“It can’t be about us, it has to be about you” - marketers on how coronavirus has changed brand messaging

With the global pandemic redefining both how consumers live and work, marketers will need to fine-tune their messaging, timing and delivery. In fact, times of uncertainty are when brands need to communicate with their audience who are in dire need of information and guidance, the most. So how should marketers respond to the pandemic, and how can they prepare for the future?

The Drum, in partnership with Braze, invited marketers on a panel titled The New Agenda to discuss the different marketing strategies to prioritise when nothing is business as usual. Hosted by The Drum’s editor Gordon Young, the panel featured Magith Noohukhan, Braze’s product evangelist; Steve Habbi, HSBC’s head of global brand design and management; Peter Markey, chief marketing officer at bank TSB; David Sealey, director of strategy and growth at CACI; Thomas Walker, online marketing and ecommerce manager at Pizza Hut UK; Nina Bibby, chief marketing officer, O2; and Nicholas McCarthy, Merkle’s EMEA Alliances Director - SVP.

For HSBC’s Habbi, the pandemic has shifted marketing so it’s less about the brand and more about talking directly to the customers’ needs, and he would like to see this continue long after the lockdown restrictions are completely lifted. “The key insight we’ve learned is to really listen to our customers not just for the short-term, but for the long-term too.”

He also outlined HSBC’s approach to dealing with the crisis. “One of the first things we did was develop the three R’s – react, respond and rebuild,” he said. “We operate in 60 markets, which is a big area to cover, so it was very important to develop a core strategy that could be applied throughout the business.”

Humanity in marketing: how to adapt and react to changes

This viewpoint was echoed by TSB’s Peter Markey, who called for more “humanity” in marketing: “The implications of COVID-19 has shown how important it is to make sure your communications are not tone deaf and really reflect the mood of the nation.

“People experience this crisis in different ways so you have to be empathetic and make changes that will help them get through this easier. Humanity right now in our marketing messaging is more important than ever before.”

A recent study from Braze and Forrester showed that consumers want sincere, human-like communication from their favourite brands right now, which appears to back up Habbi and Markey’s sentiment. And when asked what some of the biggest changes had been due to COVID-19, Braze’s product evangelist Magith Noohukhan spoke of how some shifts might have taken some brands by surprise.

“With everyone locked down at home, consumers have been spending a lot more money and time interacting with brands through digital means.., whether that’s to use the extra time not commuting to do online courses or just buying more groceries,” he explained.

“This has meant that consumer behavior has changed very rapidly. We analysed 1,000 brands and our data shows that on March 23 there was a 75% increase in new user acquisition compared to the first week of January. A spike in acquisition like this usually happens during the holidays, There’s going to be a lot of changes, and you can’t assume anything anymore. Brands have to make sure their digital and data strategies allow them to be agile and ready to react in the right way.”

How do you respond to different consumer needs?

David Sealey, director of strategy and growth at CACI cited a similar experience to Braze. “Our own data shows we have taken a five-year leap forward when it comes to brands and consumers taking up digital transformation. There’s a lot of consumers who historically didn’t want to use digital channels for banking or shopping, but their behaviour shifted.”

Yet he also warned: “There’s still a big divide in the UK between consumer groups doing well financially and those hit hardest. We need to be really careful in acknowledging there’s just as many people struggling, as those who are doing okay during the coronavirus.”

When asked how brands are preparing for the economy starting to return to normal as social distancing ends, O2’s Nina Bibby said the clever brands will have learned to be more agile and reactive. “When the government said to work from home, we saw a 25% uplift in calls, so we responded by doubling the capacity of our network,” she explained. “This shows how utilising your data and being able to respond to a crisis quickly is very important.

Bibby added, “We’ve grown huge ears and the speed of response has been a big change for the business. Before you could plan out a campaign over a year, but now we have to figure out how to shorten those cycles. Seeing someone like Joe Wicks resonate with the nation just by hosting online workout plans has been really great as he’s shown brands what the potential is when responding to a crisis in a fresh way.”

For Pizza Hut’s Thomas Walker, the brand had little choice but to embrace the new normal or be left behind.

“Contactless delivery and collection can’t just be discussed, but need to be properly implemented,” he said. “If we can embrace digital to help consumers feel safer then we also need to look at how all-you-can-eat-buffet is just not viable anymore. You need to ensure you’re keeping them safe but also offering abundant value to consumers, many of whom are struggling financially right now.” Pizza Hut, known for its unlimited lunchtime pizza slices and salad bar where customers can help themselves will no longer have the buffet service available and instead food is now delivered to the table for the customers. It is testing new technology so guests can stay at their table and order from their phone.

Discussing how brands can succeed in such a radically different landscape, Nicholas McCarthy, EMEA Alliances director – SVP of Merkle, added, “The brands who succeed will meet customer needs and their communications will be linear and personal. They will be truly empathetic to consumers and be able to back that up with their services, while having the agility to make rapid decisions and act accordingly to social changes.”

The panel all agreed that agility and empathy are at the heart of the new normal, and marketers will need to embrace both for post pandemic success. This isn’t a time to push products - brands need to ensure that they are speaking to consumers at a human level and let them know how their services can make their lives easier at such a difficult moment.

As pointed out by Braze’s Brand Humanity Index study, more human, empathetic communication leads to better business results and happier customers. If you can put this at the top of your priorities list then you might just come out of coronavirus having learned positive lessons that can set your brand up to win long after lockdown ends.

Watch the full session here.

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