This article is part of a 3-part series. You can read Part II here and Part III here.
With the restrictions on life we’ve seen slowly starting to ease, the question for communications professionals naturally turns to What kind of world are we likely to expect now that we’re being ‘set free?’
Will we see a burst of hedonistic spending as people enjoy their new-found freedoms or cling on to former ways, or will shoppers, emerging from the chrysalis of introspection and self-transformation, approach spending and their lives anew?
When our habitual ways of thinking break down, we’re forced to recalibrate. And when the noisy machine stops, it becomes easier to hear. For some, the last 2 months have helped us reach a level of silence we never knew existed, and for others, time has accelerated.
For the vast majority of us, both in work and life, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken us to a place where we’ve been forced to reconnect with our own purpose through a shared existential threat. It’s been a relief and a release; there’s long been a sense that the old scripts couldn’t be sustained. Whether you can fully sit with it or not, we’re part of a system that’s causing a lot of misery and environmental destruction – things had to change.
In this brave new world, our potential as marketing practitioners is being called forth in a different way
In pockets of ingenuity, people came together – not like they do in the movies – but in soulful, meaningful ways. From balcony concerts to cheering frontline workers, community won out – and big time. There’s been tremendous adaptation, creativity, and digital connection, and through it all we’ve been able to reclaim a certain sovereignty as our masks came off and (our) true nature literally came back.
We’ve been spurred towards what’s really important. Passion points. Giving our energy to activities that create joy and aliveness. Heart-based, not head. How many times have you heard or thought in the last months, “When things reopen I’m going to do X?” Perhaps your focus has already shifted. If nothing else, we sure did discover how to make bread.
ENTERING A BRAVE NEW WORLD
As communicators, perhaps we’ve already been given pause to think about how we’ve been messaging through the peak of the crisis. We saw some spectacular, tone deaf misses from celebrities and brands alike, but also some admirable surprises from sectors that nobody could have predicted. Iconic brands have been toppled, but others are going to be built from this rubble, make no mistake.
Whichever way you look at it, three things at this point are certain: This pandemic has affected everybody in the world in a deeply emotional and psychic way. Because of that, our behaviours as consumers have changed. And therefore, “How we talk to our consumers” has irrevocably changed. In fact, it may even be redundant to think of them as consumers any longer. Something like fans or followers I think is a far more accurate – not to mention, human – way to think of the people we seek to reach with our work. It’s a mindset, and it permeates everything we do.
Over the next 3 weeks, I’m going to share some predictions of the key communications pivots we’ll experience as we transition into this brave new post-lockdown world. I wanted develop a language and a politic for it, because as communicators and marketers we have a profound responsibility to the communities in which the brands we work with operate. And in this new world, our potential as practitioners is being called forth in a different way.
How we talk to consumers has irrevocably changed, and our potential as practitioners is being called forth in a different way
Meaning and trust in governments and traditional (media) institutions has eroded. People are turning to alternative sources to make sense of their world – and not always in the best ways (Plandemic, anyone?). Among the other narratives they’re turning to for sense-making, are those transmitted by brands. They’re looking to brands to be the bearers of truth, says Dr David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for COVID-19: “Brands must strive to be authentic, accountable and audacious in their communications.” And it doesn’t just go for crisis communications.
So can we rely on the previous tenets of glossy hype, airbrushing and whitewashing reality with relentless positivity? Probably not. As Don Schultz, father of integrated marketing communications, said, “we must unlearn traditional marketing.”
If now’s not the time, then when?
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Pre-pandemic, marcomms was already on a trajectory towards greater authenticity and transparency. Realness was on the radar. Buzzwords like Circular Economy and ‘people over profit’ entered the business lexicon; the corporate steamroller was showing signs of change. We began casting an eye towards the long term rather than just scrambling to meet quarterly deadlines. Brand purpose has become a key pillar of global marketing strategies. And there’s no reason to think that any of this will change.
If anything, in the fierce urgency of now, it will ramp up. And history will favour the brave. In this new era, the brands that rise to the top will be defined by how they handled this crisis. So how will the brands you work with step up to the challenge? How much of this new paradigm will you ‘manage up,’ and integrate into your direct practice?
To truly engage with people, there needs to be a connection, a reason. A resonance.
If there hasn’t been already, in your workplace you’ll no doubt be subject to another realignment of marketing funds. Money will likely move out of product marketing and advertising and into communications that create and sustain direct connections with audiences. To truly engage with people, there needs to be a connection, a reason. A resonance. You know what it feels like because you’re a consumer too; people feel it when communications are insincere, or deceptive. And it hurts your brand. Building engaged fans will remain key as we move forward, clocking email list subscriber numbers will not.
When it came to the number of projects my department used to plan, a former Marketing VP of mine years ago used to preach ‘fewer, bigger, better.’ Sadly, with upstream and every-direction pressure to “deliver ad nauseum,” we never did manage to crack that nut. But I was heartened to see the sentiment expressed again just last week by renowned trends forecaster Li Edelkoort. Someone who rarely sets a foot wrong, Li predicts that “The focus will become on less and better, minimal and exceptional, sustainable and intuitive.” With budgets top of mind and The Business looking for value like never before, managers are remiss not to fully embed this thinking today.
Customers, too, with their renewed sense joy and freedom within themselves, are going to be more aware and (value) conscious than ever before. With the way we digest “brand” forever altered, people are now asking not just How much am I consuming? but Will I consume? What will I consume? It’s enough to make a CEO quake in their shoes.
As communicators, we’ll need a far greater understanding of how our work makes people feel, taking much more responsibility for every artifact we put out into the culture. Done right and with integrity, we can help people rediscover their sense of place – despite the burdens and complications that the industrial economy inflicts.
How else will the pandemic affect communications? Read Part II here, which looks at the state-of-the-art today, including some actionable skills you can put to work. And in Part III, I’ ll focus on the exciting reinvention of brand communications, highlighting the qualities you can bring to your practice to create resonance and real impact.
In the meantime, I wholeheartedly invite comments, questions and challenges.
Are you someone whose business needs help negotiating this brave new world? For communications challenges big and small, feel free to get in touch – I’d love to hear from you.