about disabled people's experiences, companies will eventually discover the significant variations between them. According to the website of the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) in 2015, there are more than 2 million people in the UK who "are living with sight loss that is severe enough to have a significant impact on their daily lives, such as not being able to drive". The other "significant impacts", not referred to in this definition, can vary vastly between individuals, based on what determination, skills, and assistive technology they have to counter these effects. No disabled person is the same, just as no able-bodied person is the same.

Showcasing your willingness to learn is critical from the outset, influencing interactions as early as the application process. For example, where forms currently require applicants to choose from specific options to describe their disability, introducing a box in which they could author their own descriptions would give employers actual insight into candidates’ perceptions of their disability and its impact on their lives. If you are impressed with an application but have no clue how the applicant would do the job owing to a disability, then arrange a phone call or invite them to interview. This would be the candidate’s opportunity to tell you what their technology permits them to do, how they may have devised creative solutions to workplace problems before, and how they can do this again. You may be surprised by what is possible.

Tip 3: Focus on the talent

Sure, the recruitment of some disabled staff may be valuable for your projects on disabled consumers. But not all of these recruits want to explore disability as part of their work. Just like any other group of new entrants to a business, disabled people will arrive with a host of talents and fresh perspectives, often disconnected from their impairment. By recognising and developing these diverse abilities, businesses will benefit; being able to grow their talent pool across their teams.

This focus on employees’ talents, as opposed to their disability, is what helps companies to view candidates' requests for adjustments as a reasonable ask. Further, having talked to candidates, employers would discover that, once employed in paid work, disabled staff are eligible for such supports as Access to Work, a UK government-funded scheme providing the technology and resources disabled people need to achieve their full potential.

So, as you can see, it's relatively easy to set the industry example for disability inclusion: you are simply required to practise what you preach. The gap between the current state of disability inclusion and what I am advocating can be bridged with a few changes to business attitudes towards disability. By talking about disability openly, you normalise it and start focusing on people's talents. This reassures consumers that the business and staff behind a brand actually believe in what it claims to stand for.

By Harsha Balasubramanian, Cultural Anthropologist at Kingfisher Consultancy 

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Demand Diversity in Advertising


What should your brand really be doing?

The demand for gender diversity is nothing new, but the recent social conversations around #TimesUp, #MeToo, and a 2017 report by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have forced brands to ask themselves if they're really doing enough to tackle gender stereotypes in ad campaigns. Is simply rallying around women on the odd occasion enough to achieve gender equality? Isn't that merely ticking the box for gender diversity?

There are occasions when you're allowed to applaud women, and then there are those when you're not!


International Women's Day serves as an annual prod to advertisers to ponder deeply about the sexist world we live in. Consider Vodafone's "Raising Voices" short film in 2018, which features children wondering: "Why are almost all super heroes men?", and "Why have there been so many male presidents but so few women?" Society, Vodafone seems to say, needs to face up to the position it has allowed women to occupy and do something about it. 

In addition to highlighting stereotypes on International Women's Day, some brands went further towards challenging them. HP continued its well-known tradition of advocating for gender equality in the advertising industry by centerring its 2018 campaign on a search for female storytellers. In this short film by HP Studios, an Indian girl is presented as a "dreamer with a pen" alongside the teacher who aids her ambition to be a writer. Filling the creative industry with female brains and ideas is one way to enable diverse and fair representation of women to flourish, but HP is not overlooking the challenges creative women will encounter in their career and the support they deserve across the globe. Other brands, such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, backed up their above-the-line ads with below-the-line commitments that reinforced their key messages. Through introducing a Rwandan microlot coffee produced exclusively by women, this business is able to support female coffee producers in regions, like Rwanda and Guatemala, where the industry has historically been male-dominated.

Rallying around women in these ways has been the first response to the shocking sexism and gender stereotyping plaguing the advertising industry. In June 2017, researchers from J Walter Thompson New York and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media collaborated with University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering to analyse over 2000 films from the Cannes Lions archive. They made some striking discoveries, including the fact that men tend to get four times as much screen time as women and speak seven times more than women. While men came from a range of age brackets from 20s, 30s, to 40s, the women starring in adverts were more often in their 20s. Occupationally, women were forty-eight per cent more likely to be shown to be in the kitchen, whereas men were fifty per cent more likely shown at sporting events. The statistics quoted here are not exhaustive, but they are arguably enough to highlight a problem. We may witness feminist outbursts from ad agencies around important social moments, such as International Women's Day or MeToo, but we still can't be sure that an everyday advert will not pass the sexism test.

How are brands still getting it wrong?

Take a humble chocolate advertisement, such as the Co-op's 2017 Easter egg commercial. Parents are encouraged to buy their daughter a chocolate easter egg to "treat her" for "doing the washing up". "Be a good egg", the ad insists. While doing house chores is commendable for many parents, cautious creatives may have avoided going for a chore that puts female identity firmly back in the kitchen. What's more, from Lindt to Cadbury's Dairy Milk, women of all ages have long been the target of chocolate advertising. For example, why is the child featured in Cadbury's 2018 ad campaign buying a chocolate bar for her mum, and not her dad? Not only is this little act of kindness a clichéd way to recognise mothers (especially on Mother's Day - GROAN), but also just imagine how the ad would change if the recipient was male. Would it then be challenging the prejudice that all women rely on treats and comfort in the form of chocolate?

Brands making bold feminist statements have not always done this well. 

BrewDog was called out for performing a marketing stunt when it launched a pink "beer for girls". Those who identified as "girls" could buy this drink for twenty per cent less than their male counterparts, a dig at the gender pay gap, it seems. Sarah Barton, the Director of Brewster's Brewing Company and initiator of Project Venus, a network of female brewers, told the Guardian: "BrewDog is trying to be clever, sarcastic and ironic but I think it may be viewed as a patronising beer from one of the big boys". Meanwhile, Paul Domenet, an Executive at Design Firm Dew Gibbons, adds that this launch reveals BrewDog's desperation to have "more of a share of the lucrative female drinkers' market." Perhaps a bolder move would be to ditch the creative who suggested that female targeting should be "girls" (not only in light of legal drinking age regulations but the insult inherent in that belittlement).

Nestle may have eventually shifted on their Yorkie bars being "Not for girls", but at least this positioning dared "girls" to snatch their chocolate off the shelves to rebel against the stereotype. Risky? Perhaps. Provocative? Most definitely!

Are brands forgetting the D word in "Gender Diversity"?

Even brands with the best intentions to rally around women may end up perpetuating the prejudices they are trying to destroy. Undoing such gender prejudices partly involves undoing the lack of diversity upholding prejudice in general.

H&M's 2016 Autumn-Winter commercial attempts to shed light on the sheer variety of people identifying as women in the world. For example, it features a muscular woman, black women with natural hair, women with shaven heads, an ethnically-mixed heritage woman, a septuagenarian, a transwoman, and lesbians. Accompanied by Tom Jones' "She's a Lady", skinny women guiltlessly stuff their faces, while others display armpit hair. These are the 'normal' women who are shopping at H&M, the ad says. In short, H&M aligns itself with 'contemporary notions of being a woman', which makes room for today's fluid racial, gender, and sexual identities. But let's not forget that a woman is not just a woman: beyond facing prejudice thrown at this supposedly catch-all identity, a woman of colour faces racial stereotyping on top of the macro and micro-aggressions of daily sexism, and her experience of 'being a woman' will be very different again if she has disabilities or is over a certain age, or is a single parent...

It's worth noting that shouting loudly about diversity hasn't gone down well in all quarters. A 2016 Maltesers UK ad campaign which cast disabled actors may have been the most successful in a decade, but it swept in 151 complaints. This advert, "New Boyfriend", invites viewers into a conversation between three women, where a young girl is telling her two friends about the awkward experience of having sex with her new boyfriend. Unusually for TV adverts, the woman speaking is sitting in an electric wheelchair and she explains, giggling, that the encounter with her boyfriend was in fact brought about by a spasm, a symptom of her cerebral palsy. To visually represent this, she shakes a bag of Maltesers on to the table and the three women collapse into laughter.

Critics of this advert focused on how it might offend disabled people and may have gone too far with its explicit sexual innuendo. One wonders whether these 151 complainants also complained about's advert starring a lesbian couple kissing passionately (one of the top ten most complained about ads in 2017 noted by ASA). Fear not creatives! Forge on, we say. Plus it's worth the effort, as Maltesers ended up producing its most successful ad campaign in a decade. Clearly these complainants never leave their homes to see the rich diversity outside their doors. And these 151 have missed how the creatives behind the Maltesers ad disrupted the tired concept of a chocolate fulfilling women's sexual needs. Instead, the creatives celebrate the empowered female lead's ability to make comic light of an awkward experience.

The Channel 4 'Superhumans' advert sought to flip prejudiced perceptions of disabled people on its head, but this ad campaign intentionally disorients its audience, making many previous assumptions about disabled people redundant. "It's uncomfortable but you have to keep with it", says Michele Oliver, Vice-President of Marketing at Mars UK. That uneasiness is what really gets us ready to reassess all our norms and take steps towards diversity and inclusion.

Approaching gender diversity without mentioning gender is what creatives like Alexandra Matine, Senior Strategist at 72AndSunny Amsterdam, is calling for: "a single message for women and men". Gender neutrality, Matine suggests, is what we need, especially if nearly two thirds of 14-34 year olds in Western countries declare they are testing the limits of what it means to be feminine and masculine.

As Ella Smillie, lead author of the aforementioned 2017 ASA report, said: "Advertising is not the only influence (on gender stereotyping) but does play a role, and it's right that we identify where there's a potential for harm". Here at Kingfisher Consultancy, we completely agree; one only needs to walk into a Baby Gap or the Infant section of a Next to see how gender prejudice starts making an impact in just the first few years of life. Brand managers should remember that to press for progress in gender diversity, they must also press for progress for all forms of diversity. This means truly waving the banner to celebrate human individuality - not just jumping on a band wagon when International Women's Day pops up in the calendar.

 By Crystal Evans, CEO of Kingfisher Consultancy

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Brand Purpose: What You Need To Know

Brand Purpose

Firstly, 'To have or not to have’, (That is the wrong question)

In 2017, kneeling protests brought the NFL face to face with a ruthless brand dilemma: join the fierce political dialogue, or assert that this organisation's core function is to host football. An extreme example perhaps, but this is the kind of question that big and small brands are asking themselves today: namely, should we have a purpose that extends beyond making profit and includes changing society at large?

Before talking through the role of the term 'purpose' here, those for and against 'brand purpose' have launched offensives at each other. Armies of benevolent brands, as diverse as Google, P&G, Starbucks, Lush, and Nationwide, have started marching, claiming that their brand purpose responds aptly to consumers' current values and expectations. Rather than seeming aloof, they offer to get down with followers to orchestrate powerful social change, particularly when traditional institutions appear incapable of doing so. Meanwhile, other marketers fear that brands will sacrifice many must-haves at the altar of brand purpose. Obsessing about saving the world could put brand strategists out of touch with consumers, their product, shareholders, and reality.

Influenced by this debate, brands still ask: to have or not to have brand purpose? This quasi-Hamlet pondering totally misses the point. If brand purpose means producing impact beyond commercial gain, it's high time marketers acknowledged how brands are always somehow changing the world- through the meanings they signify and how these are appropriated to shape consumers' daily existence. Talking through 'purpose' reveals that, actually, all brands end up having a purpose, but they need to ask how it should be developed to suit the business model and consumers' needs.

Unpacking Brand Purpose

According to WARC, brand purpose is the "reason for a brand to exist beyond making profit". That is to say, brand purpose is not a one-off, tactical move but a long-term commitment that is developed over time and affects multiple aspects of the brand. Based on this definition, one element of a brand that falls outside money-making is how consumers interpret the meanings associated with a brand and build them into everyday life. Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon whisky, a Bourbon brand, aims to maximise the sale of its beverage. One strategy is to ensure that everything from manufacture, to packaging, to advertising interests potential buyers with its Kentucky heritage and the stories of men and women who brought it into being. Saturating all touch points with these associations may indeed help increase purchases, but it also projects notions of what it means to consume this whisky. As Mark Ritson recognises in a Marketing Mag article, consumer culture is all about "people who increasingly draw on the meanings derived from consumption to answer the questions of everyday existence". In other words, drinkers- and non-drinkers- of Buffalo Trace may use the meanings of consuming it, ie, what the brand stands for, to understand and change their worlds beyond whisky, such as how they perceive Kentucky, their value of tradition, and their attitude towards American products.

Because every brand is built with meanings and hence comes to signify something in people's everyday lives, every brand must have a purpose beyond making profit. Yet how this purpose can be crafted requires discussion.

The Opponents of Brand Purpose

Critics have one main bone to pick with brand purpose: it demands brands to be almost shameful of their first raison détre, namely making money. Byron Sharp put it like this in his blog: "No wonder marketers aren't respected- even marketers hate marketers it seems". This attitude makes marketers want to turn brands in to "saints", which for Sharp is "nuts". Lofty brand purposes then emerge, such as Starbucks's "Race Together" campaign, which hoped consumers would chew over race relations in America as they sipped their morning brew. Instead of making Starbucks coffee mentally and physically available to consumers at every touch point, the campaign would have distracted audiences from the actual coffee, according to Sharp and his Ehrenberg-Bass approach to brand building. For Neil Simpson, Associate Planning Director at DDB New York, hiding behind such a social purpose risks undermining a brand's authenticity, as for him "An authentic brand admits when it is trying to sell to you something and lives with it."


A distraction from the brand's assets, combined with careless messaging, can lead consumers to misinterpret any brand purpose and down go the sales! The much-lambasted Pepsi 2017 advertising campaign featuring Kendall Jenner is one example. Briefly, the various protests that happened in 2017, from the Women's March to Black Lives Matter- amongst others, were thrown into an anonymous mob, made all the merrier by fizz from a can of Pepsi and a notoriously famous millennial. The advert was pulled 24 hours after first appearance, and though the brand slowly recovered, YouGov reported that Pepsi had reached its lowest consumer perception levels in nearly ten years during this time. As opponents of brand purpose would exclaim, Pepsi overreaching to support social good has made it seem even more out of touch with their youth target audience and insensitive to the significance of these protests. Such adds will do nothing to reassure the 42 percent of UK consumers who already distrust brands, according to a 2017 Trinity Mirror study.


Putting reprimands of Pepsi aside, we should recognise that this saga illustrates how a brand could acquire a completely unanticipated and unintended purpose in society. For example, Pepsi's interpretation of the protests caused backlash from some audiences, triggering reflections about what the protests meant and how ads portrayed minorities, including Muslim women. Not only had Pepsi unintentionally set off the social conversations that other brands like P&G had meticulously started, but during last year's May Day demonstrations protestors in Portland USA threw full Pepsi cans at police, suggesting that this product had now taken on a new reason for existence in consumers' lives. As opposed to being a soft drink that cooled tensions, these anti-Trump, pro-Labour protestors implied Pepsi cans, when hurled, could help heat up violence and mock the corporate establishment. Therefore, Pepsi's brand architects may have set down what it stands for, but they arguably did not estimate ways in which the chosen mode of expression could be interpreted by consumers to assign the brand a totally unforeseen purpose.


Harriet Lowe, Insight Manager at Ingenuity London, makes a useful distinction between what a brand stands for and how this is expressed. Although the meanings of driving a Volkswagen may be consistent throughout life of that brand, how VW expresses these can vary according to the target audience, chosen platform, and conveyed messaging. Sometimes, this may be to make a political statement, but at other times, it may be to promote its specific assets and enhance market performance. To determine the purposes that consumers might assign to brands in their lives, I suggest that brands should focus on consolidating what they stand for and making sure that this is expressed as accurately as possible.

The Proponents of Brand Purpose

The supporters of brand purpose insist that, in this era of endless choice, an undeniable way for brands to differentiate themselves is to profess some unique values, which are in sink with consumers' beliefs and ideally aim to make the world a better place. Julian Pearce, Communications Account Director at The Propaganda Agency, a brand consultancy, adds that "... those values are starting to be examined more closely ..." by audiences, and businesses can no longer simply "lip-service". If Google stands for open, democratic sharing of information, audiences expect this to be consistent and, as we saw in 2006, censoring searches in China caused backlash against the global brand. Just as belief-based brands must live up to high expectations, they can actually be more profitable, says Jim Stengel, former Head at P&G. A case in point is Nationwide: through collaboration with VCCP, a campaign was born that reassessed difference between regular banks and building societies, drawing on user-generated content, like poetry on "being a mum" and "loneliness in a connected world". YouGov brand tracking figures did show that there were higher impression scores for Nationwide compared to competitors, despite the remaining distrust of the entire industry following the financial crisis.

Motivated by the evident goods of purpose-driven marketing, Debbie Klein, Chief Executive for Europe and Asia Pacific at Engine, said: "During times of uncertainty, consumers inevitably turn to brands, companies and people they can trust,". Her example is Ben and Jerry's 2015 campaign to mark legalisation of same-sex marriage in the USA: calling its Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavour "I Dough, I dough". While stepping in for political and social institutions may come across a bit audacious, I agree with Klein that brands should define what they stand for and how to communicate these meanings consistently to their target audience. Lush is a good example of ensuring that what it stands for is precisely conveyed to consumers at every opportunity. The business opposes animal testing and enables the sustainability of its stance by providing financial incentives to those who use it. Therefore, Lush is able to control the purpose that consumers assign it in their everyday lives by carefully defining and practicing what it stands for.

Notably, the purposes that brands acquire in consumers' lives are not always philanthropic. Take Ryanair, for instance. Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer at Ryanair, insists that, rather than chasing your love, Ryanair is about offering you "... the best schedule, the cheapest flights and being very good at execution." This rational emphasis on the product's functional quality, along with the business's focus on sales, is what differentiates the brand. Besides becoming the fastest growing airline in Europe during 2017, Ryanair has arguably changed society at large. Firstly, Ryanair consumers can identify themselves as the rational ones, which may impact their future choices, as well as how they perceive and interact with others in the sector of air travel and beyond. Also, the appeal to rational consumers, as opposed to their emotional counterparts, reinforces the social construct that distinguishes between rationality and emotions and endorses the former. So if like Ryanair your brand can attain a purpose in the world without intending to, this proves more than ever why your business should know what the brand stands for and how to successfully express this.

Let's Get Real

The debate for and against brand purpose has been dynamic and rigorous. Yet the discussion has lacked the realisation that causing impact beyond profit-making does not strictly require your business to back a highly-esteemed social good. A broader concept of purpose is necessary, recognising that the meanings and associations in brands, namely what they stand for, can be appropriated by consumers to answer questions in their everyday lives, even if this doesn't involve saving the world.

As brand teams evolve how they approach their marketing strategies, we will inevitably see more brands move away from "doing good" for the sake of it. My wish is that within this effort to grow impactful and meaningful brands, we see a return to well-grounded brand positioning thinking. 

Crucially, as a first step, this means asking your brand team, 'what is your brand's real reason for being?'

To determine the purposes that consumers find for your brand, you should then ask, 'are the meanings you want to convey communicated accurately at all touch points?' 

By forcing your business to continually ask these two critical sense-check questions, you will be able to confidently  see whether an action or planned direction on behalf of your brand is truly relevant to your consumers and in tune with your commercial goals. 

This is not a rallying cry to kill brand purpose thinking, but a reminder that a good brand purpose is not something you must have but it is something you must do, and regularly, to ensure your brand is heading in the right direction.

 By Crystal Evans, CEO of Kingfisher Consultancy

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