LONDON — The second annual global Brands In Motion study from WE Communications shows that consumers want brands to continue to innovate, but also, in the face of technology-based fears, want them to use technology ethically and responsibly.

The Brands In Motion study shows consumers have been shaken by recent technology scandals and are anxious about the promises of unprecedented innovation: 84% fear their personal data is not secure, 80% think they or their family could be compromised online, and 77% fear that hackers could shut down the power grid.

As a result, expectations of how brands handle tech innovation are high: 97% of respondents said they now place responsibility squarely on brands to use technology ethically while continuing to drive customer-centric innovation, and 94% said that if brands can’t use technology ethically, then governments should step in.

WE Communications CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin said: “Functionality is now paired with ethical responsibility, and consumers are more likely to support brands that over-index on functionality, but not at the expense of ethics.”

Alan VanderMolen, WE’s president of international, added: “It’s a real responsibility for brands to not only use technology to innovate but to start to engage with consumers and stakeholders and think: we could do this, but should we do this? Misuse of data and toxic content have radically changed the landscape for tech innovation in the past 12 months. Consumers are giving brands an ultimatum: Self-regulate or be regulated.”

WE partnered with YouGov to survey nearly 27,000 consumers and B2B decision-makers across eight markets: Australia, China, Germany, India, Singapore, South Africa, the UK and the US. The research covers 90 brands in eight industry categories: automotive, computing devices, finance and banking, food and beverage, health and wellness, prescription health, smart home, and tech B2B.

The research examines the rational and emotional drivers that motivate customer choices and sentiment towards brands, based on WE's hypothesis that all brands are in motion, relative to the environment in which they operate.

VanderMolen said: “Brands and companies that continue to look at an outdated notions of brand positioning are making a mistake in assuming it’s about being at one fixed point and moving to another fixed point. The environment is moving so fast that it’s now about brand motion, not brand positioning, and it’s not going to slow down any time soon.”

From 2017 to 2018, average global scores of brands by consumers were up 16% for rational drivers and 14% for emotional drivers, showing that consumers’ need for reason is outpacing their need to feel emotionally connected to a brand. There was just one exception globally: the UK, where consumers have lower expectations for categories and brands.

Unlike the skepticism seen in the UK, the emerging markets surveyed (India, China and South Africa) showed greater optimism towards brands and categories, stronger expectations about what technology will allow brands to accomplish, and lower levels of fear about technology. Singapore shares these opinions as well.

VanderMolen said: “The sociopolitical context, from political unrest and trade tensions to #MeToo, is a factor here, not just the issues but hyperbole around the issues, which are not framed with rational discourse but extreme polarity in language. For brands, this means ethics and responsibility are now equal partners to innovation, and they need to start changing their narratives and the way they engage with stakeholders.

“There’s a shift from ‘tell me’ to ‘show me and prove it’. It’s becoming more difficult for brands to be admired, and our research shows consumers don’t think twice about shaming a previously-loved brand.”

The survey also found that more consumers than last year are supportive of brands that have a high level of functionality/effectiveness, over brands that have a high level of purpose. While the majority of consumers want brands to have a balance of both, this is an interesting shift in a year when brand purpose is a huge topic of industry conversation and many agencies are setting up practices focused on this area.

VanderMolen said: “There is a purpose bandwagon but brands have to have permission to focus on purpose, especially established brands. They need to have a high degree of functionality and deliver what they say they will deliver, as well as meeting legal and ethical requirements: they need the 'what' and the 'how' before the 'why' that makes a difference.”

In terms of sector, computing devices, which previously had the highest consumer admiration, fell dramatically out of favour this year. In contrast, smart home — the category that seems like it would have the most to lose in conversations about tech disruption, data privacy and security — is ascendant. Despite 63% of respondents saying they were afraid their phone was listening to them, smart home made huge year-over-year gains in consumer approval.