2021 UGC Trends - How authentic do brands really want to be?


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Covid-19 pushed brands to find alternative solutions to big budget, high production value campaigns - the traditional expectations for high impact advertising campaigns. Many found success with user-generated content (UGC) strategies which tapped into a real desire for human connection, and in 2020 connection was king.  As the pandemic took hold, we embraced the power of video content to share experiences, build authentic connections, learn new things, stay entertained and support each other through adversity.

But what we also saw was a raft of brands mimicking UGC – take the Sainsbury’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’ Christmas campaign for example. It raises a question that has been troubling marketers for some time – exactly how authentic do they want to make their brands?

Advertising styles adopted by brands have always followed trends, often led by developments in production and post-production techniques as well as simply by fashion.  So traditional product endorsement techniques of 30 odd years ago were followed by a rush to adopt a variety of animation styles, which in turn made way for the Hollywood epic approach, to be usurped by a growing addiction to CGI techniques followed by the more recent fast cut, mixed media style inspired by pop-promos, tech convergence and social media formats.  The particular skill of the best ad agencies has been to spot a style or a cultural trend in creative media and magpie-like, appropriate it, then condense it into a 30 or 10 second bite to promote their client’s brand or service.  Whether this mimicry and appropriation is always regarded as the sincerest form of flattery is a moot point – when does an ‘homage’ become a rip-off, after all?  Discuss.

So now we come to the thorny issue of authenticity.  It’s what consumers are wanting, we are told.  To drive deeper emotional engagement, we have to sweep away a lot of the comforting fluff.  The old advertiser/consumer selling ‘contract’ has been blown apart.  “We know what you’re doing!” cries from the consumer mean that the usual gloss, spin and dark arts of the hidden persuaders are now fully exposed and so can too often be met by sighs of “Here we go again” from us all, punch drunk after being battered by 3,000 ad messages a day (is that even possible?).  This challenge has been met by a fresh desire not to lead the poor consumer down yet another garden path, but to instead hold a mirror up to their lives. Not in a stylised way, but genuinely.  Reflect reality therefore, not project an idealised Neverland no one can ever realistically visit.  

But then herein lies the problem. “Project authenticity” becomes part of the brief to the agency, which then immediately gets busy constructing ad scenarios which adopt the style of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ mini-docs, where we as consumers are intended to witness, or rather eavesdrop on a ‘real life’ family scene.  If ‘genuine’ becomes a tonal prompt in the brief, but then from that point, everything is constructed as campaigns usually are, then surely the brief is self-defeating?  We can’t suspend our disbelief any more if a) the advertiser/consumer contract is broken and b) we know what you’re doing. Mimicing authenticity has to be wrong.

Some critical conclusions to be drawn here, then, for brand companies.  If your desire for the real is genuine, don’t ask your ad agency to artificially construct ‘authentic scenarios’.  This is one ad style that ad agencies’ supreme craft skills do not wear well.  Better to act with a greater sense of integrity and honesty and use genuine UGC as opposed to mimic a UGC style.  Consumers, after all, may not forgive you for pretending to be genuine.  UGC is no longer the Wild West – the industry has grown more sophisticated as the market has matured and there are companies rising up that are able to serve genuine peer-to-peer content in a fully moderated form.  So only the best examples are presented to help promote a client’s strategy.  No agency fingerprints anywhere in sight – raw, genuine, honest UGC that touches hearts and minds.  Surely the better way forward than artful mimicry.

As we start 2021 still in the grips of Covid-19, I believe the best ads this year will come from the highly creative minds of everyday people.  Brands and agencies don’t need to mimic, storyboard or direct the action, they just need to tap into the limitless energy of content creators.   Don’t copy creators; just reach out and they’ll deliver you something unexpected, original emotionally-compelling and above all authentic – real moments of advertising gold.  

Get in touch with us today to find out how we can crowdsource the content you need to make your next truly emotionally engaging ad.

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Morgan Schofield
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Morgan Schofield