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For the Love of Brands: Marketing Matters More Than Ever During A Crisis

  • Mike Woods

    Mike Woods

Created at May 8th, 2020

For the Love of Brands: Marketing Matters More Than Ever During A Crisis

Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows the real work happens after the initial infatuation wears off and you start to wrestle with commitment. The strongest bonds are forged in the fiery moments of intense struggle during which you decide to stay because your love is bigger than the current situation. You choose to give rather than focus on getting. The COVID-19 crisis is surely testing the limits of our relationships. As the edges are fraying, we seek solace in the assurance only our closest companions can provide. We tighten our circle of friends and focus on family. 

I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider that this crisis is having the same effect on the relationships we have with brands. We are well past the novelty of the next new thing or the latest special offer. While we all want a fair price and a good value, those things are simple qualifying considerations. If it stops there, the relationship is ultimately transitory and likely temporary. We want enrichment. We seek commitment. Brands that recognize this dynamic and faithfully stay connected with people throughout this crisis will engender loyalty that could last a lifetime. 

As we close the ranks of relationships, we are also opening our hearts to those we may never know. Compassion is clearly the prevailing emotion we are feeling as we celebrate selflessness and redefine what it means to be a hero. Healthcare workers and food services employees are the frontline soldiers in this battle. We are learning new behaviors like social distancing, which may seem antithetical but are actually governed by mutual trust, the cornerstone of all healthy relationships. Politicians and the press should consider this as they frequently get it wrong, arguably perpetuating the panic at times. Meanwhile, really smart brands are getting it right by connecting people and creating community. These brands are playing the role of unsung hero, and their methods have the potential to redefine marketing in the post-crisis world as it is truly purpose-driven and people-based.

In this month’s Harvard Business Review, John Quelch and Katherine E. Jocz write,  “Survivors (brands) that make it through this recession by focusing their attention on consumer needs and core brands will be strongly positioned for sunnier days ahead. However, companies must understand how people’s behavior may change following the recession so they will be able to offer products and communicate messages aligned with the needs of new consumer segments.”

To put it simply, marketing matters now more than ever, because we rely on the brands we love to keep us connected. In fact, more than 40 percent of respondents in a March 2020 4A’s survey said they find it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust. Rather than pulling people to the center of their enterprise with offers, progressive businesses are now surrounding people with compassionately designed services and experiences. While naturally concerned about their own commercial interests, they aren’t withdrawing due to economic uncertainty but rather leaning in. I suspect this relation-shift will have an enduring impact as people look past box-checking basics like price and convenience to real enrichment. A friend in need indeed.

“Rather than pulling people to the center of their enterprise with offers, progressive businesses are now surrounding people with compassionately designed services and experiences.”

I’m not talking about the well-meaning emails from CEOs telling us we are all in this together but rather the many brands that are actually doing things to make a difference. From massive, global enterprises like Walmart, with the hiring of tens of thousands of new grocery workers, to the local market simply staying open and available for its neighbors. And countless others in between. The list is long. State Farm, Kia, Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Verizon and The New York Times, to name a few, have all activated initiatives and programs designed to alleviate anxiety, provide relief or simply distract with entertaining media and engagement. One of my personal favorites is “5:01 Live” on Instagram. Shout out to Levi’s CMO Jen Sey and her team for creating this contextually relevant, cool, nightly 30-minute concert experience.

And then there are the brands that are simply right for the times, designed around community, creating connectivity and leveraging addressability in a people-first way. Peloton is a great example of all those things coming together. As an avid rider, I can share first-hand that Peloton is truly delivering on the promise of personalized experiences, interactive by design and driven by a constant loop of rider feedback. It’s no wonder Peloton stock has been consistently green in a sea of red, recently trading near its 52-week high.

At Acxiom, our mantra is “experience matters.” It is intentionally a play on words as we lead with our expertise and trade on it to help our clients create more meaningful experiences for their customers and prospects. Increasingly, that requires a channel-less approach to marketing that aligns to the way people want to engage with content, brands and other people. More seamless end-to-end data governance and addressability across more channels without the encumbrance of operating siloes is becoming table stakes for brands that want to build lasting relationships with people. 

“There has never been a more important time to know more about consumers,” Mike Wagner, Retail Managing Director here at Acxiom, recently told me. “Where they are in their journey of this ‘new normal,’ what would most likely be of value to them and what unique needs they might have during this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in.  Connecting with them in the right way, at the right time, in the right place and with the right ‘value-based’ and personalized tone is the way the key brands Acxiom supports are differentiating themselves and staying top of mind with people” 

“There has never been a more important time to know more about consumers. Where they are in their journey of this ‘new normal,’  what would most likely be of value to them and what unique needs they might have during this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in.”

We are, in fact, all in this together. This crisis has, in effect, created a single segment with all of us sharing in the global struggle. On the surface, the progressive brands mentioned above are taking a one-for-all approach with authentic altruism. Dig a little deeper and you will find a consistent commitment to personalized experiences that will, no doubt, endear them to people, winning their hearts and fueling the future. It may be all for one, but they make you feel like you’re the only one. What’s not to love?