Brand success in an era of Digital Darwinism

As consumers become more digitally empowered, brand messages lose their impact.
The Internet has become an indispensable tool for marketers, yet there are still gaps in understanding its role in shaping how consumers choose among brands. With the help of a powerful data set, we have been studying the relationship between the level of digitization across the consumer’s decision journey and the likelihood that a consumer will select a brand after considering and evaluating its qualities. We compiled data on 1,000 brands across a wide range of product categories, covering 20,000 consumer journeys and 100,000 touchpoints along them. The research paints a vivid picture of the factors involved in a consumer’s purchase choice (also known as brand conversion). Overall, the landscape exhibits what we and others call Digital Darwinism:

Competition among brands is steadily increasing as branding channels and messages proliferate.
As consumers become more digitally empowered, brand messages lose their impact, and the likelihood of conversion, on average, decreases.
The brands most likely to convert digitally jaded consumers into purchasers offer the strongest array of digital experiences. These successful players seem to be pulling away from less robust digital brands and gaining further momentum as they build up positive word of mouth on social media.
The state of digital play
Digitization is steadily becoming the main pathway for consumer journeys. The number of digital touchpoints is increasing by 20 percent annually as more offline consumers shift to digital tools and younger, digitally oriented consumers enter the ranks of buyers. Many are using digital tools comprehensively. Among our sample of those who do use them, 39 percent did so in the initial consideration of a brand (“experimenters”). An additional 42 percent use digital tools for both consideration and the more intensive evaluation stages of their journeys (“engaged and informed”). A further 20 percent use digital tools end to end—that is, they complete their purchases online (“fully digital”).

The greater number of touchpoints before purchase increases the odds a consumer will encounter a deal breaker along the digital highway.
Some notable variations among industries lie across this spectrum of journeys. In the software, airline-booking, and utilities industries, consumers are more likely to be fully digital. Autos, insurance, and food have similar numbers of digital consumers in the consideration and evaluation stages, but fewer who purchase digitally. Telecommunications, banking, and appliances have relatively strong numbers of consumers considering and evaluating products and services digitally but more modest numbers making digital purchases.

The effects of Digital Darwinism
The challenges for brand-marketing executives will probably increase as consumers opt for more complete digital interactions. We found that the likelihood of brand conversion is lower for fully digital consumers than for experimenters. Specifically, when experimenters become aware of a brand, their conversion rate reaches about 40 percent. The conversion rate for fully digital consumers, by contrast, is only 25 percent.

More actively digital consumers are prone to abandon a brand midstream for a number of reasons. They are more likely to have joined Facebook, Twitter, or product-evaluation platforms for conversations about the qualities of products or services. The greater number of touchpoints before purchase increases the odds a consumer will encounter a deal breaker along the digital highway. What’s more, companies have less control over more digitally seasoned consumers, who initiate their repurchase interactions independently. And since the level and influence of advertising in the social-media space have yet to reach the levels common in offline channels, brand messages are less likely to influence decisions.