Posted in: Opinion

What 2020 taught us about brand

Unprecedented challenges will have a long-lasting impact on all aspects of our lives; none more so than in the world of brand.

10th December 2020

James Bolton

James Bolton

James Bolton

Written by James Bolton,
Brand Strategist & Creative Copywriter

In a whirlwind year of uncertainty and the unknown, the past 12 months have provided plenty of lessons that will stand us in good stead as we head into 2021 and beyond.

From initial brand reactions to the pandemic back in March, all the way to family-focussed festive adverts, it’s been a time when brands have had to come to terms with a new way to work, shop and live.

Purpose matters, make it count

Back at the very start of the year, the use of terms such as key worker, social distancing and self-isolating were virtually non-existent. Even words like lockdown were reserved for video games or the latest post-apocalyptic blockbuster. The notion that a global pandemic was about to restrict and threaten our lives was even more unimaginable.

Stay home, save lives. NHS banner 2020.

Yet nearly 12 months on, the new normal has firmly become the normal. As coronavirus took over our world, businesses were quick to respond and play their part in the fight against an invisible killer. And while many hit the spot, there were plenty of others that missed the mark. For brands who shout loud and proud about caring for customers, communities or causes, their purpose has been put to the test more than ever due to COVID-19.

However, the pandemic is far from the only factor. In an age of misinformation where democracy is increasingly fragile and upheaval seemingly frequent, consumers are turning to companies to solve societal issues. This makes for a complex cocktail where health crises, political shake-ups and the big philosophical questions collide to create an environment of uncertainty and mistrust.

Absolut vodka, US election 2020 advert.

But brands with a purpose have power. A strong and true business mission that resonates with your audience will help you withstand and even flourish during uncertain times. At the core of that purpose must be humane, transparent and simple communication. Some of the world’s biggest brands have mastered this and successfully built both trust and loyalty in the process.

Conversation not conversion

The past year has seen a seismic shift in the way that businesses are approaching their marketing and advertising. Many brands have reconfigured their internal GPS to focus on purely image building. Gone are the days of cold, hard product placements and costly city centre billboards. Even the fake and phoney influencer culture has taken a back seat, in favour of human-focussed, conversation-led messaging.

Emily Snacks Lockdown Advert

Emily Snacks Lockdown Advert

This is all delivered in a people-first approach, that puts the collective ahead of the corporation. At a time when we all need some help and comfort, brands are filling the void and helping their customers navigate choppy waters. If that seems like a stretch for your brand, give people the other thing they’re looking for — a joyful distraction; something that makes them smile in a time of hardship. Both routes will help build brand loyalty, as well as promote unity and support, which ultimately should be intrinsically linked with your core brand purpose.

Setting the tone

As always, tone and authenticity go hand in hand. Your brand purpose should shine through, guided by a light that puts people first. That’s both internally with your employees as well as externally with your customers, target audience and wider public.

Everything you do needs to be looked at as a human-being, through an empathetic set of eyes. Don’t be self-serving; don’t be cynical; don’t talk like an organisation. All of 2020’s successful communication strategies have involved speaking up, humanising content and taking a responsibility-first approach.

Take Nike’s stance on the global effort to stay at home and tackle the pandemic.

Nike's 'Play Inside' advert during COVID19

Nike's 'Play Inside' advert during COVID19

While the copy essentially goes against the typical core message of any sports brand, Nike brings responsibility and empathy to the fore by communicating with its customers while still staying consistent to its brand voice.

Another example is how brands have dealt with topical issues such as social distancing, as well as the role of key workers. While the latter has predominantly come in the form of offers, discounts or exclusive rewards, the former has been much more about embracing new rules and discussing them openly, freely and even with a hint of humour where appropriate. were one such example. As the travel industry was hit hard, the brand took a different approach by replacing its usual adverts with a campaign more in tune with the current globe crisis.

In just 15 seconds, they respectfully acknowledge the situation while still contributing to the conversation and promoting their brand. This ethically-focused approach also cleverly appeals to both potential employees and customers alike.

The kindness economy

This all plays into a growing trend that Mary Portas has called ‘the kindness economy’; where customers have fundamentally changed what they’re looking for in products and brands. Where fast fashion and department stores once flourished, there’s increasing demand for niche brands that reflect outlooks and more importantly values. From worker’s rights to attitudes on Brexit and commitments to sustainability, businesses are increasingly being judged on their moral values; which according to many experts will determine whether they sink or swim in the future.

In a similar vein, many brands have taken a stand against the saturated and unsustainable nature of Black Friday. Next, M&S and Ikea are just a handful of the well-known names who decided not to take part this year. Alongside a high proportion of small businesses, these brands have gone against the grain and shunned discounts on what’s typically a key trading day in the run-up to Christmas.

For many, including Ikea, their stance is a response to the industry’s wasteful consumerism. The Swedish flat pack specialists are instead offering to buy-back unwanted furniture items, giving its products a second life, while offering customers an easy and affordable way to live more sustainably.

This morally-informed strategic decision may reduce profits in the short term, but if the theory of the kindness economy is true, it will go a long way to nurturing brand loyalty for years to come. And ultimately, the brands that are well-equipped for long-term success will be those who have the ability to deal with a shifting landscape; regardless of flash sales, global pandemics or environmental attitudes.

Festive ads with a difference

Carrying on the people-first theme, this year’s Christmas ads have followed in the footsteps of the industry’s wider reactions to the pandemic. After a tough year there’s a focus on bringing people together in different ways, as well as highlighting community spirit, and treating yourself and those who mean the most.

Rather than giving presents, John Lewis have gone with a pandemic theme of kindness and giving to charity; something which is the cornerstone of its new five-year purpose-led strategy.

Marks & Spencer have tread a similar path with a charity-twist on their usual food porn ads. The multinational retailer is donating £2m to the chosen charities of their celebrity voice-over cast, as well as an additional £1m via their Sparks loyalty scheme.

And while other brands have gone with different strategies to grapple for attention during a completely different festive season, they’re all united in using community-centric stories that are inspired by people’s warmth and generosity over the past year.

Keep the humane flag flying high

One thing to always bear in mind is that this is a global pandemic. Even after lockdowns have been lifted and restrictions eased, we’ll still be seeing the effects on everything around us for a while to come. Ultimately and sadly, families and friends have lost loved ones too.

This is not an opportunity to forcefully push your products or service. Take a step back and support the community around you; your employees, customers and neighbours. But don’t just do it for your own sake. Do it because you care. Do it because you’re human and you want to make a difference.

The brands that cement and ultimately live by their values will be the brands that are best positioned for long-term success; no matter what circumstances or challenges emerge. Stay empathetic and morally-led long after the pandemic is over, and you’ll help create a better place as well as a stronger, more purpose-led brand in the post-COVID world.

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