As we are all adjusting to what is sure to be a new normal (at least for the foreseeable future), it’s tempting to lean in to what is concrete and real—tangible information that we can look at and say “a-ha!” Many of us obsessively check the daily data inputs on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. We know the pull, because, there’s great power in data, right? Right now, in almost real time, we can look at that information and start to create narratives that help us comprehend what’s happening around us—and what we can do to help.
It’s not so dissimilar from how we, as marketers, look at data and create strategies based on the information that we see from our consumers’ behaviors.
It makes us feel like we are instantly part of a real engagement.
But are we, really?
We’re constantly thinking about the fact that consumers are human beings. And while that may sound exceedingly simple and totally obvious, somehow once you’re wearing a marketing or sales hat, those two worlds (consumer and human) can feel very disconnected. But they’re not. They never are.
The Department of Justice warned against price fixing on essential supplies as Americans prepare for or are in the midst of isolation periods and quarantines. Amazon stepped in, too. The reason being, it’s wrong to take our knowledge of peoples’ situations and use it to take advantage of them. While that seems to be a no-brainer, we’re asking ourselves daily—with every new data input and breaking news article specific to COVID-19—what it actually means for us as marketers and advertisers to use our powers for good: humans and businesses alike.
So, how do we benevolently balance opportunity and data with humanity in an unprecedented time?
- Do your research. But differently than before.
- Empower people with agency.
- Practice the Golden Rule.
- Make it digestible.
1. Do your research. But differently than before.
Especially at this critical juncture in history—this strange, grief-stricken holding pattern we almost all find ourselves in—we must listen. Because once we are on the other side of this pandemic, consumerism will have taken on a new identity that’s being redefined with each passing day. Now is an opportunity to carefully observe people’s changing behaviors, and relentlessly dig into why customers hold you dear—click through your emails, buy your service, advocate for your brand—even amidst a 22% consumer confidence freefall (Morning Consult Webinar). We are in a collective and constant fight-or-flight mode, fueling our all-time high levels of anxiety (US News & World Report). And in the midst of it all, people are still choosing you and considering you.
Behavioral shifts like upticks in streaming, e-commerce, and grocery delivery were on the rise long before COVID-19, so it may come as no surprise (Ad Exchanger). It’s about necessary habit adoption (world, meet Zoom, Zoom, meet everyone). But you may not fall into these categories. Your opportunity is to engage people while they’re slower, conscientious, highly selective consumers—many of whom are isolated at home. Ask them your why questions, do some social listening, try that A/B test.
Results from these conversations (whether quantitative or qualitative) inform positioning, messaging, and audience identification. By audience identification, we mean defining and finding those customers or prospective customers who are or will be most loyal. It’s so important to know your loyalists, as their support can help insulate your brand during uncertain times.
2. Empower people with agency.
Once you’ve listened, empower your customers in ways you haven’t before. What do they need most right now from you? Search “COVID-19” in your email, and hundreds if not thousands of emails pop up. Brands are extending their heartfelt concern, but have we now maxed out this message? Empathy should always have a spot at the table, but so should enabled action.
The onus is now on marketers to charge people with the relevant information needed to relieve concerns that are holding so many consumers hostage. You’ve heard them and you’ve observed them, so now what is within your capacity to address—to get in front of? Can you put your loyalty program in overdrive or extend your rewards timeframe (we see you, Southwest and Hilton)? Can you increase trialability (Peloton)? It’s about alleviating barriers that will help your customer take the “leap,” especially during uncertain times, or reducing what social scientist Jonah Berger calls the cost-benefit timing gap: the cost of something is now and certain, yet the benefit comes later and is less certain, especially for your first-time customers. Remove that seed of doubt, and you may have a new loyalist.
So repeat after us: Do your research, then enable people to act.
3. Practice the Golden Rule.
A reminder to treat people the way you want to be treated—with respect. It’s worth the reminder for a couple of reasons. First, it’s deeply culturally relevant right now. People have been quick to name the gigantic elephant in the COVID-19 room: swaths of young people are ignoring reasonable restrictions. And there is a palpable outrage against this inhumane form of age discrimination. Young people are described as “heedless carriers” who become “potential executioners of friends and neighbors” (Spectator). And while it’s a justified outrage, our cultural idolization of youth over aging makes this disrespect, sadly, somewhat conceivable. Which brings us to reason #2 for the Golden Rule refresher.
How are we, as brands, taking responsibility for elevating everyone’s value, regardless of age? Uninviting ageism to our marketing decision making? This is our wake-up call, and a reminder that this is one “ism” that—since we all age!—we all have in common. More than half of the U.S. population is over 50, and they’re only represented in 15% of advertising images (NY Times). Very few of these show them working, but rather participating in leisure activities (53 million people in that 50+ cohort are working professionals).
Be inclusive and smart. If your target is exclusively this group or overlaps, represent them, talk to them, and please—we beg you—ditch the eccentric, tech-deficient stereotypes. There are 40 million 50+ women who, alone, represent $15 trillion in purchasing power, and they are anything but lacking savviness (Forbes).
4. Make it digestible.
We’re more anxious than ever and some researchers now consider loneliness an epidemic, with somewhere between half and three-quarters of us feeling lonely. This is especially relevant for each of us right now, as so many states shift toward shelter-in-place (stay-at-home) orders (NY Times). The amount of useless, confusing, or simply false information flowing through our news feeds and email in-boxes makes matters worse. As marketers, we have an opportunity to cut through the noise. To make information digestible, easy to understand, and actionable in ways that empower people (see point #2!).
And if you don’t know where to start or what to say, ask them what they want to hear from you. Especially during uncertain, anxiety-producing times, showing your humanity goes a long way. Consider this information about people to be a privilege, ditch what doesn’t help answer your strategic questions, and allow it to lead you to real insights about the humans to whom your brand should be talking. A single, clear, unbiased glimpse into just one customer’s human psyche will help you be a better partner. Use this intimate knowledge to inform your critical decisions—not just what you offer, but to whom you offer it, how you package it, and what you say about it. The basics are the basics for good reason.
So there’s a lot here. What we hope is that you pause to reset your focus. During this critical turning point in history, leverage what you know about people’s ever-adapting behaviors for good. Because we believe—and so do 98% of consumers—that brands have a responsibility in creating positive change. There’s no better time to be at your best brand self—really focusing on the shared values that form the foundation of all of your brand’s relationships—within the walls of your organization and among your customers. Now is the time to operate at your highest level, and focus on your unique brand truth.
Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.