In addition to widespread feelings of fear, grief and exasperation from the coronavirus pandemic, we now have near daily, indelible reminders of the sharp pains of racial conflict that bring more fear, grief and exasperation.
Our world is raw and bruised. Physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, economically.
To many, it’s always been this way. To others, it’s becoming more clear. Anymore, brands are also participating in the self-reflection and assessment that we all must do to create real, lasting change. We’re seeing a rise in brand empathy.
Brands today function much like institutions. At least that’s what people expect of them. They’re north stars and change agents in people’s lives, and that’s why it’s imperative that brands evolve along with the culture around them.
We’re hearing this indirectly, yet the messages—taken together—are loud and clear. People are tired of the ubiquitous “We’re all in this together” messages (AdAge); people are critiquing brands for talking about ending racism without acting on it; and empathy is the new brand mandate (PepsiCo). Bringing these observations together, we arrive at another: people are ready for more nuanced and deeper brand interactions. More information, more action, more brand empathy. And that’s a good thing.
As an agency that serves clients across several industries, each of which has been impacted by COVID-19 in challenging, sometimes unexpected ways, and presently confronting racism and issues of social justice, it would be a misdirect to say there is one behavioral cue that will indicate people are ready for one, sweeping message. That every brand’s audience is uniformly worried about one issue (hint: it varies), or that every brand should evolve in the same direction at the same time. We aren’t in the business of prescription.
We are watching, though. Here are the trends we’re following as we work toward understanding how our clients can, and should, take on their own evolution.
1. Talk the talk AND walk the walk
Here’s the thing with aphorisms. They sound simple in theory, but they can be incredibly complex in practice. Knowing what to say, and more importantly what to do, comes from knowing yourself, which requires an honest, critical self-assessment. Brand managers can perform a similar inquiry as they would of themselves personally. What is your brand truth and purpose? What resources do you have at your disposal? How can you use your brand truth, purpose and resources for good? In what ways can you show brand empathy?
The American Indian College Fund, for example, can authentically support the present, heightened national discussion around equity and social justice because it is literally the organization’s mission to achieve these goals. The brand, after a brief pause at the beginning of our nation’s lockdown for COVID-19, quickly shifted strategy to convey to the general public how the pandemic was affecting Native students and communities. Now, as our collective consciousness has swelled again to learn, grow and change along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the College Fund can again play a part in truly moving the conversation forward. Past statements and into action, to help all people of color.
This is just one example. Like we said, the talk and walk vary by brand. Your brand’s work may involve making financial commitments to support social justice for marginalized communities; arranging an independent review of your hiring and compensation practices; convening discussion regarding diversity, equity and inclusion; digging deeper into your audience research and targeting to limit bias, ensure all voices are represented, and balance business opportunity with humanity; giving people the time and space to reflect, learn and do more good in the world; and, absolutely, without a doubt, encouraging people to participate in the 2020 Census and upcoming elections. Your brand’s right fit may not be in this brief, definitely not-exhaustive list. Keep talking, keep walking, and you’ll find your way toward what’s ownable.
2. Testing out tone
People have appreciated brands reaching out to express concern about their well-being, and we can’t underestimate the value of building strong customer relationships that can weather the bad times. With brand empathy on the rise, and brands looking and acting more like people—personality-filled, emotion-driven, and even flawed—it’s no surprise that new PepsiCo research validates the even greater need now for brands to respond to humanity with empathy. But you’ve heard this from us before. People are now giving brands more permission to add complexity and dimension to how they empathize. Brands can be there for people in interesting, helpful ways. A vast majority (86%) of people feel brands should be spirit-lifters, create moments of escapism (74%), and offer outlets for entertainment (73%). This is an open invitation to ditch empty empathy and infuse it with what’s true to your brand ethos while addressing some critical psychological needs. Do remember to test drive before you buy. Given the radical divisions introduced or intensified by COVID-19 and racial tensions, it’s wise to invest in testing any significantly new messages or creative directions.
3. Ready to buy, especially if there’s a deal
There’s a growing sense that we are going to be dealing with COVID-19, and people’s associated vulnerability, for a long while (PYMNTS). But people (41%) are ready to hear from brands about topics unrelated to COVID-19 (Marketing Technology Insights). For sales-side messaging, even more than product updates or service availability, they want to hear about special offers and coupons. Coupon redemption grew 27% from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession, and there’s a similar urge to spend using deals now. As with any data point, consider if this is applicable for your unique industry and audience. What may work to spur travel bookings and takeout orders may not work to spur luxury goods purchases.
4. Travel as a proxy for readiness for new views (literally and figuratively)
Quarantine fatigue is in full force, and some people are ready to get back out in the world—in fact, they are getting back out into the world. Smartphone location data has shown, even before the protests, that people are going outside more and traveling farther distances despite lockdowns (New York Times). For the short to medium term, there’s comfort around the idea of close-to-home travel. In fact, 40% of Americans say their first post-COVID-19 trip will be by car, within 100 miles of home (Skift). And a bit more than half of corporate travelers feel comfortable or somewhat comfortable jet-setting for work once restrictions lift further; unsurprisingly, this audience may take a bit longer to bounce back to pre-COVID-19 behaviors than leisure travelers.
This explains some of the booking spikes for holiday travel, up nearly 40% from this time last year according to Guesty, a short-term and vacation-rentals property management platform. This shift suggests people are antsy to take advantage of saved-up rewards from cancelled trips. For travel and non-travel brands alike, eagerness to move out of our confines and explore indicates an eagerness to disrupt monotony. Again, take this as an invitation to test new messages or lean into undiscovered parts of your brand character that could satisfy our need for new experiences.
People have certainly extended greater latitude for brand empathy. And it’s encouraging to see that many brands have initiated and entered into conversations regarding racial equity and social justice. We will be watching for those that act, too. Also, as people emerge from a spring spent largely at home, they’re beginning to shop and buy again, even if in different ways from Q1 2020. And they’re venturing out again, right now mostly close to home.
During these overlapping, and at times overwhelming circumstances, it’s important to show respect to people who are feeling vulnerable, whether because of a relatively new or, sadly, residual and unresolved threat to their livelihood.
So we’ll close by saying, as we’ve said before, that brands must approach these times and these conversations from the inside out. Brands must be brave. The elephant in your room will not move without your help.
Now in our 50th year of business, Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.