As brands kick off the new year, marketers have much to learn from how consumers reacted to brand initiatives throughout 2020, an unprecedented year of cultural change.

Brands were under enormous pressure to respond to multiple crises, from Covid-19 to the historic reckoning around police violence and a fraught presidential election. In response, brands have had to expand and adapt the roles they play in our lives, offering guidance, hope, safety, and distraction. 

There has never been a more relevant time to measure and understand which brands consumers feel most connected to and why.

Every year at Opinium we rank America’s Most Connected Brands through an index methodology that rates them on presence, distinctiveness, emotional connection, and social traction.

Over the last few months, we have spoken to 6,100 people, collated 9,000 spontaneous brand mentions and facilitated 48,000 brand reviews to give us a data-driven lens through which to understand what drove brands to rise and fall in the hearts of consumers in 2020. 

Here are the biggest shifts and trends in how consumers are connecting to brands.

Politics and brands collide

Our data revealed that brands cannot exist in an ivory tower (at least for the foreseeable future), remaining uninvolved and unimpacted by major political and societal conversations.

Increasingly, consumers expect brands to get involved and take a stand on key issues. Notably, 71% of Americans think brands have a role in responding to the issue of police violence and, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, consumers looked more favorably on brands that they heard more from than usual. 

The Most Connected Brands US study shows that political affiliation hugely affects how people view brands, with some becoming casualties of the division and others attempting to exploit it.

One brand unavoidably drawn into the political debate was the US Postal Service, with concerns about voter fraud turning it into a political football, while elevating the brand in the public’s consciousness. The USPS remains one of the most loved brands across both sides of the aisle, with a slight edge among Democrats. 

Other brands such as Nike have stepped into the debate, with vocal activism for the Black Lives Matter movement, culminating in its recent ‘For once don’t do it’ anti-racism campaign, resulting in much higher appeal among Democrats. Netflix also lands in the Top 10 for Democrats reflecting its left-leaning stances, while Republicans acknowledge the long-standing conservative lean of Chick-fil-A.

Social responsibility won’t do it on its own

While none of our Top 10 brands fares particularly badly in terms of their ratings for social responsibility, it is striking that they beat the rest of the pack more convincingly on other measures such as prominence, meeting your needs, dynamism and buzz. The top four brands for social responsibility are in the Top 10, but so are brands like YouTube, which fall further down the pecking order.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

With the study conducted during the midst of the pandemic, the seismic impact that the crisis has had on how we shop, relax and communicate is stark. Two brands that have been pushed into the spotlight are Clorox and Lysol. The trust and visibility these brands have built among consumers throughout the pandemic is likely to benefit them for years to come. 

Humble cleaning product manufacturers, both have surged up the Most Connected Brands ranking during the pandemic.

With disinfectant a proven weapon against the spread of the virus, stores sold out of the products at the start of the pandemic, with a five-pack of Lysol disinfectant spray being sold for $227.50 at one point on eBay. Both brands have reacted well to their newfound responsibility, acting as public health guardians, at one point even releasing joint warnings not to consume their products, following an intervention from the President.

Fashion and personal care take a major hit

Almost overnight, city centers and offices cleared out, with consumers following government guidance to only venture out when essential. With many spending long periods at home (often in sweatpants) the connection consumers feel to sectors like fashion and personal care has taken a real hit and may prove challenging to rebuild. 

Connecting in a socially-distanced world

The final change driven by the pandemic is how we remain connected with friends and family when socially distanced. The technological explosion in video conferencing and virtual meetings is well-publicized. However, it has also seen more traditional means of connection enjoy something of a revolution. One example is the postal service, with parcel delivery companies and couriers marching up the Most Connection Brands ranking as the nation desperately tries to play a physical role in loved ones’ lives, while forced apart.

No longer the “Choice of a new generation”

The battle between Pepsi and Coke is well storied and part of marketing folklore. Both brands arguably reached their peak in the 80s with Pepsi’s ’Choice of a generation’ campaign featuring megastars such as Michael Jackson and Coke’s ’I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ forever linking the brand to Christmas. However, these iconic brands now find themselves in the same battle, and they are currently both on the losing side.

The Most Connected Brands study shows that both brands are losing traction among younger consumers. This can be linked to less familiarity with the brands’ marketing heydays, combined with a greater focus on health and wellbeing challenging the soft drink category.

Download the full Most Connected Brands US report here.

About the Author: Giulia Prati is a seasoned market researcher who has spent her career analyzing the most effective marketing and communications strategies. Giulia leads research agency Opinium’s US office based in NYC, overseeing custom research projects blending quantitative and qualitative methodologies to help companies better connect with their target audiences, from brand tracking to ad and concept testing. Prior to Opinium, Giulia was a Strategy Director at Weber Shandwick where she developed data-driven marketing and communications strategies for clients spanning tech, industrial, healthcare, financial services, and CPG. Giulia started her career at Gartner L2, benchmarking brands based on their digital marketing competence, leading Beauty sector research, and developing the Digital IQ Index methodology.