The ongoing crisis has witnessed vast demonstrations of compassion and generosity by individuals, communities, and a wide range of brands. The numerous acts of kindness and genuine expressions of goodwill are heartening and, without a doubt, greatly appreciated by those on the receiving end. This sheltering in place has given me ample time to observe a great many things but, as a marketer, I have focused special attention on what my cohorts in the brand world are doing. From Dove to Burger King, Ikea to Uber, along with many other brands, a wide variety of actions are being undertaken that acknowledge a shared understanding of the difficulties we are all going through. The brands’ initiatives range from the offering of free products to medical professionals on the front line, to a reduction in prices or special financing for cash-strapped consumers, or just the simple message to stay home and stay safe. Some of the branding communications take a poignant, touching tone, while others try for a bit of humor to help ease the daily gnaw of anxiety. These gestures of help and concern are, for the most part, wonderful. And, in one way or another, they provide insight into the respective brand’s values, decency being a critical value for success in a transparent world.
As a marketer, I recognize that these pandemic-related branding gestures are valuable, each in their own way, and a benefit to many consumers at this moment in time. However, I also recognize that they are short-term fixes for an unprecedented time in business and marketing, and for society at large. In times of crisis, it’s always difficult for marketers to know how to navigate, as worried and distracted consumers naturally shift their attention to their families’ health, their finances, and their communities. But this crisis is of a different order of magnitude.
What hasn’t sunk in for most marketers, yet, is that the emotional and behavioral changes to daily living wrought by current events will have effects that last a long time. The way consumers are now shopping, working, being schooled, or sharing a happy hour are changing, out of necessity. But, it’s likely all of us will become accustomed to doing things in new ways, which has intense ramifications for our future marketplace. While some businesses will be more affected than others, this is the time for all businesses to think and operate in new ways. To succeed in the months and years ahead, brands and marketers are going to have to move beyond how they change their messaging to how they change their business models. To succeed for the long term, they will be required to disrupt the experiences of their current businesses to reflect the new realities. The smartest of them will stop being preoccupied with the here-and-now and look for ways to reimagine their businesses and the experiences they provide to consumers. Powerful brands become powerful by making life better or more convenient for people in a relevantly different way. If ever there was a time to become a proof point for this brand tenet, it is now. Brands and businesses in every category should already be reimagining their businesses in the context of how the world will be working, literally and figuratively, how students will be learning, and how consumers will be consuming. There will be no going “back to the future”.
A good example? Take the vast number of people currently staying home — and working from home. Allstate is among the brands that immediately recognized the short-term implications of this. It instituted the Allstate Shelter-in-Place Payback, a program that will reimburse more than $600 million in policy premiums to its auto insurance customers in April and May as a result of the reduction in their driving. As CEO, Thomas Wilson said about the company’s campaign: “Being in good hands means protecting people. We all have to buddy up and do what’s right.” His subsequent comments during a CNBC interview made clear that Allstate also recognizes the future effects of the crisis. What if people find there are significant benefits to working and shopping from home? “We’ve been in business for 89 years,” he told his interviewer. “This is not a concentrated crisis, like a hurricane. Our lives have become very virtual. We’ve all moved into the digital world. As a result of that, we’re looking at other opportunities. We’ve seen that people are driving less and we are looking for how this will play out for the long term.”
GM and Ford are not going to get into the ventilator business, but they will have to reimagine cars for the new reality. With its sales and delivery service, Carvana is already doing what Cadillac is offering short-term. Zoom, which is becoming as mission-critical as email, is giving FaceTime and Google Hangouts fierce competition. Frictionless payment systems are replacing cash and credit cards. More than anything else, social distancing is forcing multiple seismic shifts in behavioral trends. As noted above, people are driving less. The demand for e-commerce is rising exponentially. The demand for home delivery of goods and services, equally so. Consumers are returning to broadcast and cable television for their local news and information. People hunkered down are looking for more virtual ways to escape, downloading gaming apps, and streaming more movies and entertainment than ever before. From online music lessons to live-streamed yoga classes, college lectures, or social engagements, people are moving beyond their current ways and means of doing things.
As the intense consequences of this pandemic sink in, as people recognize the scope of its impact on heretofore normal ways of doing things, businesses will be forced to look at their core offerings and determine how to disrupt the status quo, to change the experiences of their brands to reflect the new realities. The most prescient, those flexible enough, are already doing so. Short-term fixes are just that. The most innovative brands are planning for life beyond this crisis. Experience disruption will become the way forward. Or, to quote Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”
Cover image source: Hannes Richter