Brands. Be human or sit down

Teresa Aprile gets real about the current situation and the actual role that marketers play in humanising brands and offering genuine care to the people that engage with them.

I have started to write this piece several times now and keep hitting a brick wall. I wanted to offer something hopeful to marketers, agencies and media owners; a plucky call-to-arms, something that would reassure us all that things aren’t really that bad. I wanted to tell you all that despite the doom and gloom, there are some ways we can turn this crisis into our advantage. 

But the truth is, I’m struggling to swallow that message myself right now. If anything, I think that if we as an industry try to continue with our, ‘Chin-up! This isn’t so bad!’ rhetoric we are at risk of becoming dangerously out of touch with audiences. What we need now isn’t false reassurances – we need to be real.

Forget buyer versus seller

Under usual circumstances, we all have our different part to play in the consumer ecosystem and it all ticks along beautifully. Brands make products, marketers promote them, businesses stock them and customers purchase them. And under usual circumstances, it’s totally logical that all us marketers have to do is worry about our part of that process: getting consumers to know about and purchase products. Simple.

But these are not the usual circumstances. People are afraid. Not only are they worried about themselves or loved ones contracting a highly contagious virus, but they are also concerned about losing their livelihood. People are losing jobs. They’re worried about how to pay rent. They are not sure what tomorrow looks like – or next week, or next month. People don’t know what information to listen to and if we can trust our media sources or even our governments. Our vocabulary is changing. Phrases like ‘unprecedented times,’ ‘flatten the curve,’ and ‘lockdown’ have become part of daily speak.

It’s all unfolding so fast that we can barely keep up. And to try and maintain that same role play of us as the brands, and them as the consumers, is simply not the right thing to do.

But we also have a responsibility to our businesses to keep things moving. We need to keep jobs viable, to engage with customers and to ultimately drive revenue. How do we do this when life feels so uncertain for everyone? 

Be human

It is in times of crisis, that we show our truest of colours. And marketers have a one in one hundred year opportunity to truly humanise their brands.

We need to come together and forget our roles as consumers or brands and remember that we’re all just people who are trying to figure out how to get through this scary time and wondering what life might look like on the other side.

Treating people like ‘consumers’ and trying to sell to them the same as usual is not going to work.

We need to reassess who we are and what we can offer people that is of real value right now. 

We need to rethink our approach and focus on what people actually need. And that is practicality, honesty, and genuine care from the brands and businesses they interact with.

A few key points:

  • People are now entering a ‘needs state’ purchasing cycle. This means brand loyalty is out the window.
  • The things people cared about a few weeks ago now are not so important. The focus is on necessities, not luxuries. Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Society has taken a sudden plunge from the upper part of this hierarchy – self-actualisation – to the more base desires of safety and security. 
  • Communication now needs to be honest, to the point, factual and kind.
  • Brands who don’t change their tactics risk alienating their audience. Glossy marketing attempts will come off as bad taste and out of touch, while attempts to downplay the situation or ignore it come off as smug or glib.

Be present

Don’t do nothing. This is an uncertain time for lots of people and an important time for you to build relationships beyond transactions. Now is not the time to panic and disappear. Connect with people in authentic and relevant ways. Ask your audience what they’d like to hear from you right now and how you can help them. Be reassuring and don’t forget: our human need for connection doesn’t change just because of a crisis. In fact, many will be craving this connection more than ever before. 

Be generous

There are a number of businesses that have had a direct impact from the initial wave of shutdowns to combat the spread of COVID-19. Places like gyms, bars, restaurants and indoor recreation centres have had to close. Some can pivot to digital channels, others can’t. Brands thriving in this environment – and there are brands thriving, just look at those empty supermarket shelves – can go a long way to support business owners that have been hard hit. Collaborate with local businesses. We have many of our ‘activation hosts’ on Brandcrush already moving to ‘phygital’, like fitness studios streaming classes online. For the right brand, these new forms of media offer a powerful way to support businesses and build relationships with new audiences as well as long term brand loyalty.

But we know there are a number of businesses where going online is not an option; their business is offline. Get creative and think about ways to support these businesses. A recent collaboration between hospitality venues in Tasmania has seen the creation of a brand new, all-local food delivery platform, cheekily named Apocalypse Eats. This joint venture supports local chefs with menus featuring locally grown produce, and helps to keep local staff employed. These are the opportunities that brands need to get behind now, to give their valuable support and help others in our business community continue doing what they do so well. 

All around us we see the evidence of self-centred panic, like the hoarders of toilet paper and other essential items. This is not who we should be right now (or ever really). As a brand, it is imperative to be a giver not a taker in this crisis. There have been so many great examples of businesses stepping up and being good humans, like Zoom offering all schools free access to their platform, supermarkets like IGA, Coles and Woolworths offering a special shopping hour for the elderly and less-abled, and Amazon creating a US$5 million relief fund to aid small businesses in Seattle.

In usual circumstances, taking advantage of a supply/demand scenario is fair play. Right now, it’s absolutely not. Don’t capitalise in a crisis: that is a surefire way to lose consumers when options become available to them again.

Bring joy

With extended periods of isolation becoming a reality for many of us, there will be a growing need to keep people in good spirits. And this will be a time for many brands to shine through surprise and delight activities. One example of this that we’re excited to support at Brandcrush is Frontliners, a social enterprise that is surprising and delighting our doctors, nurses and healthcare workers on the frontline with kits including food, drink and vouchers.

Think about ways that you can bring joy to people. Through random acts of kindness, words of encouragement, and moments of distraction – there are endless ways that creative brands can bring brightness to people and create lasting connections.

Despite our immediate needs-state, once the initial panic settles, people will be desperate to fight boredom through entertainment, escapism and pure distraction.  There will be room in people’s attention spans for brands that exist for enjoyment – art, music, beauty, gaming – these opportunities will likely grow in importance once this initial shock of the crisis wanes into more of a daily reality.

Like all major world crises, this too shall pass and when it does, there will be the brands that will be worthy of a loyal customer base and those that should have just sat down.

Let’s be the former. 

Teresa Aprile is the CEO and co-founder of Brandcrush 

Photo by McKenna Phillips on Unsplash.