Brands need to embrace change and be culturally relevant or risk being forgotten

The pandemic has undoubtedly shifted consumer and marketer behavior, but does advertising still have an obligation to change the world for the better? Speaking to The Drum during the Digital Transformation Festival, creatives from Adobe, VML Y&R and Publicis•Poke looked at how brands have responded to the crisis, and the role of creativity and brand purpose.

Can brands really do marketing for good?

Coronavirus has interfered with marketing plans and messages, resulting in brands having to work out appropriate ways to respond. “A lot of brands have been very reactive,” says Publicis•Poke art director, Edie Crosland-Wood. She applauds the fashion industry for its speedy re-manufacturing of luxury goods into medical equipment and raising money for those tackling the crisis. From LVMH to Burberry to Gucci to Bulgari– these fashion brands have stepped up to helping society and health authorities and aid funding to fight the spread of the virus.

Adobe senior manager of business development, Meg Moss cites Ford and Wieden+Kennedy’s snap decision to swap out a piece of planned media and replace it with a payment relief campaign as exemplary. “That was early March,” she says. “Their response was activated within days [of the lockdown]. It felt like the right thing to do. It was also great for branding and served a purpose.”

Crosland-Wood has also been impressed with how brands are adapting their offerings in their bid to stay relevant to audiences. Audible, for instance, has offered hundreds of free ebooks for people to enjoy in isolation. Adobe Stock took a similarly considered approach, says Moss, taking the time to assess the new working styles of their creative community and push out creative solutions inspired by their needs.

We’re all struggling, but are you embracing change? Business agility and authenticity in the time of crisis

“There's always been this talk of being agile,” says VMLY&R New York executive creative director, Harsh Kapadia. “But it’s taken a global pandemic for brands to realize that we need to start getting agile in action.”

Working out what role brands need to take is essential and what message they want to put out, even more so. Speed is important but understanding what consumers want or need could be more rewarding long-term. “You have to be authentic,” says Kapadia.

“Authenticity comes from what your brand has always been about. You still need to be that, but be empathetic about what's happening around you; about how you can naturally be helpful, useful or even entertaining in a time when everything around you looks scary.”

No one knows how long the pandemic will last and what effect it will have worldwide, but Kapadia assures marketers that it’s changed consumer behavior for good. He recommends that businesses need to embrace the change and consider new ways to act in culturally relevant ways, otherwise brands could risk being forgotten if they remain too quiet.

“Everybody's embracing the opportunity that’s presented,” says Moss. She calls this this the first wave of the pandemic and reckons that there will come a time for pushing out different sorts of messages.

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“Everything we're seeing from agencies at the moment is thanking the essential workers; the long epic music, the monologues, the sincere visual storytelling, etc. But we know that that's a wave and history tells us that we'll move through it; there will be humour and a change in how we address people.”

Wanting to stay ahead of the curve with new content while remaining relevant and sensitive to consumers’ feelings requires some balance, the panel agreed.

“Whatever you do, there has to be this underlining sense of empathy,” says Crosland-Wood. “But that doesn't mean we have to be downbeat. We need to relearn tone of voice and figure out what’s appropriate. And that's quite beautiful. Traditionally, when we answer briefs, we have a refined best practice, but this pandemic will force creatives to think outside the box.”

“There is an opportunity to be brave without the repercussions,” adds Crosland-Wood about how creatives can inspire a brand’s cultural shift. “This is the opportunity to inspire change. We've already had to change our entire way of life. Everything is different for us; from how it used to be and what we're used to.”

But she reminds marketers that not all brands have to adapt their messages to incorporate the pandemic: “Some consumers don't want that critical shift from their beloved brands; they don't want that cultural change,” she says. “Brands need to think whether they can use this opportunity to have a more cultural impact on their audience's lives” and decide whether resonating with the crisis now will be effective long term.

Is this the time for a creative breakthrough for the industry?

Perhaps the pandemic could spell the future for a creative breakthrough and pave the way for new working methods between creatives and clients? Moss encourages brands to “respond in a way that feels most true to your brand.” Crosland-Wood thinks that an age of increased brand transparency wouldn’t go amiss and is optimistic about the lessons brands could learn.

For Kapadia, marketers producing memorable brand content during these times will emerge victorious. Those that can evoke a reaction or put a smile on a consumer’s face will be more likely to be remembered favorably. He concludes by rhetorically asking brands to show up for their consumers: “Tell me how can you be here for me, rather than just telling me 'We are here.' Action it.”

View the full recording of 'Creative breakthrough: Can marketing truly change the world?' digital panel in partnership with Adobe Stock

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