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Life through a long-term lens: How Covid-19 is changing marketing

In June last year the Financial Times, in association with the IPA, published an interesting report titled ‘The Board – Brand Rift, how business leaders have stopped building brands’. For those of us working in the communications world the report was a sobering read;

  • Over half of business leaders, including 30% of senior-level marketers, rate their knowledge of brand building as average to very poor
  • Only 20% of marketers think strong brands are ‘very important’ for ‘increased profitability
  • Globally there has been a significant shortening of marketing reporting cycles, focusing much more on short-term lead generation
  • Of those businesses who solely use sales KPIs, only 55% of leaders stated they believed in the power of creativity

The most interesting outtake, and one that those of us working in PR and comms were acutely aware of already, was the gradual shift in marketing investment, from long-term brand-building to shorter-term direct response campaigns.

Whilst we firmly believe that PR and comms has a role at all stages of the customer journey, with content playing a valid and underplayed role lower down the sales funnel, the demise of investment in brand building has been concerning as this is where PR can really sing. Over the years we’ve seen the power of brand building through PR; campaigns that permeate the national consciousness and build a relationship for a brand on an emotional level. Gregg’s Vegan Sausage Roll, the NHS missing type campaign and pretty much everything Brewdog have done.

So where does this leave us now against the backdrop of Covid-19? Every day there is a new behavioural economics report telling us how consumers are going to feel as we move through the crisis, and how brands can support and ultimately maintain a relationship, when critically they are unable to sell.

While we are in the crisis phase real-time marketing needs to be carefully considered, with anything playful resolutely parked. This brilliant piece in Ad Age said it all; What should marketers do for April Fool’s this Year? Nothing. Brands nailing it are those focusing on being useful. Uber Eats for example has cut fees and opened up the platform to independents, promising daily rather than weekly payments.

In the consumer world, aside from FMCG, grocery and e-commerce, Covid-19 has challenged the focus on short-team lead generation until life returns to normal. As Mark Ritson, Marketing week columnist said in his webinar; “Covid-19 has stopped the hamster wheel. How will you play the game again when the world starts turning again?”

Ritson has also predicted that after the initial crisis period is over, we will experience a false pneuma. A period when we embrace a new way of life for a matter of weeks and believe in the pornography of change; the concept that we will all be changed for evermore. History shows however that people don’t really change. After the mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s 60% of consumers vowed to never eat British beef again. But they quickly forgot and after a short blip normality resumed.

When the euphoria of normal life resuming fades away, everything points to a dive down into an exogenous recession. And brand equity alongside ad spend will determine who survives.

How can you prepare your brand to weather the storm? Now is the time to stop and focus on a more meaningful long-term relationship between brands and the consumers we want to still remember them; be it in 3 weeks, 3 months or even longer-term.

So how can you bring a bit of brand building back to your marketing strategy?

  1. Consider your channel-mix. PR is a fantastic channel for brand-building driving word of mouth, social and content; the channels consistently called out by marketers as the most successful for brand building
  2. Get creative – 46% of business leaders believe that creativity used wisely drives growth. Some great ideas to help you stay inspired here
  3. Undertake a brand health check now so when the crisis is over you have tangible data to evaluate against
  4. Think real-time, now more than ever before marketing needs to move fast to keep up with the constantly changing world

There is constant debate as to whether lockdown will change us all fundamentally as people, but what the mad cow crisis showed us is that people don’t change. I wonder if the same will be true of how we approach marketing and communications; will a more long-term strategic view become the norm or will short-term tactical lead generation continue to dominant? I for one hope we hold onto some of the magic of brand building.

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