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The Pandemic Has Changed How Brands Engage Customers - Here’s What You Need To Know

Tiffany Mok
Tiffany Mok

November 18, 2020

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Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

It’s not news that the pandemic has affected consumer behaviour around the world. In past recessions, brands that cut advertising saw sales decrease, while those that increased ad spending saw sales increase. While your brand can remain the same, how you bring it to life needs to adapt to the current situation. This begets the golden question - how should we tweak the way we communicate our brand to ensure success in a crisis?

These are unusual times that we are living in - no one is certain about what the future holds, and everything can change in an instant. With this delicate landscape at hand, brands have to tread carefully and be prepared to adapt their branding strategy according to the change in climate (and we don’t mean the weather). Unlike what Scottish Novelist George John Whyte-Melville famously claimed - when in doubt, (don’t!) do nothing.

Photo by Wojtek Witkowski on Unsplash

As mentioned, in past recessions, brands that reacted by cutting advertising saw sales decrease by over 25%. On the other hand, brands that took calculated risks and increased their ad spending saw sales increase by 40-60%. 

The key is to take into account how consumer sentiments have changed in each situation, in order to ensure your brand marketing is not seen as tone deaf. So how should we tweak the way we activate our brand to set it up for success during this crisis? 

Don’t go to the dark side

First and foremost, it may be intuitive to cut back on your branding and marketing budget during this time. However, continuing to build your brand should not be paused as going dark might have an adverse effect on your brand in the long term.

According to a Kantar/BrandZ analysis of brands following the 2008 economic crisis, strong brands recovered nine times faster than the S&P 500 standard. Only 8% of consumers were found to have expected brands to cut back on advertising, so the risks of advertising being interpreted as insensitive was low.

What we learnt - It’s crucial to keep building your brand for better and faster recovery. During this crisis, many are going through tough and unpredictable situations. As such, they are looking for brands they can trust and this is what your brand communication should aim to build.

Photo by Matt Foster on Unsplash

#1 Know your Industry and Be Transparent

The pandemic has affected all sectors in different ways and by different degrees. How you approach branding should be according to your industry’s specific characteristics and consumer patterns. For instance, the healthcare sector and the retail sector would have very different styles of brand messages, as well as outcomes that they would want to achieve during the pandemic. However, there is something that should remain common and constant, and that would be making empathetic decisions and being transparent.

A report by Kantar found that globally, 78% of consumers expect companies to worry about their employees’ health and 62% expect staff to be given flexible work arrangements. Being transparent with your efforts to cope with the pandemic and protect your staff is thus highly important, and should be clearly communicated. 

Nearly nine in 10 respondents from another global study by the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 feel that brands should also act accordingly to safeguard the financial security of their employees and suppliers.

What we learnt - How you treat your staff can affect your topline during a time like this. No matter which industry you are in, people are and will be reassured by positive brand actions. When you make human decisions in the best interest of your staff and are transparent about your measures, you are building trust with your consumers. You might be tempted to build your strategy based on raw numbers alone, but what you would be overlooking is that many good decisions come from humanity. Don’t discount the human instinct and touch.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

#2 Go Back to your Roots

Every brand had some video during the early months of the crisis to talk about how they're "there for you". Some were good, most were corny. The opportunity is to go deeper, and if a company is going to go the extra mile to do something tangible for its staff, customers, and/or community, then it's vital to connect your "why" with your brand.

KFC’s Past Romance Novel

For example, KFC took the opportunity to go back to its roots of creating an enjoyable time with friends and family during this year’s Mother’s Day. It celebrated a little differently this year by adapting its marketing efforts to help families celebrate this occasion together virtually. Families and friends could visit KFC’s Facebook page to send their loved ones a custom invitation to share a Mother’s Day meal together virtually, interact with “the Colonel himself” to coordinate a meal time, as well as receive fun reminders to connect with mom via Messenger video chat on Mother’s Day. The Messenger experience allowed KFC to strike the right tone and help to fill the gap of what customers would have been missing out on due to the pandemic.

Having previously used Mother’s day to promote its romance novels and parody videos, KFC had tastefully pivoted their brand marketing back to their roots this year.

“Brands that act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large will reinforce their expertise, leadership and trust and immeasurably strengthen the bond they have with consumers,” Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman 

#3 Communicate with Compassion, Emotion and Facts

Knowing and following your brand purpose is key. It’s one thing to know it and recite it (much like we did the pledge as students in school every morning), and another to use it as a North Star for your brand decisions. 

Your purpose should guide how you communicate your brand. As Author Anne Bahr Thompson mentioned in her book, purpose is a key piece of brand citizenship, and this pandemic is demonstrating how important it is. Companies that do not closely follow their purpose tend to sound more tone deaf or inappropriate instead of finding their place. 

The question you want to ask your team is - what is our brand’s vision and what do we want to do with it during the pandemic?

It was found that the top three communication strategies among consumers include talking about how the brand is helpful in the new everyday (77%), keeping them informed about the brand’s reaction to the new situation (75%), and offering a reassuring tone (70%). Presenting information with pure emotion and no facts will lead to a lack of substance. The reverse will portray your brand as cold, robotic and emotionless. When you communicate hard facts with emotion and compassion, it’ll help to both inform yet calm your audience. 

We know that striking the balance isn’t easy, but it is worth being intentional in combining these three ingredients in your communication. However, don’t be too mechanical about it - when it comes down to it, trust your human instinct. 

Ford’s ‘Built to Lend a Hand’ Campaign Visual

To acknowledge the gravity of the current situation, Ford pivoted their ads to explain how they had met global-scale crises in the past, like their building of military equipment during World War II.  Their commitment to fighting COVID-19 was conveyed by manufacturing medical equipment that were in critically short supply. The new ads, “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now,” leaned into Ford’s century-long commitment to their consumers and stayed true to their purpose and Mission.  

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Ultimately, what consumers want brands to do during a crisis is to help them. Tap into the expertise and resources you have as a brand, make empathetic decisions, and communicate it with compassion backed up by facts. Branding has changed and will continue to, and what we can do is to stay agile, listen to your consumer sentiments and don’t discount the human touch.

Binomial is an innovation and creative practice. We help companies be agile and plan for the road ahead even during uncertain times. Get in touch if you need help figuring out your brand and how to activate it impactfully during this pandemic.

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