Brands must fight harder for coverage as media output shrinks, new research finds

A report on the UK’s changing media landscape and its impact on brand communication reveals how brands are having to fight harder than ever for coverage and engage with ‘big issues’ such as social purpose and sustainability.

Brands are under pressure to take the climate crisis seriously (Photos: Getty Images)
Brands are under pressure to take the climate crisis seriously (Photos: Getty Images)

‘Navigating The New Landscape: Brands and Media in 2021’ conducted by PR agency Brands2Life and digital consultancy Media Measurement, reveals that the number of overall articles in the UK’s top media outlets has shrunk by 21 per cent (see Figure 1, below) and shows how the ‘big issues’ increasingly dominate media output, now accounting for 44 per cent of all articles.

Based on analysis of 25 national and business media titles since 2016, the report finds that the proportion of articles that mention specific brands has fallen even more steeply, by 28 per cent, over that period. ‘Prominent mentions’ of brands are down by more than one-third.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has, not surprisingly, been the main driver of issue-led coverage in the past 17 months, racial justice and equality, mental health and wellbeing, climate change, the Future of Work and AI have also come to the fore.

Climate change more than doubled its presence in the news in Q1 2021 compared to Q3 2016 (see Figure 7, below).

Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life, said: “The media landscape has changed hugely over the past five years and continues to do so. We all sensed a major shift was occurring but to see these insights – proven by thorough analysis – is fascinating.”

The report suggests that many brands are putting their purpose and sustainability efforts at the centre of their communications, based on a steady year-on-year rise in discussion of brands in connection with these big issues.

Even excluding COVID-19, there was still an increase in the proportion of brand coverage mentioning social issues from five per cent of brand articles in 2015/16 to 15 per cent in 2020/21.

Tim Zecchin, managing director at Media Measurement, said: “It proves what we have long observed with our clients – that consumers and citizens have a significant and growing demand for brands with a social purpose. Brexit and COVID-19 aside, this is a change that is here to stay. With consumers increasingly focusing on purpose, these insights showcase the importance of data-driven decision-making when keeping up with the changing media landscape and adapting purpose-led communications while actively contributing to solving society’s biggest problems.”

Fraser points out the importance of authenticity: “More than ever, brands have to carefully consider how they can get a voice on these issues and put their efforts around purpose and sustainability into their comms strategies. But only if it is executed authentically can they truly engage their audiences and generate the positive coverage they crave.”

The report notes that research and surveys, typically traditional drivers of proactive coverage for brands, is in decline; the number of articles generated by this approach has fallen by 44 per cent from 2015/16 and the number of articles driven by research and surveys with a prominent brand mention more than halved (-55 per cent).

When looking at how people are engaging with media content, the report found that media coverage driving high engagement often has an individual personality as its focus. This point held true for many of the issues: 21 of the top 100 articles by engagement referring to Brexit focused on Boris Johnson, while 13 of the top 100 articles on climate change focused on Greta Thunberg.

The research identified a similar trend for high engagement with articles about the leadership of companies. Issues-based content with individual personalities at the forefront tends to drive the highest levels of interaction.

However, these pieces also draw the highest levels of backlash when businesses aren’t seen to be walking the walk, with increasing public scrutiny of their genuine contributions to these issues.

When taking an issues-led approach, articles citing brands in relation to racial justice and equality accounted for 57 per cent of all engagements. The majority of the articles related to the #BlackLivesMatter protests, with a fifth (21 per cent) of these engagements from five articles reporting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ response to a customer who criticised the company’s statement in solidarity with #BLM protesters.

Fraser said: “Company leaders have an incredibly important role in communicating the brand’s stance in relation to social issues and ensuring that they build this positioning in when planning purpose driven communications. A leader’s actions in relation to the big issues are under public scrutiny; it is important to ensure they, as individuals, are aligned with the brand’s values and messaging or they risk undermining the company narrative.”

Other key findings

To order a copy of the full report from Brands2Life please click here.

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