Six months ago, as we stumbled unto 2020 the coronavirus, A.K.A Covid-19 was just a distance occurrence in a strange city called Wuhan. As the year progressed, and the pandemic became widespread, we nosedived unto one of the biggest and most complex human crisis since WWII. Few times has the human race been collectively called to unite in combat against a common enemy. As we progress unto the middle of 2020, we find ourselves in unprecedented territory in almost every front.
It is probably safe to say that for almost everyone, at least in one aspect or another, his or her life has been thrown into an abysm of uncertainty. For many, daily routines have meshed into an endless cycle of “home office & stay at home” activities, while others have had to venture out in the world and confront a new harsh reality. However, perhaps for many what has affected the most is that the outside is no longer a safe and trusted environment. As governments push citizens towards a, “return to normality,” people begin to grasp the reality that we must live with this pandemic at least until we can find a vaccine that both is mass-produced and delivered to all corners of the earth.
The western hemisphere has progressed in the pandemic, with perhaps even more problems than Europe and Asia. Latin America is now the hotspot for COVID. The United States has been trying to balance between keeping the economy afloat and saving lives, whilst some leaders such as the Brazilian president Bolsonario has been, against his own medical staff’s recommendation, defying the Covid and making several public appearances.
However, amidst this chaotic world, where does this leave brands? How, what, and where brands are communicating today plays a crucial role in the survival of the brand. How should brands be communicating?
1. Decisions, even small ones, are more difficult.
“At the very heart of cognitive psychology is the idea of information processing” ( Mclaud, 2008), and within this perhaps lies one of the biggest conundrums for both consumers and marketers of this pandemic. That is, decisions even small ones seem infinitely more difficult.
Decisions as simple as ordering from our favorite restaurant can seem dawning. The reason for this lies on how we process information, specifically how our brain uses memory. “Faced with a decision, our brain estimates possible outcomes to help us make the best choice. This estimation is based on experience. It is easy to decide which coffee to order at our favorite cafe because we have ordered it many times before. We make many of our other daily decisions on the same basis. The brain learns from experience what works best.” (Shohamy, 2020) Memory plays a crucial role in making decisions, especially making decisions in a time of uncertainty, memory is “not only a record of the past, it is also the bedrock of our ability to imagine the future. ¨(Shohamy, 2020) In a recent study by Dr. Shoham, a research professor from Columbia university, found that people with damage to the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped structure located behind our ears, responsible for memories, took twice as long making simple decisions such as deciding between two snacks.
This pandemic, for many, represents a new scenario never experienced before. We find ourselves stuck at home, working and doing everything we did outside within four walls. The brain when faced with decisions that are vastly different, such as this pandemic, relies on memory to cope. When we do not have a clear pattern of choices to rely on, the brain must consequentially act on the information provided alone. Whilst an action such as cooking dinner might be mundane, the context ( i.e. pandemic) is not, therefore the action, at least to our brain, is not perceived as mundane, rather a new unknown scenario. It is therefore important for brands to understand that consumers are having difficulty deciding things, even at small scales.
2. In times of crisis and uncertainty we seek belonging
How can we connect more efficiently with consumers since there is a clear difficulty in making even small decisions? The answer might rely on a technique used for hundreds of years through politicians, warlords, and leaders. Winston Churchill famously said,
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
One of the basic reasons why Winston’s speech had such resonance was because he effectively used the method of belonging and “togetherness.” For humans, uncertainty is highly uncomfortable” (Dunlop, 2020). To cope with uncertainty we consistently look for reference points in the past. Many today, are looking at previous pandemics, world wars, and economic recessions/depressions as a reference point to get a clearer picture of what is to come. Another line of defense is to seek belonging and attempt to find similarities that can give us a sense of ease.
Author and speaker, Simon Sinek explains this phenomenon by recreating the experience of travelling out of our home city. A resident of New York City travelling upstate to Syracuse might get excited when bumping into someone from NYC and instantly hit it off solely because they live in the same city. Similarly, if this person travels outside of the state for a conference, say to Las Vegas, they will get equally excited to find someone for the state of NY and would equally hit it off. If this person went on holiday to Paris, and during a ride in the metro hears a fellow American, they would be equally excited and probably hit it off as fellow “gringos”, even despite being from different states. This phenomenon is a clear example of how we seek belonging. Interestingly, this same phenomenon translates unto seeking collective belonging in times of uncertainty to ease stress. This is why politicians whose speech during hardship is centered on “being together” and “we are all in this” are most successful versus those who attempt to distance themselves, or show signs of a lack of connection with hardship. When translating this to marketing, brands should not distance themselves, rather should adopt the same line of speech. The more human and the more connected with reality the more probability to ease consumers hardship and connect at a deeper level. “Shared hardship creates common ground, and speech with hope creates resonance.” ( Sinek, 2020)
3. There is no clear path towards the consumer
This new unprecedented state of mind, that is not only highly uncertain, uncomfortable, and at times overwhelming brings us to the next point that there really is not a clear “recipe” on how and what brands should say. There is no clear path towards the consumer. Many have focused their efforts on digital marketing, however, as always, the more brands advertise on digital platforms the higher our perception threshold, and the less likely we are to pay attention to content. This is especially true for smaller brands that may not have the spending budget of big brands to create big and bold content.
A clear key for brands big and small to better connect with consumers is purpose, and leveraging on the purpose to resonate at a higher level with the consumer. For clarification, purpose, the mission, and vision are not the same thing. The simple way to understand the difference is that purpose guides you, it essentially dictates why you exist (your cause), where as mission is the driving force, and tells how you accomplish your purpose. Finally vision tells us what we aspire to be. Having the three elements is essential to a concise and robust marketing strategy. Furthermore, “by putting purpose at the core of strategy, firms can realize three specific benefits: more-unified organizations, more-motivated stakeholders, and a broader positive impact on society.”( Malnight, 2019) When you communicate through your purpose and it not only transmits clearly through the content you create, but also is evident through all your marketing actions, you create a concise and compelling story-line that transcends hardships.
On the same line, it is evident that digital capabilities have become perhaps the only lifeline to not only connect with consumers, but as a standalone selling point. Many have switched to exclusively online shopping, which means brands have reduced multiple touch-points to a single channel, and thus our digital platforms are critical. Yet, the question that should be on every senior marketer’s mind, is that more than having a robust digital offering, is how to humanize digital experiences. As people are having difficulty making decisions, are looking for belonging, and are going through unprecedented times, digital a-human experiences can harden and create more barriers between the brand and the consumer.
In conclusion, there is no clear recipe, but marketing departments should understand the hardship consumers are going through, with that they should be empathetic, listen more than talk, but work around the clock to create closeness. With that said, Brands should be emphatically present, adhering to a story-line that calls for unity, hope and putting humanity above all. However, this is only possible if the purpose has served as the moral compass, and is embedded in the strategy.