The Pendulum Audience: Brand Marketing Lessons in Institutional Trust

March 9, 2017 Kyle Harper

brand marketing

In eighth grade science classes around the world, students are introduced to Newton’s first law of motion: a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. It’s a lesson that’s just as true for objects with mass as it is for marketing audiences—and brand marketing professionals who have to constantly contend with audiences that hate to sit still.

Or, even more fundamentally, insist on getting older.

Brands with services and products tied to life stages are viscerally aware of this fact. Imagine, for instance, that you’re the director of marketing at a finance-based company. You’re helping customers plan for retirement, save up for their dream homes, or just generally to put their hard-earned dollars to work for them. Your content strategy has been built over the past couple of decades around an audience who likes to feel the authority of printed collateral and mailed prospectuses. These are people who like to show up in person or call on the phone to receive advice and make transactions.

Image attribution: Pexels

These are people who, just a year ago, were 65 going on 66, and you’re now forced to consider that perhaps your audience could use an influx of young blood. So you pivot your content engine toward bringing in a new crowd of young customers, but hit a roadblock. Lead volume drops off as users become reluctant to provide phone and address info for your arsenal of printed and personal collateral. Your authoritative blog doesn’t seem to hold the same clout that it used to. Something is wrong.

There’s certainly a technical aspect at play with your content strategy that could use a little updating. But even if your brand has embraced the digital age before your pivot to the younger generation, traction might still be proving difficult. Perhaps it’s time to stop treating your new customers as your next audience and, rather, as your new audience.

A Case Study in Pendulum Audiences

One of the most fundamental goals of content strategy for many brands is to establish thought leadership. It’s simple enough, really: why wouldn’t your brand want to be recognized and respected in its niche for being knowledgeable?

But, believe it or not, there are cases where seeming overly authoritative can actually hurt your brand.

Consider those financial brands again. For decades, much of the goal in financial branding was to convey competence and expertise. The idea was that customers should trust you because you hold more experience, institutional knowledge, and savvy than any of the other banks or advising companies on the block. This made sense, considering that a good client relationship rested on audience members trusting the brand with their savings, income, and financial dreams.

But today, a fundamental shift is happening. The occasional reader of the Wall Street Journal or Business Insider can probably tell you that, currently, retiring Americans are very different financial beasts from their younger counterparts. Americans as a whole are saving less, while the folks between millennials and retiring Americans (roughly 35 to 65 years old) seem sluggish to engage in retirement savings, which so many of their older counterparts relied on. What happened?

Public opinion of “authority” in the financial space shifted. People began to distrust institutions—financial companies very much included— and the result has been a migration of young people away from historical brands toward startups that defy the status quo.

This swing from one extreme to the other in terms of how your audience relates to your thought leadership can be thought of as a pendulum. Authority isn’t static, and your audience actively engages both with what your brand says and the implications of what it means that you can say it with authority.

For financial brands, thought leadership used to be tied to institutional knowledge. Now, that same expertise ties older brands to the very elements of their industry that cause people to distrust them. They’ve been caught in the swing of a pendulum audience and need to pivot their content strategy if they’re going to survive.A pendulum

How to Handle Audience Swings

For brands that operate in a space where audience opinion can swing from one extreme to another, there are a number of ways to protect your brand marketing.


All brand marketers research their audiences to find the most receptive crowds and gauge public opinion. But how often does your team analyze potential threats to your brand? Adding this simple step to your research can help you identify potentially threatening shifting opinions ahead of time.


So you’ve identified a shift in opinion in your audience. What does it mean for your brand? Taking the time to think through what observed changes mean in relation to your brand can help, but surveys and focus groups can help you narrow down exactly what shifts mean for people’s perception of your brand specifically.

Aim for Actionable Authenticity

Once you know what people are thinking and how it affects your brand perception, begin to make content that directly addresses their doubts, rather than just placating your audience. Back to our financial brands, consider a bank that releases a slew of ads or collateral that simply states they aren’t like other banks isn’t going to win over distrustful audiences—if anything, it makes the brand look manipulative and less trustworthy. On the other hand, a bank that actively engages in conversations about distrust and provides useful information that, say, simplifies a process that people perceive to be unnecessarily complex might be able to set themselves on the right side of changing public opinion.

While not every brand has to engage with the extremes inherent to pendulum audiences, every brand will have to contend with developing opinions. Actionable authenticity represents the space where your content strategy actively seeks to understand the conversations that are affecting your audience and then provide information of demonstrative worth.

Bodies in motion stay in motion, and the same can be said about the manner in which audiences interact with and examine your brand. Simply saying that you’re keeping up with this changes isn’t enough to make your brand sustainable. Actively participating in conversations and providing resources for audiences on the move will be instrumental to ensuring that your brand stays in their good graces, even as they develop and change.

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Featured image attribution: Les Anderson (via Unsplash)

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