Your Brand's Biggest Competitor: Apathy

Are we asking too much of people? Should brands focus on more, simpler tactics like being meaningful, making better products, being easier to buy?

Coming back from Cannes, some people are jealous. They see the augmented reality, the glossy case studies, the hacks and the “best ever” results. They rightly think, how is it that I’ve missed out? Why isn’t my promoted hashtag “setting the nation alight” like my competitors'? Why was my NFC campaign a failure, while the category leader’s was “game-changing”? A thought: Perhaps we should worry less about everything and focus on literally the only people that count: everybody.

Here’s an exercise for you. Next time you’re on a plane or gifted one of those precious and ever-rarer moments of peace, think about which brands you care about. Let’s make this fair -- this is not the ones you love, just the ones you feel some connection or fondness for. I’m guessing this list came fast and then slowed. It’s probably around 15-25 brands long, it’s probably got a hotel chain it in, some forms of technology, a Web site, a car company.



Now spare a thought for the several million brands, spending several hundred billion dollars to connect with you, that you just don’t care about. Studies carried out each year on the top 300 brands show that in 2015, normal people would not care if 74% of brands vanished. This number has increased every year since the study began, despite the incredible and richer ways to connect that the world offers. 

We don’t feel like this about our brands. When we work on our clients' brands, or as a client ourselves, we live the brand. It's our job to do so. We scour the shelves at the grocery stores, download the apps, follow the brand on Twitter, sign up for a loyalty card, like, promote, befriend -- the list is endless. And by doing so, we totally remove ourselves from being in the place able to help best: reality. Our language is a mixture  of “relationships,” “brand love” and “loyalty” -- yet fewer than 1/200 “fans” on Facebook have ever talked about a brand there.

We need to wake up. We are in a world with incredible and increasing distractions, yet we keep asking people to do more. People are not waiting in the aisles of grocery stores looking for a content experience in the aisle, they are not dying to interact with your whiskey bottle, or upload the swish of their clean hair. The daily emails to every customer who happens upon your site and the endless desperate retargeting reflects a level of importance and care that is far from symmetrical.

We’re in this weird moment in advertising. When we collectively decided 10 years ago that the age of interruption was dead and the age of engagement was the solution, we now chase love. We feel the need to do everything we can, as if a sales decline or lack of followers could ever be explained because we didn’t promote an Independence day tweet with a packshot.

I think we need to empathize more with our consumers. What they are looking for is simple -- it’s the same thing we want.  In this age of abundance, we're looking to make our lives easier, make choices simpler, feel better about the things we buy, to reduce the cognitive burden. The most successful companies of a lifetime have focused not on excellence in everything, but mere brutal simplicity.

I despise Amazon as a company, but one-click ordering brings me back. To my core I dislike Uber, but I use it always because it just works. From Apple to Airbnb, FlyCleaners to Kayak, Geico to FreshDirect, things succeed because they work. This may be due to the changes in behavior that the Internet has brought: a sense of entitlement,  the need for transparency, total impatience, but it’s not just a “digital” thing. I walk out of five to 10 physical stores each week with nothing, because while their marketing may work, they have lines at checkout, and I won’t tolerate that. Is staffing that hard?

So how about this, next time you’re thinking about your brand, your products, your marketing, the way that people buy you -- don’t try to embellish. Try to reduce and simplify.

How can you make it easier to buy? How can repurchase involve less thinking? How can you extract more money from people without them thinking about it? And beyond that, how can my product genuinely help people today -- what higher-order problems can it solve?

The biggest problem today isn’t your competitors -- it’s apathy. Think hard to give people a reason to care, or to allow them to buy you without your having to make your brand meaningful in every way.

5 comments about "Your Brand's Biggest Competitor: Apathy".
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  1. Julie Schlack from Communispace Corporation, July 2, 2015 at 1:42 p.m.

    Here here, Tom. I'm curious -- can you tell me more specifics about the studies you referred to when you wrote "Studies carried out each year on the top 300 brands show that in 2015, normal people would not care if 74% of brands vanished. This number has increased every year since the study began, despite the incredible and richer ways to connect that the world offers."

    Who conducted these studies?

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 2, 2015 at 7:03 p.m.

    When I dislike a product/service, I make a conscious effort not to spend my money on that again, just like eating something you find distasteful. Race to the bottom services are those which I cannot contribute to their usage. In the long run, we will all lose. 

  3. Tom Goodwin from Havas Media, July 4, 2015 at 3:54 p.m.

    Hi Julie, these studies are the Havas Meaningful brands study,  see

  4. Ronit Soen from idomoo, July 5, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

    Nice piece, inlightening
    communicate with your customers through 1:1 relevant memorable communication, through personlaized videos:

  5. David Cutler from EatMedia, July 6, 2015 at 8:32 a.m.

    Your sweet to couch your career advice in a compelling argument for being real and unburdoning our buyers... when what you are really advising people to do is stop wasting their lives working for the 74% of irrelevant brands. Also, you won't be annoyed by checkout lines since staffing should be getting easier with all those enlightened employees looking for work.

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