Why nearly half of marketers are unhappy with their brand’s COVID-19 response

"In this environment, it is more important than ever that brands clearly understand their role in consumers’ lives and know how to take action based on that role."

When Forsman & Bodenfors asked 100 U.S. and Canadian marketing decision-makers how they felt about their brand’s reaction to COVID-19, the results were pretty damning.

In an F&B survey, commissioned through GLG, nearly half of the respondents — 49% — were dissatisfied with what their brand said and did in the first three months of the pandemic. Senior leaders reported feeling paralyzed in terms of how to act, dissatisfied with their reaction or uncertain about the role their brand should play in providing value to consumers during the pandemic. And these less resilient brands were quickly reminded of the dangers of stagnancy.

COVID-19 and the social movement against inequality have contributed to an unprecedented cultural climate that revolves around health concerns, economic uncertainty and civic activism. In this environment, it is more important than ever that brands clearly understand their role in consumers’ lives and know how to take action based on that role.

So what is behind this widespread breakdown in expectations and execution? And what differentiates the other 51% of senior leaders who were satisfied with their brand’s response?

What went wrong

While the onset of the pandemic brought panic from some brands and knee-jerk reactions from others, the larger lesson to be learned is the importance of resilience — the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and carry the business forward regardless of circumstance.

Those that had a well-developed brand purpose before the crisis and were ready to speak up, share and act during the early days of the pandemic found attentive audiences ready to listen and react — whether it was Gen Z consumers, who leaned into online video consumption during the pandemic, or millennials, who increased consumption of content across the board, including linear, online and TV.

For example, LG Electronics Canada (an F&B client), remained true to its core “Life’s Good” brand position, but reframed LG product benefits to be sensitive to changing consumer needs during the pandemic. The brand’s #IncredibleAtHome campaign celebrated the activities that people impacted by the pandemic were engaging in, such as baking with the kids or connecting with friends for “remote” movie nights together. LG’s ability to pivot while keeping its message appropriate and meaningful to customers makes it a truly resilient brand.

On the other hand, less resilient brands — those that thought it best to stay quiet when they couldn’t think of what to say or do — have some ground to make up. Ipsos estimates the cost to address declines in brand equity are typically two times the savings of reducing short-term brand investment.

Is it too late?

But with businesses reopening and consumers slowly venturing out, has the time passed for the 49% who were dissatisfied to turn it all around?

It’s not too late. In fact, it’s never too late. If history has taught us anything, it’s that society will continue to face unexpected challenges and crises that impact consumers’ lives and the brands that serve them.

And while it’s impossible to react to something you can’t see coming, such as a global pandemic, it is possible to build (or rebuild) your brand with the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. More resilient brands will be ready when the next crisis inevitably comes.

Where to go from here

Brands that center themselves around providing real value to consumers and understand their role are ready to show up when crises hit. Their messaging and actions are informed by how they can help consumers through tough times.

A case in point: F&B client Saucony is a global performance running lifestyle brand that lives by the mantra: “A good day is when we run. A better day is when we inspire others to run.” In June of 2019, the brand brought that to life through its new brand platform, Run for Good, which has proven to be more resilient than ever and has stayed relevant despite the challenges many brands are facing during COVID-19. Understanding that running is inclusive and empowering, Saucony charged ahead with its upcoming spot, “The Dog,” which featured boundary-testing product The Endorphin Collection, proving one good run leads to another.

For brands that don’t want to get left behind or find themselves once again uncertain of what to do when a crisis strikes, it’s time to look to the future with a new focus on long-term adaptability and sustainable value. For some this may entail a full brand strategy pivot, including a complete reassessment of messaging and audience. An audit of the state of the business may help identify areas that need improvement to keep the brand moving forward.

Consider whether your brand purpose and products are still relevant. Where does your product or service live on the spectrum of pandemic-born frugality and consumption? Does it use technology to meet consumers where they are? Is your brand meeting the increased demands for transparency that have emerged during the crisis? Can you serve as a reliable authority for consumers skeptical if anyone has their best interest in mind? Do you address the changing nature of interpersonal relationships, as well as consumers’ evolving relationships with their selves?

If you answered no to any of these questions, chances are you count yourself among the dissatisfied half. But don’t be discouraged. For every weakness COVID-19 has revealed, there is an opportunity for brands to become stronger, more connected to their consumers and more dedicated to making a positive impact on the world — with the added bonus of feeling more confident about their response to the next crisis.

Cameron Fleming is Strategy Director at Forsman & Bodenfors Toronto

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