Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Eccentric American novelist Tom Robbins famously wrote: “If complexity doesn’t beat you, then paradox will.”

As we begin a new year, I find myself reflecting on the truth of this statement today. Since starting my career as a strategist 13 years ago, I have witnessed immense change and complexity – not only in our industry, but also in our country and society at large. At the same time, seeing anomaly as inevitable, I can only marvel at the sheer paradox that is our world in 2018.

As social networking has increased, so, too, has social isolation. Amid a “wellness revolution” marked by greater access to health-related information and astounding medical advancements, the global burden of chronic disease is rising. And, while technology promises improved efficiency and productivity, research indicates, ironically, that people are working longer hours than ever before.

The big take-out: To compete successfully in future, brands will need to embrace, balance and leverage multiple contradictions.

In a world of incongruity, I predict that 2018 will truly be a year of paradox – one in which marketers, strategists and creatives alike will need to be increasingly cognisant of the balancing act required to engage with consumers. To this end, what are the key paradoxes to consider for the year ahead?

Paradox 1: A digital backlash in an online world

There is no denying the ubiquity of the digital revolution. In SA alone, Internet penetration is expected to exceed 55% this year, against 9% just 10 years ago. This has been accompanied by a rise in social media usage, e-commerce, virtual reality and a plethora of mobile apps.

However, there is a counter-trend: as digital grows more omnipresent, more people will oppose it. This shift, manifested in such phenomena as the “social media hiatus” and an analogue revival – vinyl records and Polaroid-style cameras are popular again – will only become more marked in future. In this “physidigital” world, brands need to remember that, while digital is here to stay, more consumers will view going offline as the new luxury.

Paradox 2: Greater time poverty in a culture of quick convenience

From online shopping with same-day delivery, to 24-hour pharmaceutical vending machines in filling station forecourts, to having a host of information available at our fingertips, instant gratification is expected today. Paradoxically, despite these conveniences, research by McKinsey notes that people have actually become more time-poor. This has simultaneously led to escalating stress levels and other quality-of-life issues.

Successful brands of the future will not only talk the language of “convenience”, but also actively offer valuable, holistic customer experiences that add hours to people’s lives and life to people’s hours.

Paradox 3: Less choice will mean more freedom

In a world of boundless options, freedom of choice has given way to the tyranny of choice. Studies increasingly show that too much choice can be overwhelming. And, though seemingly counterintuitive, less choice spells greater freedom by reducing anxiety in the consumer’s decision-making process. This is why supplement brand Centrum, with its limited range, sells ahead of brands with a multitude of variants, and why Capitec, with its sole Global One account, continues to grow ahead of more established, diversified banking players. In an already complex world, I believe more brands will capitalise on this mega-trend of simplicity through limited product portfolios and more streamlined architecture approaches.

Paradox 4: ‘Brand polyamory’ will become the new loyalty

The concept of brand loyalty has long been contested; in most categories, people seldom buy the same brands consistently. Instead, we tend to shop from a repertoire of brands based on their propensity to be thought of or noticed – the premise behind brand salience. However, a report by Kantar Millward Brown espouses the value of brand affinity. Beyond salience, emotional attachment is key because “liking” a brand leads to a higher probability of repurchase. In any given category, consumers frequently like more than one brand and will “switch loyally” within a set of brands due to availability, promotion or a desire for variety. I refer to this as “brand polyamory” – something we can expect more of in a world of shifting consumer needs, drivers and values.

Paradox 5: Purpose beyond profit will increase profitability

Perhaps the greatest present-day paradox is the fact that the world’s most profitable companies are often not the most overtly profit focused. A recent survey by Harvard Business Review and EY posits a direct correlation between purpose and return on investment. As such, it’s not surprising that Apple – one of the most purposeful brands in existence – continues to grow.

The technology giant, whose purpose is simply “to empower creative exploration and self-expression”, was the world’s most valuable brand last year (for the seventh consecutive year) in Forbes’s annual ranking, valued at US$170bn. In this light, Apple’s success bears testament to the business-related value of a strong brand philosophy.

Bearing in mind the ever-more complex and anomalous marketplace and consumer landscape, today’s brands need to embrace, balance and leverage multiple contradictions in order to compete successfully. Their ability to do so will become paramount in this, the year of paradox.

* Dos Santos is strategic director at Shift Joe Public

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