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Masks may be the new Brexit, but they don’t have to create the same turmoil for brands

As the government mandate on mask wearing in England nears an end, it’s time for brands to make their own positions clear in what’s set to be a very heated debate. Tamara Littleton, chief exec of social media agency The Social Element and co-founder of crisis simulation company Polpeo, looks at the challenges ahead for brands in communicating their stance and dealing with the inevitable backlash.

Brits are no strangers to a passionate debate. Leave or Remain? Jam or cream first? Having to choose a side comes naturally to us.

Now, with lockdown restrictions set to end on July 19, a new debate is emerging that has been bubbling under the surface for the last year-and-a-half. And is set to create tension in the physical and virtual world.

The government mandate on masks is set to come to an end, with the decision over whether to wear one being passed on to individuals. It’s now a matter of choice.

But to wear a mask or not to wear a mask isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. Brands find themselves on the frontline of this battle as they decide their own in-store mask policies and representation of the current world in their ads. As the countdown begins and retailers begin taking their positions, it’s clear that this issue is much deeper and more intense than the order of toppings on your scone.

Throughout 2020, masks were a constant discussion on social media and often featured as a trending hashtag in response to government policy changes and ad campaigns that showed people wearing them.

Take John Lewis’s Christmas ad. It decided not to reflect the real world in its sweet, animated TV spot and this was met with a whole range of opinions. Many took to Twitter to cry in horror at the lack of masks and social distancing on public transport, with one user commenting ‘Hearts, snowmen, Cilla Black haircuts and giving someone a plaster on a bus! Where are the facemasks?’ Others, meanwhile, enjoyed not being reminded of the pandemic at all.

We’re already seeing an escalation of this passion on social media as people wait to find out the policies of brands. Tesco and Sainsbury’s have already confirmed it will be down to shoppers’ discretion. The brands have been met with backlash as social media users criticize their decision to follow dates and not data.

So, what do brands need to do in order to prepare for this war of opinions?

Listen carefully

In days gone by, finding out your consumer’s thoughts on masks would have relied on focus groups and market research. Today, social media is giving brands a direct connection to huge numbers of people and a much clearer picture of how they feel.

It’s vital that brands stay close to the mood of consumers by keeping their ears to the ground. Here, social listening tools can help your social media team spot when patterns of posts start to appear that could signal a larger problem brewing. They will also allow you to understand the arguments and tone being used by social users who are arguing against the policy you take, giving you time to think about your counterargument, or whether to put one forward at all.

De-escalation means being ready to escalate

Social platforms have become havens for sourcing real-time information but also venting frustrations. Backlash can quickly turn into a fire if your brand is ill-equipped to react to changing perceptions in an agile way. To do this effectively, brands need to have the right processes and structures in place. Ensuring that there is a proper escalation plan at the ready and that it has been tested for weaknesses is key to this.

Brands need to be clear on their position on masks – whatever it is. Landing on this position will involve influence from your social listening insight and consumer sentiment, but also your values. Knowing who your brand is and what you stand for can act like a North Star guiding you to your natural stance.

Whatever your brand’s position on masks is, it’s then about ensuring that your teams, agencies and FAQs are updated with this position. This also means everyone who will communicate with a customer, from social teams to shop floor staff, should be well versed in the language and wording of that position.

On social, you will save time by having some messages pre-prepared that should form the foundation of your posts. However, responses need to be tailored to the platform and the people you’re responding to. Nothing says “this brand isn’t really hearing me” like 50 copy and paste responses in a row.

Take off the corporate mask

The frustration and tensions around mask policies can be put down to one important reason: it’s humans expressing human emotions and fears after a distressing year-and-a-half. It’s therefore critical that brands act like humans when entering these discussions.

Whether your teams are dealing with a customer concerned about their safety or an angry troll looking for an argument, the trick is to remain consistently empathetic throughout all of your comms. Remember, you’re talking to real people with genuine concerns. They aren’t just ‘consumers’. These concerns need to be taken seriously.

Consumers will want to connect with brands that understand their own position. So by being honest, open and leaning into kindness, brands can nurture deeper relationships with individuals that can endure beyond this debate, no matter their side.

And for the record, I’m a ‘jam first’ proponent. My late Cornish father would turn in his grave if I said anything else!

Tamara Littleton is the chief executive officer of The Social Element and co-founder of Polpeo.

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