What we can learn from lockdown about brand purpose


By Nicole Forster

April 9, 2019

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As we’re all constantly reminded, the world’s in the midst of a crisis. And that’s meant changes that would usually take place over months and years have happened almost overnight. There are barely any planes in the sky or cars on the road, a universal basic income is being paid to those who can’t work, and large companies who couldn’t possibly have accommodated working from home are continuing to run from sofas and kitchen tables across the country.


For brands trying to stay present in their audiences’ minds, things have changed too: there are no physical spaces to which we can drive consumers to purchase or experience. All communications have to tread the line between light relief and insensitivity. And the importance of giving back is greater than it’s ever been.


Of course, brand purpose has been a buzzword for years. It’s common knowledge that Gen Z consumers, even more so than millennials before them, want to buy from companies that care: 69% are more likely to buy from a company that contributes to social causes. But the mechanisms for businesses to make genuine impact don’t spring up overnight. Until, as the world entered crisis mode, it seemed like they did. Here are some lessons from brands who have navigated marketing in the time of COVID-19 that will endure after lockdown lifts.


Don't hide your journey

Many companies have jumped to repurpose their infrastructure to provide a public service, like Dyson manufacturing ventilators, and beauty brands and distilleries producing hand sanitiser. And once a few companies began, the bar was raised. The rush to step up naturally means a few stumbling blocks. For instance, BrewDog were one of the first to announce they were producing hand sanitiser, only to receive negative press and backlash when their first batch didn’t meet NHS standards. Since then, they’ve continued to produce, and post regular videos to their social media answering questions and giving updates on the manufacturing process and how many bottles have been sent where. It seemed at first that BrewDog’s quick-fire response had set them up for failure, but with such an urgent situation on their hands, their ability to act fast and learn from their mistakes is something to be praised – as is their brave step of bringing their audience along the rocky road with them.


Honesty is the best policy

While the word ‘authenticity’ sounds like yet another millennial holy grail that brands have been chasing for years, in a crisis like this its absence is all too obvious. The way social media destroyed the star-studded Imagine video is a prime example: empty words, especially when sung by celebs with wealth that could make a real difference, are easy to see through right now.


Even brands and celebs donating money face pressure to be honest: it’s quickly become common practice for companies to disclose the exact size of their donation rather than hiding it in small print or below the headline of a charity partnership. And the crisis has made us even quicker to interrogate: as Twitter users calculated, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos may have donated $100 million, but it masks Amazon’s alleged poor treatment of workers in the crisis, and if his net worth were equal to the average American’s, the equivalent donation would only be $79. If brands got away with greenwashing and lip-service to issues before, it’s far less likely they will after coronavirus.


Keep it simple 

The most effective communication is upbeat and straight-to-the-point. Check out New Balance’s stance: when they announced on their Instagram, “Made shoes yesterday. Making masks today,” their post received 1.4 million likes. That’s over a quarter of their 5.4 million followers – an unheard-of engagement rate. There’s more detail on their website for those who want it, but by sticking to the facts and avoiding unnecessary wordiness, New Balance put across their contribution without playing the hero.


Help craft a new normal 

It's not just about how brands communicate what they’re doing, but how they can engage with their audience in ways that help them make sustainable, ethical choices too. Some of that’s already happened incidentally: Asics launched its Olympics shoe range via VR once lockdown meant that it couldn’t fly journalists from 19 countries to Japan for an immersive experience – heavily reducing its carbon footprint. And who hasn’t attended a virtual gig like Lady Gaga's One World Together At Home or gone down to a virtual pub like Camden Town's Bre.www.ery Bar. When 17-year-old activists were already traversing the Atlantic by boat to raise awareness of the damage air travel is doing to our environment, it can’t be a bad thing that we’re figuring out how to get together without the need for flights. Post-lockdown, we’ll want nothing more than face-to-face contact at first, but for big international events, brands have an opportunity to keep virtual connection alive for the good of the planet as we return to a new kind of normal.


For FMCG brands, a new normal may mean rethinking how products get to consumers. Online deliveries have naturally been booming – and brands who provide innovative solutions, like Garçon Wines’ sustainably-packaged, letterbox-friendly ‘flat’ wine bottles, have seen sales soar. There’s every chance consumers will continue to want products delivered to their door by brands whose credentials they can check out, and going direct may provide many companies with the opportunity to up their game.


A new normal might feel a bit more drastic. Some of the most iconic brand purpose campaigns have flipped the whole nature of marketing on its head: Patagonia’s 'Don't Buy This Jacket' ad for example. Right now, the world’s already turned on its head, so whether it’s in small ways or large, the world that emerges out of quarantine might just be ready for more upside-down impactful marketing. 

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