Bucking the trend: How brands can grow in declining categories

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

New research from behavioural communications agency HeyHuman reveals some brands are able to grow their sales and volumes despite negative overall category trends. Here’s how.

HeyHuman has used market share data to identify six declining FMCG categories, including breakfast cereal, bread and tea. Within these categories, however, researchers found certain brands were able to buck the trend and grow. In cereal Weetabix is up; in bread Hovis is expanding and in breakfast tea Unilever-owned Twinings is gaining ground.

For example, the ordinary tea bag segment has suffered in recent years, leading the category to decline by 8% between 2012 and 2017. Twinings picked up the pace, though, gaining 13% between 2015 and 2017 with its ordinary bags alone.

So what is it about these brands that has enabled them to expand in the face of weak category trends? 

The researchers used a range of techniques to analyse how these brands are succeeding, including neuroscience, regular in-depth interviews and ‘behavioural journals’ of consumer interactions with brands.

According to HeyHuman managing director Neil Davidson, the research revealed brands that are successfully growing in shrinking categories have been able to cultivate a particular relationship with its consumers.

HeyHuman separated these relationships into four themes, Davidson explained.

Best friend

“When consumers enjoy a ‘best friend’ relationship with their brands, they are willingly engaging in a relationship that has benefitted both parties over a prolonged period of time. This is a relationship where the consumer feels that they share similar values/interests with the products they are buying,”​ he said. 

“Consumers who opt for a ‘committed’ relationship with their brands have decided to enter an exclusive, long-term relationship which is grounded with trust and a commitment to not stray, even in the face of obstacles. Naturally, there is normally a strong sentimental attachment in these sorts of relationships.”

“A ‘teammate’ relationship between brands and consumers is a very specific type of interaction, usually characterised by low intimacy but high social and even emotional rewards. There is little longevity to these types of interactions, and they are dependent on specific situations.”
Friend with benefits

“This is a highly transactional relationship between brands and consumers, based almost exclusively on product desire. The brands are offering something the consumer needs, and they are rewarded with the consumer’s custom. This type of relationship is frail and easily replaced if it is no longer beneficial to both parties.”

While it might sound like a “best friend”​ or “committed”​ relationship would serve brands best when their categories are in decline, Davidson said that there are benefits to each type of relationship.

“It’s no surprise to reveal brands that become ‘best friends’ or ‘committed partners’ to their consumers can be successful even in a declining sector. More unexpected is that brands can also buck the downward trend by taking a simpler, ‘friends with benefits’ or ‘teammate’ approach to the consumer experience,”​ Davidson noted.

Fluid interactions

The assumption that a more premium brand is able to build a stronger emotional connection to consumers is not necessarily accurate, Davidson told FoodNavigator. 

“The natural assumption is that high involvement, premium brands lend themselves to committed relationships, and that low involvement, ‘basic’ brands enjoy more fleeting relationships with their consumers. However, this is not always the case,”​ he said. 
“There is real flexibility in the types of relationships brands enjoy with their consumers across the board. One might, for instance, assume that there would be a greater loyalty from customers to premium brands like Twinings, but this isn’t true.”

According to Davidson’s assessment, the fragmentation of the grocery market is a key factor in redefining how consumers interact with brands. 
“In a world with an ever-growing plethora of choice, consumers are no longer showing the affinity with brands they once did. For example, a consumer who previously enjoyed a decades long, ‘committed’ relationship with a brand may look elsewhere if they are attracted by a brand which offers them a more flexible ‘team mate’ relationship. This is definitely something that up-and-coming brands can leverage in order to differentiate themselves. They need to think about how they’ll redefine, or play ball, in the parameters of their category.”

Common themes

While each relationship identified by HeyHuman is distinct, there are also common themes among brands that are able to flourish in declining categories. Importantly, Davidson suggested, they need to evidence “human behaviours”​ such as actively listening to consumer needs, communicating in simple but meaningful ways, adapting to changing preferences and collaborating with the audience to form emotional attachments. 
“To take just one example, Weetabix started celebrating British wheat farming and communicating the provenance of its wheat, grown within 50 miles from its factory in Northamptonshire. It reinforced its credentials as a local producer and supporter of British agriculture, and highlighted a topic important to its consumers,”​ he noted.

Top four tips for growing your brand in a declining category

“Understand the relationship you have with your consumers. Too often brands are so focused on the relationship they want with people that they don’t think enough about the relationship people want with them. Brands shouldn’t make any assumptions about the relationships they have with consumers. They need to invest time, money and energy into uncovering how people behave in relation to their brand and category and respond accordingly if they’re to adapt and thrive within their given sectors. 
“Be open-minded to the relationships people have with you. Brands tend to want to enjoy ‘committed partnerships’, one where their consumers feel a great affinity and loyalty to their products. However, brands shouldn’t be despondent if they are treated as a ‘casual acquaintance’ or even a ‘friend with benefits’. Our research shows these more shallow, fleeting relationships can be just as successful. Brands can work with these types of interactions to open new opportunities and ways of connecting with people. 
“Understand your category, and the relationships which are normally associated with it. It’s hard to strive for a ‘committed partnership’ if you operate in a category where people’s brand relationships are dominated by, for example, a ‘casual acquaintance’ relationship. Brands need to target viable relationships with their consumer and understand what this means for the brand. 
“Learn from other categories. Often brands are so intent on beating their direct competition they don’t raise their heads above the parapet to see how brands in other sectors are evolving relationships. For instance, the cereals and tea sectors could learn a lot from the way that modern, challenger brands like Monzo are redefining the typical financial services relationship from ‘arranged marriage’ to ‘best friend’ with an interface and communications that evidence a shared set of values with their Millennial audience.”

                                         - HeyHuman MD Neil Davidso

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