The research that shows brands how to resonate in an issues-based world

From Brexit to Trump, climate change to Covid, AI to inequality, the issues dominating the media agenda over the last few years have just got bigger and bigger.

The growing question for brand communicators through all of this has been: Where and how can my brand thrive in this environment?

In 2021, Brands2Life set out to answer this fundamental question through in-depth research and analysis. Partnering with leading digital research consultancy, Media Measurement, we took a helicopter view of the UK’s mainstream media over the last few years. We also wanted to look through the lens of some of the world’s leading brands and how their presence in the media has evolved over this extraordinary period.

The findings are fascinating. Important questions, such as whether brands have lost share of voice in the media, now have data to back up anecdotal observations. But we also have insights and best-practice recommendations on how to address the challenge.

This is what we found.

The shrinking media opportunity for brands

The research, among leading media including the Financial Times, CNBC, Daily Mirror and BBC News, shows that not only is overall article volume down over the period but brands are also featured less prominently.

Brands2Life Managing Director, Business & Technology, André Labadie says, “The research laid bare what we’ve all experienced: brands have had to fight harder than ever to gain coverage. The overall number of articles published by top-tier media has fallen by 20% in the last five years, and the number of articles with brands featured prominently has also fallen steeply, down more than a third.”

Even that formerly potent tool in the communications arsenal, the survey, has witnessed a significant decline in coverage, with the number of articles falling by 44%. Those with a prominent brand mention are down by 55%.

And yes, the mega issues have dominated coverage. In 2015, they accounted for seven percent growing steadily to 44% by 2021.

Engaging with the issues

With big issues dominating the media agenda, brands have a clear opportunity to align themselves with issues as diverse as sustainability, mental health, wellbeing, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change, racial justice and equality, and the future of work.

In fact, our research ranked these issues in terms of average engagement rates per issue. Racial justice and equality is at the top, followed by climate change and LGBTQ+ rights.

And none of this looks set to change. Even when COVID-19 is taken out, these big issues are rising up the UK media agenda and are not set to slow down.

But first some warnings. André points out several potential pitfalls for brands incorporating purpose into their communications.

“It might be tempting to come up with a story that latches onto one of the big issues. But it has to be true to the brand, and crucially, the brand has to do something about it rather than just talk about. You have to be a force for good in the area you’re aligning to,” he says.

“You also have to consider where your communications sit within the current perception of the brand. People won’t respond if they see you as part of the problem.”

Brands should also consider the effects of aligning with an issue and be prepared.

“You have to recognize that social issues can be polarizing,” he says.

For example, a story on wearing a mask being a sign of mutual respect during the Coronavirus pandemic (generating 4.6 million engagements) drew a range of comments on social media both for and against the content.

Recommendations for brands

So what characteristics stand out for the brands who are succeeding in such a challenging media environment.

In just two words: leadership and authenticity.

The research shows that articles about key issues, and separately brands, with the highest engagement levels often focus on a high-profile individual.

André says, “Leaders have to be more authentic than they have ever been. A chairman cannot champion efforts to tackle climate change and spend half their life globetrotting in a private jet.”

And when it comes to brand actions on key issues, the strongest cut-through was achieved in relation to racial justice and equality and the future of work.

But André says, “Your communications can’t simply be about identifying an issue and positioning around it. You have to be about pushing through change to ensure audiences understand your effort is authentic.”

Finally, there’s a real opportunity for comms pros to extend their influence by collaborating across the business to ensure that their brand really does practice what it preaches.

In summary, the challenges facing brands wishing to drive on-going positive coverage in top level media have grown in both size and complexity but, as this research shows, there is a clear way forward if brands are prepared to ‘walk the talk’ and communicate this in a creative and engaging way.

Read the full report here: Navigating the New Landscape, Brands and Media in 2021