Covid-19 as a comms catalyst

Pete Marcus

11 Aug 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed working life for everyone. Not just in terms of where and how we work, but also some of the assumptions and expectations implicit in what we do. That’s particularly true for the comms and marketing people responsible for how their brands communicate to external audiences. Campaigns and messages that felt right at the start of the year suddenly felt inappropriate or downright damaging just a few weeks later. As a huge health emergency swept the world, matters of life and death took priority over everything else. We took this as the starting point for our latest Comms Confessional event – the first one we’ve ever held virtually – with a group of clients last week. We explored how Covid-19 has been a catalyst for companies to communicate differently, shifting from talk to action. Brands today are increasingly judged by how they support their staff and customers through challenging circumstances, and contribute to society when we all need to pull together. It’s also a moment when brands’ sense of “purpose” – such a hotly debated term – comes into the spotlight. Has Covid-19, along with the Black Lives Matter protests, revealed purpose to be just another meaningless buzzword? Or have some brands been able to show their purpose in action during this time? Our discussion identified a tension between a business’s commercial priorities to sell, and the brand or comms objective to put the company in the best possible light. No one wants to be seen as taking advantage of the pandemic. But many brands have the desire – and ability – to solve people’s problems right now and should do so if they can. That’s especially true of many tech brands, whose infrastructure and support has been vital during lockdown. Just think of how much we’ve all relied on video calls, mobile connectivity and online streaming. Some of our participants talked about the need for the comms/marketing function to challenge some of the easy answers offered by the business around their brand purpose at this current time. That should push the business to develop a genuinely authentic and memorable viewpoint, strike the right tone and lead with actions, not words. They also emphasised the need to be agile and ready to change their comms/marketing approach quickly as events develop and the national mood shifts. Overall, the sense was that there’s a definite opportunity for a brand’s sense of purpose to be refreshed or updated given recent events. And maybe there are even more opportunities for a brand to be purposeful. In conclusion, we suggested five thoughts on what communicators can look at when aligning brand purpose with customer values in a post-Covid context:
  • Take a view – Come off the fence, find your POV and stick to it;
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint – The changes wrought by Covid will be with us for the long term and need to be viewed as such, so maintaining agile strategies as things change is crucial;
  • Take the opportunity to innovate – There’s never been a better time to try something different;
  • Make your people your biggest advocate – The brand experience is becoming increasingly synonymous with the employee experience, so get that right;
  • Be authentically human – One of the biggest lessons to come out of the Black Lives Matter moment was the way it tested companies instantly on their authenticity. There are no shortcuts, and purpose needs to run through a brand top to bottom if it’s to work.