Covid contrarianism

A hell of a lot has happened since my last blog in early-March, a point which now feels like a different era in history, not 8 weeks ago. Incredible efforts and sacrifices have been and continue to be made by people in their personal and professional lives to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the insanity of combining home-working and home-schooling, albeit a challenge shared with many others, I can’t help wondering how Covid will influence consumers and the marketing discipline.
Pondering such a wide range of complex potential outcomes is thankless and probably futile, but if any theme has emerged then it’s the value of making choices informed by independent thought, rather than being seduced by short term narrative.
We’re not all in this together
(and why it’s risky to assume we are)
At very few points in history has the world’s population shared the same challenge at the same time. In that sense, as the media has so often commented, “we are all in this together”.
However, in relation to our profession, it’s important we understand that while all our customers are in the same storm, they are in fact in very different boats.
Currently, we’re supporting a global client, helping them find post-lock-down themes in consumer behaviour, then react accordingly. The insights from this work are reinforcing the importance of being able to discern the “boats” from the “storm”.
In essence, this is a time to reject the false comfort of generalisations, and instead to understand and react to nuance.
As a business, the impact of the pandemic is very much determined by what category you operate in. In a recent report, Kantar classified categories into short-and long-term losers and winners. We are starting to see this reflected in quarterly results – P&G and RB recently announcing bumper sales of their household and cleaning brands; while for those in non-essential retail and leisure markets it’s a disaster. So much of this episode will make much more sense in hindsight – for example, some sectors will take a temporary hit but normal service will later resume.
Other sectors will suffer or benefit as temporary behavioural changes in consumer behaviour become permanent. However, personally I think the “this changes everything” narrative in the industry press is largely click-bait. Perhaps a more likely outcome for most categories is the acceleration of certain trends that were already happening.
Consumers experience of the pandemic varies enormously. It we just look at the UK, your household composition, living accommodation and employment status, to name just three factors, have had a huge bearing on what you have experienced.
The working single parent, home-schooling in a 5th floor flat faces the same storm, but in a different boat to the horticulturalist running a smallholding. Neither experience is more ‘valid’ than the other, but they come with a very different set of concerns. The first is pressured by time and conflicting priorities, the second can’t sell their products and may be losing their livelihood.
This creates quite a challenge for marketers. Many marketers – at least of those left with a marketing budget – have chosen to adapt advertising to be more relevant. However, this attempt to be connect more closely can backfire.
For example, I received an email from a financial services brand which began something like “now you have more time on your hands, it’s the perfect opportunity to ….”. To someone in my shoes, this reveals a naïve lack of consumer understanding, but of course, to others it may have struck a chord.
On TV we have seen a somewhat uniform genre of emotive Corona adverting being served on a bed of soft piano music. The roots of this approach probably lie in the marketer’s dilemma of wanting to connect with consumers more emotionally, maintaining share of advertising voice, but avoiding the accusation of trying to overtly “flog stuff” at such a sensitive time.
However, consumers move through their emotional response to this trauma at different rates and in different ways. Whilst you may appreciate the warm cuddle of a brand and ads shot on shaky iPhones, I want to be distracted from my incarceration and not reminded of it.
If anything, this balancing act will get harder as lockdowns ease. There will not be one great victorious day when it’s all over and brands can confidently celebrate alongside their buyers. Instead the next few months and beyond will look like a messy, multi-speed reversion to something approaching normal. In the next phase, I see more risks than benefits in ‘trying too hard’ to reflect consumer realities.

Consumers are zero-based budgeting now
(will they continue to buy your brand?)

Once upon a time, annual marketing budgets were negotiated by taking last year’s figure and either adding a bit or shaving a bit off. Competing marketing heads entered a boardroom, deployed their chosen negotiation tactics, later emerging triumphant or deflated depending on the outcome.
Then zero-based budgeting (ZBB) was adopted in companies like Kraft and became more widely used. The ZBB approach is to build marketing investment from the “ground-up” – based on what initiatives we need to land to achieve the marketing goal.
As people in countries across the world stumble out of quarantine like moles shuffling into daylight, perhaps consumers – more than companies – will be the ones deploying ZBB.
Predicting consumer behaviours over the coming weeks and months is incredibly difficult and will vary between categories, demographics, and myriad other factors. For each logical prediction, there seems to be at least one plausible, opposing alternative.
But, to some extent and in some areas, consumers will reset and challenge previously automated behaviours. For example, a business reliant on recurring revenues from direct debits like a gym might be hit hard if consumers eschew monthly memberships for Joe Wicks’ on YouTube. Others, like video streaming where the product’s utility increased during lock-down, remain a habit unchallenged.

Purpose vs showboating
(do you put more emphasis on ‘doing’ or ‘saying’?)

I am a firm believer that business – and by extension, brands – should play a role in society beyond maximising quarterly profits for speculative investors. Like many people who have already argued this far more eloquently, I think ‘corporate citizenship’ is the best way of enhancing trust in a free(ish)-market system, whereas excess short-termism undermines it.
If you subscribe to the notion that companies (and brands) should have healthy values and act right, then you may also struggle with the question of what is the right balance between ‘doing’ and ‘saying’. Just how much (if any) effort and money do you spend telling people about good deeds?
This weird Corona episode has been heartening in that we’ve seen examples of a community spirit and generosity to others that were less evident before. In the UK, the issue of food poverty came into the spotlight after it was revealed that donations fell in the early stages of lock-down. As a result – and almost certainly with the best of intentions – many brands have elected to donate money and/or match donations for food bank charities.
Many have also made this a feature of their marketing communications… and I can understand the rational steps that led to that advertising choice. However, viewers are witnessing a sort of unofficial arms race about who can donate the most. We often attribute human characteristics to brands (personality, tone of voice, etc). The anthropological equivalent of this comms strategy is me collecting a prescription for the pensioner up the road, then knocking on several neighbours’ doors to tell them what I’ve done.
Contrast this with approaches taken by some others. Nando’s (a client) is a values-driven company that deserves the description ‘corporate citizen’ more than many. The privately-owned firm is notable for its programmes to help fight against malaria and generous treatment of employees. Whilst the values are very much in evidence internally, I reckon that outside their work is under-played. It’s something you’re more likely discover in conversation, than see advertised.
Is it necessary for Nando’s to get recognition in order to be a successful business? If so, does slow-and-steady word-of-mouth ultimately build a stronger base of loyal customers, or are they simply missing a trick?

Whatever our personal experience, perhaps one fringe benefit of this pesky virus is that it might encourage us to look at things differently. Let’s reflect on how we as business and marketing people can be better meet customer (and societal) needs in the months and years ahead.

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