Why social brands are winning in the overtraded attention economy

by Dave Duarte and Bridget McNulty

People are swimming in content. The question is: if your brand stopped marketing, would people miss you?

We trade our attention for value. If you’re offering meaningless fodder that any brand could produce, and that doesn’t spark conversation, you won’t be seen and remembered. Whether you pay to be in front of people or not.

Attention is now more valuable than ever before. With so much competition for it, it’s also becoming more difficult to acquire. Brands today compete on emotional value with the kind of content people love on social media - music, memes, news, celebrity. Some marketers are opting out of organic social media, opting to do only paid social. But this isn’t ultimately a sustainable approach. You need to combine Paid, Owned , and Earned Media. But that is just the start.

Successful Social Brands are going beyond getting attention. They’re aiming for a transformative impact on people’s lives that makes their content unmissable.

Many of these brands are built on a strong social vision that keeps their audience coming back for more. For example, outdoor brand Patagonia is on “a mission to save our home planet”. Their digital campaigns don’t centre around product, but rather around the issues that unite their most loyal customers. Their latest campaign, for example, is around saving Wild Salmon, and is racking up millions of views while continuing to drive sales.

At heart, people are meaning makers. We have a deep sense of needing to make meaning in our lives. But the world we’re living in is so fragmented and busy that it can be difficult to find that meaning.

One of the consequences of having so much choice available to us, ironically, is that choosing becomes more difficult. Strong brands reduce the cognitive strain of choosing by helping us form preferences. Once we know and like a brand, it’s easy to spot them in a cluttered context. And as long as the brand delivers the expected emotional rewards, we’ll keep coming back.

What’s essential to understand is that people want to be loyal. Brand managers make it easier for people to be loyal by producing themed content, in an immediately recognisable way, that delivers on the brand vision.

For example, Nike has established a strong social justice voice around their sponsored athletes.

Nike sided with football player Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the US national anthem to protest systemic racism in the NFL and was suspended for it. The payoff was simple: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. Two weeks after the campaign debuted, the company's online sales had risen a whopping 31% and its stock had climbed more than 6% to an all-time high.

Having established the pattern, when the IAAF announced that Caster Semenya wouldn’t be allowed to compete, people expected Nike to respond with an ad. And they delivered on time, and in a way that only Nike could. Their voice is well established, and they show up consistently while still managing to be surprising and original.

This approach would not have worked for another brand. It was a reflection of the ethos Nike has represented for decades.

Social brands deepen their loyalty and connection by letting people own the message. They use campaigns not just to push messages, but to ignite conversations. AirBnB is excellent at this. When they were blocked from sponsoring the Oscars, they decided to run a campaign based around the question: “What movie would you live in?” They seeded the question to key movie industry influencers, and fuelled the conversation with witty responses and paid promotion on Twitter. And of course, sourced places from movies around the world that you could actually book on AirBnB. The result was that they were the most talked about brand at the Oscars.

There is an idea in economics that we need to move up the value chain from selling commodities to offering experiences and driving transformations. Yoco is a South African tech company that epitomises this approach in marketing. If the commodity in marketing is attention, they are using the attention they get to drive transformation for their fans. Their campaigns are driven around the ideal of encouraging entrepreneurship.

Their latest campaign #JustStart goes beyond flogging product. At the top of the funnel is an inspiring video featuring three entrepreneurs who have used the Yoco payment platform to start and grow their businesses. But the campaign goes further than that, offering free resources and training to aspiring entrepreneurs to take that first step.

Brands that provide a big, clear purpose that people can understand and make their own are winning. Brands like Patagonia, Yoco, Nike, and AirBnB are investing their marketing money in creating not just adverts but movements. They aren’t just telling stories, they’re co-creating impact with their consumers. Yoco is igniting Africa’s entrepreneurial uprising. Nike is making everyone an athlete. AirBnB is making everyone feel welcome. They aren’t just producing random content: every post, app, conference takes us towards their bigger social vision.

Your brand can set itself apart by making a simple promise: when you invest your attention with us, your life gets better, the world gets better. We won’t waste your attention, we know how valuable it is.

Need help figuring out how to move your brand beyond the attention economy? We can help you do just that.