Through the Looking Glass: What Today’s Conversations with Consumer Brands May Reveal about Trends Tomorrow

April 10, 2020

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For the past month, we have been creatively brainstorming and strategizing with clients to reinvent our plans. While it’s difficult for many to look beyond the crisis, particularly when colleagues, friends and families have been personally touched, brands increasingly recognize that forge ahead they must.

Like many others, we have found friendship and humanity in our clients and media relationships. Some of us recall feeling similarly after 9-11 and the financial crisis of 2008: moments where we were dealing with the worst but behaving at our best.

But in this crisis, something stands out as very different as we talk to CCOs and CMOs in charge of growing consumer brands: there seems to be a call for ingenuity and confidence as we do comms planning for the near future. Although there is no firm date attached to every idea right now, and even as we may be hitting pause, we are dreaming big.

WHAT WE ARE SEEING AND HEARING RIGHT NOW

FORCED OPTIMISM – In our daily work with consumer brands, we are not seeing an undertone of doom and gloom. We are getting pushed to think differently, quickly and to match clients’ desires to market themselves and come of out of the gate appropriately and significantly when we enter the “reopen” and “recovery” stages. What really stands out is companies’ desires to do their part – and that means both giving back and not giving up.

(RE)PURPOSE AS THE NEW PURPOSE – Donating to causes or creating integrated programming is not new for global brands, however, re-interpreting the role and soul of your company in a matter of days is new.  We have seen companies convert their factories, dedicate marketing efforts to support consumers, or donate to healthcare workers, and small businesses. Consumer brands are stepping up and playing a leading role in making valuable commitments to society.

AUTHENTICITY MUST INCLUDE EMPATHY – One encouraging shift is the receptivity of media to cover one-time moves or donations. Today’s approach to corporate giving is showing us that it doesn’t have to be a sustained program to be impactful so long as it’s authentic… and empathetic. Look for brands to continue to make generous offers, to cleverly demonstrate empathy, and to continue to get credit and coverage from media, even for one-offs.

FIVE TRENDS TO WATCH FOR

1) ‘TECH FOR GOOD’ GOES TO ‘TECH FOR SURVIVAL’ – Tech has just landed its permanent spot on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as seniors log on to Zoom to attend religious services, five-year-olds host virtual play dates on Messenger Kids, consumers turn to apps to find supplies and stay in shape, and tenured teachers take to IGTV to share lessons. Our colleagues from China are reporting how live tech platforms are being used to keep luxury retailers selling right now as commerce re-opens, and how consumers from all age ranges are driving tech to be even more ubiquitous.  Look to the near-term where stereotypes don’t stand in our way and tech tactics canvas broader audiences.

2) THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF ENTERTAINMENT, EDUCATION AND EXPERTISE – Just as singers, artists, performing arts centers, comedians, and experts are putting their talent on display for free and in new formats, they are also celebrating grassroots talent and performances as well. Watch for ongoing “gifts” to society from this creative class even long after our quarantine is over, and an ongoing reinvention of “live performances” where they still exist, but get experienced by the masses one screen at a time.

3) MARKETING BY CIRCUMSTANCE, NOT DEMOGRAPHIC – There is a very dark flip-side to our light chatter about the upcoming generation of ‘Coronials,’ to colleagues having ‘Quarantini’ Happy Hours, and to parents living with their quaran“teens” home from college. Younger generations will have a loss of innocence as loved ones fall victim to COVID-19 and jobs are lost, retirees will have bucket lists on hold or gone forever, and most Americans will find themselves as either patients or caregivers. Brands can think about micro-targeting and customizing programs for specific and unique audiences. Marketing by circumstance, not demographic, and doing hyper-targeted campaigns in 2020 and 2021 may be a good way to help your brand re-emerge and build relevance with consumers.

4) ‘EMPLOYER OF CHOICE’ AS THE NEW RATINGS & REVIEWS – Never before has the connection between the company and the brand been more important to, or more visible to consumers. In the recently released, FleishmanHillard’s COVID-19 global study, 52% of consumers described employers taking better care of their employees as “very important” right now and 32% intend to buy from companies that took care of their employees during the crisis. The workplace just got remodeled in an instant and the distance between “good employer” and “preferred brand” just got a lot shorter, so brands must articulate not just what they make but who they are – and start by evangelizing employees. When done properly, this will not only lead to better retention when the economy rebounds, but it will strengthen your public reputation and sales.

5) THE #GRATITUDE ECONOMY – Once recovery is in full effect, consumers who can spend will enthusiastically patronize small businesses and restaurants, but they will also shop brands that made a difference. Every brand will be asked by the media and consumers, “What did you do during the pandemic?” and every brand needs an answer.  There is even a wiki-style website dedicated to tracking the corporate “heroes” and “zeroes” during this time. So whether your company protected jobs, delivered food to healthcare workers or made a $50 million donation, comms leads can gather the list and craft it into a statement that can live on your website (or just keep it to use reactively for when your CEO is asked the question) to document what you did to help society in its time of need. Putting your corporate empathy and generous actions on display (with modesty) will create added meaning for your products when consumers are ready or able to start their “revenge-spending.”

Bottom line: There will be widespread health and economic devastation due to the pandemic. Whether or not one fell ill to the virus in no way signals immunity from its impact. Marketing needs to reflect an understanding of consumers’ altered lifestyles and livelihoods. At the same time, rules are bending, there’s a push for optimism and an appetite for inspiration. Companies and brands that act with purpose – more proactively or positively now – will have expanded permission and credibility to reach and resonate with consumers during the long-term recovery.