“COVID has been the catalyst for digital transformation at scale,” according to Publicis chief operating officer, Jo Coombes. The pandemic has undoubtedly forced many businesses to transform their offerings and move into a more online format to meet the changing behaviours of consumers, requiring brands and brand owners to be nimble. But what role, if any, should brands play in the pandemic and how can they remain supportive to customers during these uncertain times? The Drum executive editor, Stephen Lepitak posed this question as part of a panel discussion at The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival.
Consumers expect brands to be helpful during the pandemic
“92% of consumers believe that brands should continue advertising throughout the outbreak and be there for them,” says The Trade Desk senior VP, EMEA, Philippa Snare, referencing a study conducted by Kantar Media. As customers are forced to stay home during lockdown, they are inevitably consuming more information – watching more TV and browsing more online. “They want brands to continue talking to them and to represent something that's meaningful to society; that’s helpful.”
TSB’s chief marketing officer, Pete Markey, agrees, “It’s really important for brands and brand owners to listen” and be in tune with what consumers are feeling. He suggests marketers focus on clarifying their communication messages.
Financial services, of course, counts as essential business, with Markey revealing how TSB has had to be extremely proactive to ensure branches and call centres remain open and operating. “We’ve had to put additional levels of cover and support in place for customers,” he says, “to make sure we communicate what we’re doing and that people know about it.” TSB also launched an ad during the pandemic - featuring staff members - to provide a “message that we're here to help and to give customers a sense of calm and reassurance.”
How to avoid pitfalls when advertising during a pandemic
For Coombes, brands should look at how customer needs have changed and consider how they can help people to feel safe and in control.
It’s a hard time for businesses to know how to respond, agreed the panellists. TSB, for instance, according to Markey, initially focused on the short term and prioritised on the internal organisation, adjusting the teams to re-orientate around their customers. Only then was the brand able to put together a longer-term plan.
“We’ve looked at 2020 and mapped our activity against what those phases could look like and then what our actions around each would be,” he says. “But we’ve built in enough flexibility so that if lockdown continues longer or we see different trends emerge, we can shift and move things around to meet those needs at that moment. It's been challenging.”
Coombes calls it “scenario planning” and says the best way to do this effectively from an agency perspective, is in partnership with the client. “We’ve been working very closely with the client team to review which brands should be on air, what they are saying, what was planned and what's still relevant,” she says, to make sure that brands are reinforcing messages that are in line with government suggestions.
Should brands use the crisis to experiment?
Careful consideration around messaging is key as brands want to avoid putting out something that’s irrelevant. Coombes suggests that now is the time for brands to experiment. “There's a huge opportunity to test new things and see how they land,” she says. “On the one hand, you want to test and innovate when things are stable, because at least you can control it. But at the same time, we're constantly seeing new things come out that make you think what worked and what didn't. We need to learn quickly”
Speed, agility and flexibility are crucial qualities for brands to harness during these times. Snare suggests brands figure out new ways of enticing potential customers by offering relevant content for free – especially if it serves them during the pandemic. Such is the case with The Trade Desk’s educational platform, Edge Academy, which provides people with free resources to brush up on their skills. “It can be a meaningful way to connect to your consumers,” she says.
Brand initiatives that are winning in a changing market
Data can also help brands to move more quickly and to make snappier decisions, adds Snare. “Brands absolutely need to have and use their first party data. But it’s also about how they're using that data to make split second decisions with artificial intelligence engines and using that third and first party data together to know their customer better.” It allows them to track consumer behaviour quickly and means brands can redirect their ads to the most relevant platforms, knowing that that’s where their consumers will access content.
There are ways for brands to emerge triumphantly out of the pandemic, if they’re able to troubleshoot where customers need them most. TSB have done this successfully, by noticing early on that there was an increase in scamming and fraudulent behaviour throughout the outbreak.
“We've been at the forefront of trying to tackle that, both with the advice we're giving out and with our fraud refund guarantees. So, if anyone is conned, it’s not their fault and we will refund them automatically,” says Markey. “We're the only bank that’s doing that.” He adds that if companies can work on providing solutions to specific problems posed by consumers, then they’ll have a much better chance at being relatable and remaining relevant.
Echoing the sentiment, Coombes shared her experience of how several brands are falling flat with their campaigns because they appear to be too disingenuous in their lack of practical help. She thinks EE’s gifting of data to NHS workers act as a really simple but effective solution.
“The brands you feel are winning at the moment are the ones that have got a very clear sense of purpose around what they're about,” says Markey, reminding marketers that often their brand purpose will stretch beyond what they do for their immediate customer base. If brands can be a bit more experimental with their approach and embrace the current changes and respond accordingly to their consumers, it could result in a really interesting time for the industry. Coombes concludes: “There's a huge shift for a lot of organizations, having to think more digitally-first. After this, they won't go back to where they are; it’s setting precedent.”