Like us all, brands continue to lockdown and take a ‘wait and see’ approach, with long-term planning still on the back burner. On paper, this seems a logical move, everyone is doing it, but whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
Who dictated you cannot maintain broad brand-building reach during a pandemic? The reason of brand inaction, or limited action, remains to avoid ‘insensitive selling in dark times’, but who is saying ‘sell’, this is a brand building opportunity?
A Kantar survey of more than 35,000 consumers globally back in April found that just 8% thought brands should stop advertising, with 78% believing brands should do something helpful. If you add to this equation that the cost of brand building media value is now at an all-time low, that’s a deep self-inflicted opportunity loss, especially if you’re the #2 or #3 category player, as behaviours, habits and preferences have drastically changed, so everything is up for grabs.
Who started talk about the ‘New-Normal’ which although ambiguous has a sense of a return to some stability and a V shaped recovery? There is no new normal, there is just a ‘New-Next’ as we start to expect a second peak, and even if this doesn’t happen, a depression sized recession with mass unemployment and more civil unrest is definitely coming. Not to mention trade wars, climate change and the real possibilities of a new mass pandemics. We are at the start of a prolonged period of uncertainty and a consumer confidence challenge. We are at the end of nothing.
How big brand ad agency thinking reacts to this will be fascinating. Yes, they are full of talented creative people but they find it hard to be agile and despite lip service to the contrary, they are still wedded to ‘big idea’ thinking, which is predicated on the belief in static macro-economic and demographic environments.
Their challenge is compounded by shrinking client fees which has made it harder to justify regular proprietary funded consumer research. This keeps them in the dark about shifting consumer sentiment which explains to an extent the default ‘wait and see’ approach.
As for those brands that did dare to go out, they’ve mostly stuck to safe but broadly bland platitudes. This was confirmed in a recent consumer survey from YouGov UK (May 18th), where 69% said that current brand messages are becoming predictably trite, with the phrase ‘all in this together’ topping the annoyance list, followed by ‘the new normal’ and ‘unprecedented’. The result is a feeling of insincerity and a net negative brand impact for many.
The facts are, we have already seen long held consumer values change, sometimes by magnitudes not seen since 9/11, or even WW2, read more here. In the New-Next we will see change again, and again, so our industry must think about how we remain relevant in this environment. What clients need is answers to questions they do not know how to ask. Knowing where to play and where not to play, what to say and what not to say, what tone to take and what language to use - and do this fast and frequently so you can pivot to meet the next consumer change.
Mark Twain, that great American writer, got his name from Mississippi leadsmen who threw a 30-foot-long weighted line into the water ahead of the steamboat, and based on the length of rope released they “sang the mark”. The shout "Mark Twain!" was the ‘keep going’ signal, meaning two fathoms deep, or 12 feet, the minimum clearance needed for a full river steamboat to pass. Any lower water levels demanded a change of course, sometimes a rapid one, but the idea was to always keep going despite constantly shifting channels, sandbanks, reefs, submerged snags, and rocks that Twain said would "tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated". By researching the waters ahead, by day and especially by night, it was possible to keep moving and get safely to a desired destination.
This is the New-Agency-Next idea of brand navigation, which the more nimble, insight hungry PR industry is ideally positioned to lead. The ever-vigilant heaving of the lead to research shifting consumer changes, understand their fears and anxieties, their hopes and values and use these insights to tailor an ongoing brand message through good and bad times. A simple maxim should be to do the right thing and be helpful. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest. And if testing regularly seems laborious and freaks out the bean counters, just think of the brand equity loss if your ability to understand and reach consumers is below that of your competitors’ brand. That could really tear the life out of any brand. So, to finish on a Twain quote, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started”.