CEO Insider

Why Consumers Don’t Care About (Most) Brands

Businessman and Businesswoman look at the city

Each year, brands spend over $600 billion (and counting) to convince us to buy their products. Yet, as consumers we have become insensitive to most advertising. This excerpt from Brand Hacks – How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Consumer Quest for Meaning aims at helping CEOs understand why consumers don’t care about (most) brands and most advertising campaign fails.

This is chaos

On an average day, we consume over 13 hours of media and check our phone 96 times, or once every 10 minutes. We spend two hours and 24 minutes a day on social media and upload 995 pictures on Instagram every second. We have urges to see the next post, the next picture, the next vlog; to not miss the next cycling class, the next meetup, the next date. Along this journey, brands try to convince us to buy their products through advertising, an industry projected to reach over $769 Billion in revenue by 2024. This media overload has made us insensitive to most advertising. We become overwhelmed with too many choices and end up not being able to choose anything.

We don’t care about [most] brands

Let’s be clear from the get-go: we all search for meaning, not brands. That is, we interact with others, buy products and experience things to resolve this tension between who we are and who we want to be or how we want to be seen. Brands that succeed are the ones that act as shortcuts to resolve these tensions and help us find meaning. In this process, brands became meaningful themselves.

Brands that don’t help us resolve these tensions fall by the wayside. Because we forget these brands easily, they have to constantly remind us of what they sell. In advertising, we call this “increasing frequency of exposure.” By reminding us often, these brands hope that we’ll remember them next time we go to the store. Eventually, this leads us to look at their products as commodities. That is, we will buy them for their functional benefits but will switch to any competitor as soon as we find a cheaper or better alternative.

Our disbelief in brands is also a generational issue. Baby boomers are a more brand-loyal group who grew up with fewer choices, fewer advertising channels, and TV as their only real media screen. In contrast, more than half of millennials don’t care for brands at all. A 2018 study from Cadent Consulting Group shows that 51 percent of millennials have no real preference between private-label and national brands. This only propels the growth of private-label brands from Trader Joes, Aldi, Amazon, and others, which now compete toe-to-toe with national brands.

Purchases are increasingly driven by benefits such as free delivery or lenient return policies, rather than the brand itself. That’s why store brands grow three times faster than branded products. In response, retailers have evolved their store-brand products to make them indistinguishable from those of the national players. Target, for example, has rolled out dozens of its own products and invested heavily in branding and design.

Conventional advertising is dying

Unlike previous generations, today’s consumers can access a vast amount of content without having to see many, if any, traditional ads. Consumers ignore ads, skip them, or even block them by using ad blocking software to keep digital advertising out of their days. As of 2019, roughly 26 percent of internet users relied on ad blocking software to avoid being disrupted by digital advertising. Ad blocking is not a fad: the use of ad blocking software keeps rising, and impacts all devices (desktop, laptop, mobile, and tablets) and publishers.

This is frightening news for the publishing industry. Newspaper and magazine circulation has been free falling, along with advertising revenue. Publishers have therefore relied on digital advertisements to keep them afloat. However, about 26 percent of US readers use ad blockers, causing the US publishers to lose almost $35 billion in revenue in 2020 alone.

In response to this phenomenon, some publishers like Facebook are investing in technologies to block ad blockers. These programs render ad blockers useless, enabling publishers to serve ads even to people who have installed ad blocking software. This begins a game of cat-and-mouse between software developers blocking software that blocks ad blocking software, begging the question of who the real beneficiary is meant to be.

Why most advertising campaigns fail

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” —John Wanamaker (1838–1922), American merchant

Despite all the technology and “advanced analytics,” not much has changed since Wanamaker made this statement over 100 years ago. Here is why most marketing efforts fail:

Most marketing and advertising executives live in a bubble, disconnected from the real-world consumers they target.

Marketers often live in big cities like New York and San Francisco, where they earn more money, and consume more media than middle-America. A study commissioned by ThinkBox shows that marketers overestimate the time people spend watching video on various devices by a factor of 18. They also overestimate time spent on Video-on-Demand (VoD) devices by 10 times. These same marketers spend three times more time on social media or VoD devices than ordinary people.

As it turns out, advertising professionals also hate ads. Jason Grimm, co-founder of Pressboard surveyed people working at advertising agencies, in ad departments, and ad publications about their own behavior towards ads. Twenty-seven percent of these advertising professionals use ad blockers at home (using an ad blocker at work would be cheeky), 79 percent skip ads when watching content via DVR, and 98 percent stream ad-free content. Just like their “target audiences,” they would rather trust their friends to inform them about products, along with social media, articles, and emails. “It’s possible we’re the only industry that actively avoids the product we produce,” says Grimm. “I doubt organic farmers are eating GMO-cage-raised-hormone-fed chicken for dinner. Or that dentists have stopped brushing their teeth. If even the people making the ads avoid them, is it reasonable to hope consumers won’t?”

In conclusion, the C-suite must prevent its brands from force-feeding more disrupting ads to an audience that is already burned out. The real fix for advertisers lays in connecting with people on an emotional level and supporting their quest for meaning.


Written by Dr. Emmanuel Probst.

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Dr. Emmanuel Probst
Dr. Emmanuel Probst’s background combines over 15 years of market research and marketing experience with strong academic achievements. As Global Lead, Brand Thought-Leadership at Ipsos, he supports his clients by providing them with a full understanding of their customer’s journey. His experience spans a wide range of industries, including consumer package goods, retail, financial services, advertising agencies, and media outlets. His 2021 book Brand Hacks: How to Build Brands by Fulfilling the Consumer Quest for Meaning is a Wall Street Journal and USA Today Bestseller. Dr. Probst teaches Consumer Market Research at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Emmanuel holds an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hull, United Kingdom and a Doctorate in Consumer Psychology from Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom.


Dr. Emmanuel Probst is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.