Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

by | Oct 12, 2021 | Public Relations

In today’s volatile marketplace notable for heightened consumer distrust and poor brand communication, new research from marketing and business communications firm R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company (RRD) uncovers significant differences between marketer assumptions and what consumers say actually influences their brand awareness and purchase decisions.

The firm’s latest study, The (Un)Expected Report: Comparing 2021 Consumer Expectations To Marketer Priorities, based on surveys of both marketing professionals and consumers, reveals that traditional marketing channels, including word of mouth, direct mail, and in-store signage, are largely untapped by marketers.

After a year of volatility and transformation, consumers value traditional marketing channels. For nearly a third of consumers (28 percent), word of mouth is the preferred method for learning about a new brand, product, or service—outpacing social media (23 percent), cable TV (12 percent) and online/digital ads (11 percent). At the same time, a mere 4 percent of marketers identified word of mouth as a consumer preference for learning about new brands, products, or services. The study also revealed that word of mouth has a higher research-to-purchase ratio (40 percent) than social media (30 percent), online/digital ads (27 percent), or print ads (16 percent).

Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

“In a tumultuous and challenging year, consumers embraced traditional marketing methods as they sought to discover, research, and ultimately purchase from new brands,” said John Pecaric, president of RRD Marketing Solutions and Business Services, in a news release. “Based on our survey results, marketers may need to revisit their strategies and assumptions about what customers are looking for and adjust accordingly in order to meet their expectations.”

Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

The survey results underscore four key themes that all point to the power of traditional marketing methods and how social and digital marketing continue to evolve:

Theme 1: It’s time to redefine (and re-engage) word of mouth

Word of mouth traditionally refers to consumers sharing product and brand recommendations with one another verbally. Today, this has evolved to include interactions between acquaintances on social media. Word of mouth outranked all other forms of brand discovery, with the survey findings showing that the majority (55 percent) of consumers have discovered a new brand, product, or service in the past year through word of mouth, followed by social media (53 percent). More importantly, 40 percent of consumers actually purchased a product after discovering it via word of mouth, topping all other channels. Yet only 7 percent of marketers identified word of mouth as a channel that results in consumer purchases. This division speaks to the continued importance of word of mouth and asks marketers to deliver timely and relevant messaging that gives consumers something to talk about, both in-person and online.

Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

Theme 2: Gen Y is most excited to receive direct mail

More than half (51 percent) of consumers were more excited to receive direct mail in the past year than they were in the year prior, with the highest levels among Gen Y (65 percent), Gen Z (57 percent), and Gen X (53 percent). Baby Boomers are least likely to be excited about receiving direct mail (36 percent). While 67 percent of marketers made significant changes to their marketing strategies in the past year, the consumer data suggests that marketers should continue to fine-tune their efforts and consider re-investing in traditional marketing channels.

Theme 3: Dear retailers, are you ready to return to normal?

The good news for the retail sector is that 62 percent of consumers are eager to return to their pre-pandemic shopping habits. More than a third (35 percent) of consumers admit that the changes they made to their shopping habits due to the pandemic will only last less than 6 months. This contrasts with marketers’ assumptions, with 43 percent expecting consumers not to return to their pre-pandemic shopping habits for another 6-12 months. Consumers also show a preference for retailers who effectively use in-store signage and displays, with a majority (58 percent) saying that in-store signage is influential to their purchase decisions. Eight in 10 prefer to shop in stores with signage that helps them navigate the store and avoid crowds. These data points suggest that consumers are more eager to return to in-store shopping than many marketers assume and have high expectations, confirming the importance of experience-driven in-store marketing strategies.

Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

Theme 4: Pinterest and TikTok on the rise while influencers wane

While consumers indicated their preference for some forms of traditional marketing channels, their engagement with brands online and via social media continues to evolve, posing additional complexities for marketers looking to connect with their audiences. While 82 percent of marketers believe influencers—public figures that promote brands, products, or services, often in social media—drive consumer purchases, the reality is that just over a quarter (26 percent) of consumers say that influencers make them more likely to purchase new products or services.

At least one in three consumers follow brands they like on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram—and this is where engagement is most likely to happen. Gen Y leads all other surveyed generations with regard to brand engagement on Facebook (42 percent), while Gen Z leads with regard to brand engagement on YouTube (45 percent) and Instagram (50 percent).

Marketers overestimate the power of Snapchat, with 21 percent saying that consumers use the platform to discover new brands, while only 7 percent of consumers agreed. When it comes to following their favorite brands, consumers prefer Pinterest (21 percent), TikTok (20 percent) and Twitter (19 percent) over Snapchat (16 percent) and Reddit (11 percent).

Marketers failing to understand what drives awareness, purchasing today—4 themes to watch

With regard to in-app purchases, 41 percent of consumers have made an in-app purchase on Facebook, followed by 25 percent on Instagram, and 11 percent on Pinterest. Baby Boomers are the least likely to make in-app purchases, but when they do, they overwhelmingly prefer Facebook. Gen X also prefers to make in-app purchases via Facebook. However, nearly half of all survey respondents (47 percent) have never made an in-app purchase.

Read the full report here.

RRD commissioned twin surveys of U.S. marketing professionals and consumers in the summer of 2021 to provide a comparative analysis of consumer preferences and expectations relating to brands and marketers’ assumptions about those preferences. The RRD surveys were conducted by FINN Partners in July 2021 in the U.S. The surveys were conducted online and the data is weighted to be nationally representative. 250 marketing professionals across a variety of industry sectors and 1,000 consumers participated in the surveys.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter


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