Brands Will Pay a Steep Price If They Don’t Say Something

People's need for security is more heightened than ever

Meet consumers where they are with what they want to hear. - Credit by Illustration: Amira Lin
Headshot of Collette Eccleston

For months, the coronavirus pandemic sent shockwaves of fear and uncertainty throughout the consumer landscape. Out of necessity, many people adopted new buying habits and preferences during the lockdown; they gravitated toward ecommerce, curbside pickup and contactless delivery options. Now that the economy is reopening, one question looms large: How many of these temporary buying habits will become permanent preferences?

This uncertainty presents a problematic situation for marketers—and that situation has only become more complicated after weeks of protests against police brutality and racial injustice. These issues certainly demand systemic change, but they also require adjustments in terms of brand messaging.

The complexity of the current situation means it’s more important than ever for marketers to target and tailor their messages to meet audience members’ ideologies, locations and needs.

We know a “new normal” will come out of all of this, but we don’t know what that will look like. As a result, brands will likely struggle for the indefinite future to create advertisements and messages that effectively and accurately speak to consumers’ psychological and product needs.

Shaping the future with lessons from the present

Throughout the pandemic, brands have taken a variety of approaches to communicate with consumers. Most have focused on sending uplifting messages of comfort and togetherness—many of which feel like empty platitudes—but some have taken a more alarmist approach.

As brands begin to speak out on race, justice and equality, it’s more important than ever to go beyond those platitudes. Many brands are choosing to react now, at this moment, even though their consumers may feel differently about the issues. Considering the magnitude of the response across the world, they’ll likely pay a steep price if they don’t say something. But brands must go beyond virtue signaling by responding to and addressing issues within their own organizations while taking meaningful action to create change—instead of just talking about it.

Overstock, for example, recently sent an email to subscribers stating that it stands with its Black customers, employees and partners, and the Black community as a whole. The brand statement plainly pledges solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but the message only works because it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to list specific actions the company plans to take, like expanding its volunteer program to combat racial injustice, encouraging employees to vote by offering more paid time off and increasing the diversity of its teams at all levels.

Because this message shows support and action, it takes on a new meaning that will resonate far more with consumers.

Moving forward, marketers will have to strike a tricky balance. They must create campaigns that subtly acknowledge the coronavirus crisis and social issues while conveying how their brands will address consumers’ evolving psychological and emotional needs. This will be further complicated by the spread of the virus, reopening plans that differ by location and ongoing calls for social justice.

The complexity of the current situation means it’s more important than ever for marketers to target and tailor their messages to meet audience members’ ideologies, locations and needs.

Easing the transition

When the time comes to transition to a new reality, your top priority should be building relationships. Forgo the emotional imagery and “we’re all in this together” messaging. Instead, marketers must understand what drives consumers’ deep sense of connection with their brands and then work to reinforce those ideas.

Like any relationship in which the individuals have undergone major changes and might be dealing with unprecedented life stress, it’s important to recommit to the things that define the relationship and demonstrate being there in times of need. Brands need to articulate how they’re helping consumers adapt to the new normal and express how they will offer ongoing support. This may come in the form of optimism rather than empathy, or inspiration instead of mourning. This tactic of meeting consumers where they are will resonate because it’s what those consumers most need to hear.

Stay open and honest, too. Tell the world what your brand is learning, and highlight new products, processes or policies you are creating to enhance the safety and wellbeing of both your employees and consumers.

Through everything, ensure that your messaging speaks directly to consumers’ psychological and emotional needs. People’s need for security is more heightened than ever—both in terms of our physical health and justice for all. Brands that use this moment to form authentic connections with customers while addressing these fundamental needs will see the benefits well into the future, as we transition into a new tomorrow.


Collette Eccleston is svp of the Pragmatic Brain Science Institute at LRW.
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