The curveball of 2020
At the beginning of the year the New York Post innocently posted the 6 hottest jobs (think data, computing and whatever a 'Customer Success Specialist' is). As of September 2020, being a brand marketer is absolutely nowhere near this list. With no playbook for how to market in a global pandemic, engaging with consumers was going to be tricky and, six months down the line (at least in the UK), are we really any the wiser?
The first thing brands tried to do was to reach out, with their open and embracing ATL arms, to the world as lockdown chaos descended. We were inundated with messages of how brands historically 'have been there for you', 'more than ever' and in those 'uncertain' and 'unprecedented times' that they were 'here to help'. It only took until the end of April for this amazing video to be compiled (and yes, it does contain the global brands that we all love, but maybe forgiveness is okay here, no one knew what to do). Still, in September, we have TV ads in the UK running for banks claiming that they're still here for us but does the nation truly believe we're in it together?
And, now, more than ever, a brand's relationship with its target audience is balancing on a knife-edge. Understanding the consumer's love of brand is not a new concept and is something marketers have striven to understand more deeply for years. Even outside of response to COVID, the socio-political movements of this year alone have caused numerous brands to fire into the darkness and have ended up doing more harm than good. However, some brands have done well to traverse the mire of social injustice – Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips both trended the #solidaritea hashtag in the UK after a social back-and-forth with former (and some would say narrow-minded) customers. And of course, Ben & Jerry's, a brand that has a well-documented history of having a social agenda, weighed in against Priti Patel on the topic of UK migrancy and their social media rankings soared. According to YouGov's Brand Index, Ben & Jerry's scores for intention to purchase increased by 10.6 points and attention scores increasing by 19.3. Interestingly, it was their reputation score - a measure of being proud or embarrassed to work for a brand - that dropped by 4.9 points. So, with speaking out, there is risk and reward. But the expectation is there from consumers; 64% of German shoppers stated that a brand's stance on sustainability or social issues was important to them when purchasing online.
The state of the nation
According to Blue Square's Pulse Index research, when shopping 62% of UK and 68% of Irish consumers view brand as a key priority (with Xennials having the highest affinity for brand as a priority), and while this is not the top priority (surprise... safety leads here in a locked-down world), a brand cannot afford to have a disaffected following; since COVID-19, research by student agency Dig-In has found that 71% of students have "absolutely" changed their allegiances. The consumers of the world no longer feel brand loyalty in the same way they did 15 years ago. The world of online retail has opened shopper's eyes to other means.
Staying with Pulse Index, we also see that only 42% of UK consumers have empathy towards larger brands, and while a consumer's increase in "comfort" in-store does drive this number up, these numbers are still much lower than when compared to the empathy shown for smaller, local businesses, which sees empathy figures rise to 86% and those numbers continue to increase as age does.
Since April, Pulse Index's tracking of consumer behaviour over time is indicating more of a desire to return to bricks-and-mortar, with Gen-Z and Millennials leading this movement, and 72% of UK and Irish consumers say that they support local businesses more than large chains. So once lockdowns are relieved, are we looking at a high street revival?
Despite the best intentions of shoppers, of course, it's too early to tell, the restrictions in retail are at the mercy of our politicians (cue Mr Johnson's address to the nation followed very closely by the humorous - and for 181 people, controversial - parody by Matt Lucas; a prime example of the C4 brand not being too concerned about cracking a few eggs to make a brand-advocacy omelette) and the spread of the virus. By the time lockdowns do become a thing of the past, we can only hope that it will not be too late.
Winning the game
But all is not lost if you're a struggling, large brand trying to make it in an I-feel-for-the-small-shops world. Using Pulse, we also asked consumers about their embracement of brands that use social media innovatively. From the responses, it appears that empathy and love of big brands is a young-man's game, with 60% of males under 25 being empathetic to large brands (+18% vs. average) and 3 in every 4 embracing creative social content (+24% vs. average). So clever content creation is one edge that household names still have to win over the audience. Coupled with the desire to not see small brands sink, maybe bigger companies should mark this as the time to start working with smaller and local businesses, to empower them to serve their communities. But what else can brands do?
It's important to remember, you don't have to have a social agenda. But if you do believe strongly in something, live by it. Be authentic. If you have a long-lived tradition of negativity and a fixed mindset but you preach otherwise on social media, it will have a worse impact than if you had never said anything at all. Relevancy is always crucial as well. After Marcus Rashford's campaign to #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY, Heinz has partnered with Magic Breakfast with their new ad to urge support for a massively topical cause. And if you make positive change and you're proud of it, shout about it.
Lego has done well after some years of pressure from activists to reduce their carbon footprint; it's never too late to bring about change. Actually be there for the people who buy your product and listen to them. Start a passion project and engage with these communities in a real and meaningful way. And will you please everyone? Never (almost). Even on those small and benign topics; our recent head office business review feedback told us 1/2 of the office wanted more detail about the day-to-day of a department’s work and 1/2 wanted less - go figure. If you do something with the best intention, believe it and, most importantly, follow through with it. You can't go far wrong.
The Pulse Index free download is available now! Click here to sign up and receive your free copy of the report.