Beware the doughnut: hollow brands, cultural change

and the new era of marketing leadership

Hollow brands, cultural change and the new era of marketing leadership, by Dom Boyd, UK Managing Director Insights at Kantar

As revolutions go, the signal for this one was relatively inauspicious.
An unmarked A4 letter through the letterbox.

It read: “Hi, this is Tracy from No 22 XXXX Road. I hope you are keeping well. If not and you need any assistance, please let me know. I’ve set up a WhatsApp group for our road’s residents, so that everyone can feel supported. Many have really embraced the spirit of community it’s offered. If you’d like to join, please message me on (mobile number). Thanks”

Covid-19 has done many things to so many people. But perhaps something that’s becoming clear is that this it’s more than a disease. It also marks a disruption. A fundamental shift not just in markets or new consumer behaviours, but in our collective psyche. A shift towards the importance of community. Of togetherness. And of responsibility and having a duty of care towards each other. We can see it in Kantar’s Global Barometer: for example 3/4 of people think that the No1 thing companies should be doing in this moment is worrying about employees' health.  We can see it in brands taking positive actions during the COVID-19 crisis, for example:

  • Iceland introducing ‘early hour’ for elderly customers so they can shop for food before the wider public – a trend other supermarkets quickly copied
  • Just Eat providing 30 day emergency support package for restaurants on its platform to and waiving sign-up fees for new restaurants joining the platform
  • Amazon getting customers essentials faster by blocking non-essential goods in warehouses and using Alexa to help provide diagnosis of COVID-19
  • McDonald's in China providing corporate bulk purchases, to help cater for contactless eating

And I could see it in Tracy’s letter, turning the previously anonymous residents of a London street into something altogether more connected and vibrant. Each of these small data points marks something far more profound: Covid-19 has acted as catalyst not just for new social values, but for a new societal norm - we now expect business not just to be ‘purposeful’, but to actively shape positive behaviours both inside and out. To promote Responsible Business.

Not unlike having ‘Purpose’ - but with a more clearly defined point, because it’s up close and personal. Relevant right here in the here and now. Yes it will protect the planet for future generations, but it also helps protect me as an employee and as a consumer through empowering me to make positive choices rather than just convenient ones.

Responsible business isn’t an entirely new ideas – it’s something Kantar has pointed to already in our 2020 Energie Report as a key dynamic. But Covid-19 marks a cultural inflection point which has propelled it into something bigger: an era definer. This is now the age of Responsible Business. And there’s every reason to believe this just the beginning, as we come to appreciate it, expect it, and quite possibly demand it.

The age of responsible business: implications for marketing

Be responsible not just responsive If the last digital decade and its headrush of big data, mobile-first social, dynamic creative optimisation, full stack tech and CX transformation programmes has shown anything then it’s that while being responsive is useful, it’s not nearly enough. As Peter Field’s IPA report ‘The crisis of creative effectiveness’ shows, creative effectiveness has declined as brand have become increasingly fixated on the short-term, and looked to drive ‘engagement’ through responsive digital channels rather than reach in traditional broadcast channels.


Similarly, Kantar’s BrandZ databank highlights a brand crisis over a similar time frame as even top UK brands are seeing declines in Meaningful Difference and salience – the vital keys to driving brand value (£).


Source: BrandZ 2019, Top 10 UK brands

This indicates responsive digital and tech alone is not the value-driving utopia marketers had been promised. They need to look elsewhere to create real value. One that enables them to create a stronger emotional connection through strengthening EI, not just AI. Responsible business provides a strong platform for re-building that emotional connection at a personal and societal level, through delivering meaningful difference audience communities can believe in, buy into and perhaps even rally around. Brands that position themselves as responsible guardians are likely to emerge the winners come the recovery, by emotionally binding us together again and helping us collectively heal.

Provide enrichment not just enjoyment. The decline in BrandZ meaningful difference scores indicates a problem: looking outside to culture and consumers has left a generation of ‘Doughnut’ brands with throwaway audience relationships, born from superficial values and throwaway benefit-driven campaigns.

They’re hollow on the inside.

Responsible Business provides an opportunity to reverse that by creating a healthier business, born from a strong, sustainable core. A core with strong differentiating values that guide all their behaviours including its business model, its innovation and its operations and help enrich audiences’ lives. This an opportunity for marketers to create a strong social signal that their brand is intent on shaping a better future – a signal that can create a strong community of advocates, as brands like Patagonia have demonstrated.

But it’s also an opportunity for marketing to reshape its influence & value upstream by shaping a strong leadership agenda that binds internal stakeholders & advocates together around a common mission and set of behaviours.


Build your brand from the inside, through employees. Something Covid-19 has also shown is that that CX is a brand’s frontline, and there’s nowhere to hide: brands are as strong as their weakest experience, and unless you’re a 100% DTC business, that’s very often based around what your employees do (or don’t) do.

This not only highlights the convergence of brand with CX as ‘total experience’, it highlights the importance of a brand’s internal community – its employee culture – in successfully delivering its promise through powerful small moments. In the age of responsible business brands are built from the inside, through powerful enduring values that drive positive behaviours - not from chasing culture. The opportunity for the next generation of marketing leadership is to step outside of campaign treadmill and built deeper roots within the business – by articulating the values as something truly valuable, and translating those into behaviours which galvanise employee communities and trading practices. That’s a hugely important and visible value-adding role.

In summary

To think of COVID-19 as a terrible disease is to underestimate its impact. It’s a disruption which has acted as a catalyst for a new organisational era defined by responsibility. In this new era of Responsible Business brand value will be created by looking beyond sales to better serve internal and external communities through shaping positive behaviours, providing ‘role modelling’ which creates far stronger emotional connection and brand value. This is a pivotal moment for marketers to reimagine their role as organisational leaders, adding deeper value through inspiring sustainable innovation, shaping employee culture and driving a more purposeful digital transformation agenda.

Don’t just dream it, do it. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

This article was taken from issue 6 of Marketing Society publication EMPOWER. Read the archive here.