Paul Savaiano
May 25, 2020

There isn't one right answer for brands right now

But if you want some clues on what to do next, talk to real people.

There isn't one right answer for brands right now

As predictions on the future of marketing post COVID-19 continue to fill our news feeds and inboxes, the pressure to have an answer for how best to connect with consumers in a changed world seems to be rising. But as Les Binet, Group Head of Effectiveness at adam&eveDDB, recently said, "We’re in uncharted territory here, and we should freely admit that no-one knows anything for sure." 

When the path forward isn’t clear, it can be helpful and humbling to talk to real people — the non-marketing, no-agenda-pushing people who won’t BS us -- to find opportunities for creative ideas.

So we did.

In the first week of May, Walrus ran a qualitative and quantitative research study of over 1000 people around the U.S. What we learned was surprising and occasionally troubling from the vantage point of a marketer. (We heard from one respondent that COVID-oriented TV commercials are so banal that they’ve been watching less TV.) Overall, people want content that makes them laugh or provides a feeling of escapism, and they’re more interested in brands that present a vision of what the "new normal" looks like. 

Through this research, we found a few starting points that brands can take advantage of as we move into the next phase of the pandemic: 

People are (literally) tuning out, so create content that cuts through. 

Sixty-six percent of people say they find it exhausting to read, hear and think about COVID-19 every day, and brands aren’t helping when they appear to be piling on with banal COVID-related messages. Look no further than this compilation. In response, 33% of people say they’ve found most brands’ messages over the past two months to be annoying.  

A 25-year-old from Tennessee went even further and said, "It feels like brands are scrambling, so there's a lot of copying being done. Lack of originality does not make brands stick out to me." Meanwhile, a 40-year-old in California said, "All the COVID commercials being put out right now really do feel ridiculous; I don't think they're helpful and just feel like they're pandering to us."

The easiest way not to annoy is to get right to the point, and 65% of people say they now have a greater appreciation for brands that have simple messaging. So instead of saying everything you think you want to say, just say one thing — and make sure it’s true, memorable and different. A 29-year-old in Massachusetts mentioned Smirnoff’s commercial that remixed existing assets with a new message as a great example of a brand delivering a unique, clear message. "They had a commercial about how they redid their campaign and encouraged us to stay home for America. It was catchy so the message stood out and introduced a new feature in their product."

Provide escapism, humor or relief in a way that’s authentic to your brand. 

People are filled with anxiety. They’re worried about contracting the virus (65% are fearful of being around sick people); being ostracized (54% believe there would be social consequences if they were to contract it); and moving too quickly back into public life (61% say that just because people are allowed to go to public places again doesn’t mean they should). We’re also seeing early evidence that this anxiety is preventing people from trying new brands: Fifty-one percent say they’ve preferred to buy brands they’re used to since quarantine began, whereas 39% say they’ve purchased new brands.

Meanwhile, escapism has become therapeutic. Sixty-eight percent point to entertainment as a helpful escape over the past few weeks, and 69% say they have a greater appreciation for things that make them laugh or smile.

Humor can also work wonders, and 55% of people say they appreciate brands that offer levity. As a 25-year-old in Michigan said, "Life has been stressful lately. I just want a good laugh." 

Brands should feel confident offering some escape and embracing humor — they work to capture attention and are needed — as long as it connects with a truth about people, and feels natural for the brand.

Embrace a vision for the ‘new normal.’

Looking toward the next few weeks and months, 63% of those surveyed believe it would be better if people thought hard about what the "new normal" should look like instead of rushing to return to the world as we knew it in January 2020. As a 39-year-old woman in Arizona put it, "What was going on before wasn't working, and that's probably why it collectively had to change. And I'm grateful for that."

Fifty-nine percent of people say they appreciate brands that have a unique point of view on the world and one that feels different from other brands. As a 35-year-old woman in Minnesota said, "It's nice seeing brands making claims that they're going to support people. I’m interested in the ones that can back up what they’re saying in a unique way."

As we rethink our marketing plans (and even rethink how we plan), it would benefit all brands to remember that we shouldn’t just be responding to the world in front of us, prioritizing short-term wins, or judging ourselves against examples of the past. Instead, we should be thinking more deeply about what any given brand’s most valuable brand equity is, investing in genuinely creative ideas that bring that to life right now, and keeping our eyes on the horizon to ensure we’re growing the brand (and its unique vision for the world) in the long-term. 

The bottom line is that every brand has a unique opportunity in front of them. As people work towards a new normal, brands can help by looking for opportunities to delight people in specific ways that only they could offer. Which, if you think about it, is just a return to the basics of branding.

Paul Savaiano is head of strategy at NY-based advertising and media agency Walrus. 

Campaign US

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