The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically affected the way we live our lives. Across all sections of society, enforced lockdown has seen a wave of accompanying cultural transformations. These shifts will have a huge knock-on effect on brand strategy. Brands must adapt to these social changes or risk being seen as exploitative and aggressive, or passive and apathetic.
Similarly, as the way we consume content has changed, brands must adopt new techniques to ensure effective communication with their followers. To help understand what consumers expect from brands during these unprecedented times, KRPT have conducted a survey of creative professionals on what they feel a brand’s role is during the pandemic.
This article will survey and analyse the responses to that survey. One thing is abundantly clear from the results though: to continue with preexisting marketing strategies is foolhardy. As one respondent claims: ‘This isn't a normal time, and acting normal is acting blindly.’
What do you think are the key cultural changes that have happened in recent weeks?
With anyone other than key workers finding themselves with increased free time, paired with the inability to go outside, we see two main trends emerging. Consumption of digital media has shot up, with the proliferation of live streamed music performances, online cookery classes and TikTok dances.
Alongside this, there has been a new national focus on self-care. Home workouts, yoga and meditation, often structured around online classes, are filling the time in which people would have been commuting or going to pubs. As well as physical self-care, many have taken up forgotten hobbies, begun learning languages, and finally started reading that book they’ve been meaning to get round to for years.
In addition to these social changes, there have been deeper, more political shifts. There has been an outpouring of support for key workers, both those who had traditionally been labelled ‘low-skilled’, such as shop assistants, as well as medical workers on the front line of the crisis. The pandemic has created a sense of solidarity with these sections of society, and the way we view the value of certain jobs may never be the same again.
What specific messaging or action do you think will give brands a negative perception in the current crisis?
Covid-19 has created far more pitfalls for brands than potential opportunities, and even theoretically positive actions can be disastrous in the current climate if not approached with enough tact. Our survey indicated that there are two key mistakes brands can make at present, either through poor marketing strategy or poor business practice.
Aggressive promotion of products was widely derided by our respondents, unless companies were offering discounts on products to help ease the financial strain on those furloughed or laid off as a result of the pandemic. The one exception to this was products seeing increased use, such as workout equipment, cooking utensils or gardening tools. Consumers seem to see marketing of these items as valid and even useful.
Furthermore, companies which have unceremoniously laid off large swathes of their lower paid staff were singled out for criticism. JD Wetherspoon was repeatedly mentioned for the seeming lack of compassion shown by founder Tim Martin following mass redundancies of staff across his pub chain. The overriding theme seems to be that businesses need to be sensitive to the situation, and the strain that many members of society are under.
Emails and adverts from businesses which use Covid-19 as a starting point to shamelessly plug products which have no real relevance to the crisis are a waste of money, and can actually do more harm than good, with consumers seemingly becoming more cynical about the exploitative nature of this sort of marketing. Equally, press releases and company statements related to downsizing and redundancies need to be carefully crafted to avoid coming off as cold and uncaring. Many businesses are under pressure, and consumers will understand that hard decisions need to be made, but only if these are presented clearly and empathetically.
What do you think a brand could do to resonate with you right now? And who in particular have you seen adapt well to the crisis?
Though respondents seemed wary of companies advertising during a pandemic, there are still some potential positive steps brands can take which will improve their standing. Respondents to our survey articulated that first and foremost, the most impressive thing a brand can be doing in this period is supporting those who are under the most strain as a result of the crisis.
This can come through charity efforts, such as donating to charities which support key workers or provide services to isolated members of society, or through offering discounts or free goods to these groups. A great example of this is mobile phone network provider EE, who gave free mobile data to NHS staff for six months. This move was not announced to the fanfare of a big-budget advertising campaign, but instead through a short clip of the actor Kevin Bacon speaking directly to camera in which he claims ‘NHS workers, this is all about you’.
The low-key nature of the announcement and personal delivery by Bacon meant the move appeared heartfelt and genuine, and offers a template for how more effective brand efforts will keep the spotlight focused on the heroic key workers they are giving to, rather than their own generosity. Utilising charity donations may mean diverting some funds from marketing budgets towards philanthropic campaigns, but will potentially benefit a brand’s image more than advertising can presently.
As well as providing financial support, brands can take it upon themselves to directly help combat Covid-19 by converting their production lines to create medical equipment or PPE. LVMH producing hand sanitizer for hospital workers in France is an excellent example of this. For brands who do not manufacture products advertising campaigns do still remain an option, but need to be extremely well planned and crafted.
Survey respondents illustrated that they felt that brand campaigns which spoke to ‘improving well-being’ or ‘social distancing awareness’ still resonated with them, but only if done tastefully. Both IKEA and Guinness have released campaigns which adapt their brand imagery to promote staying inside, whereas others such as Volkswagen have separated the components of their logo to promote social distancing. These simple designs are effective in supporting government advice, and maintaining a brand presence without promoting products.
Skincare brand Dove’s ‘Courage is Beautiful’ campaign is another example of effective advertising during a pandemic. The clip presents a montage of closeups of medical workers, and the welts and marks left by PPE on their faces. Similar to EE’s campaign, the focus on medical workers instead of pushing a company message meant it avoided seeming disingenuous, and this advert, along with those others by the likes of Facebook and Tesco, illustrate that marketing campaigns still have an effective role to play in keeping up people’s spirits and lauding medical workers who are risking their lives to save others.
Some other ways brands have helped maintain the emotional well-being of their customers is by producing content which creates a sense of online community. Live-streamed music events, such as Elrow and Desperados collaboratively-produced DJ parties, or live personal training videos by Nike are a way of providing value for consumers through entertainment and motivational exercise which will help stave off loneliness and boost people’s mood.
In essence, brands should be as supportive as they can be to key workers, to their own staff, and to their consumers, and adopt novel ways of communicating with their customer base across digital media. Coronavirus does not need to bring marketing to a complete standstill, but branded content needs to be measured for it to be effective. Companies which adopt a generous approach through discounts, free services and charity efforts, rather than obsessing over their bottom line, are likely to reap the benefits after the pandemic has subsided, due to an increased following and fortified brand loyalty from existing customers.
Do you think there will be any long long-term changes to marketing as a result of Covid-19?
Challenges for brands are not going to disappear once lockdown measures ease and society returns to normality. There are going to be profound social changes as a result of this crisis, and to ensure they are well-positioned in this new social landscape, it is crucial that brands carry themselves through the current upheaval with poise. Covid-19 has accelerated what was already an exponentially growing need for effective digital marketing, and those who are not coming up with inventive ways to engage those in lockdown may see their fan base move towards more innovative competitors.
Now more than ever, for brands to survive and grow, they must have an excellent understanding of the current fluctuations in culture, as well as the ability to accurately forecast how culture will continue to shift in the aftermath of this pandemic. It is very possible that this crisis will be accompanied by a complete cultural transformation, and those that adapt fastest in the coming weeks, months and years will be the most likely to resonate with consumers.
Equally, with an expected worldwide recession likely bringing reduced consumer spending, businesses which have damaged their reputation during this crisis will struggle greatly in the subsequent period. The most effective thing brands can do in the immediate future is help support those most vulnerable in society in any way that they can, as in these uncertain times, compassion has become the most powerful marketing tool there is.