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Why COVID-19 will give way to a new era of communication


May 28, 2020 By Kristina Mestsaninova, Managing Partner, dentsu X UK

To communicate or to not communicate has been the starting point for all brands. Both approaches are laden with challenges.

In the weeks following the UK lockdown on 23rd March 2020, brands have been navigating the complex and delicate balance of communicating during the global pandemic, and we as agencies have had to adapt in order to support them.

To communicate or to not communicate has been the starting point for all brands. Most have chosen to go dark over this period and some have chosen to tailor communications to be COVID-19 appropriate. Both approaches are laden with challenges.

Consumption of media and content has changed over the lockdown period, offering opportunity for brands to communicate more effectively and to claw a share of attention (often at a lower media cost). However, this deal comes with the added complexity of heightened consumer sensitivity to brand communications which has major implications on tone of voice for brands. The important, yet difficult, balance to strike is being helpful whilst not appearing opportunistic. And the key to achieving this is by asking, “Where does my brand add value?”

Adapting creative can be sufficient, but if we look at past successes and in particular the Coca-Cola “The Pause That Refreshes” campaign from the Great Depression (1929), we know that adding value and true integration of creative message and placement is key to success in a crisis. This elevates the role of creativity to the utmost importance, and requires bravery on the part of brands to enter unchartered waters. Consumers see through clichés and they will make their distaste known, especially at a time when social media use sees a huge jump as consumers become more active in engaging with others and brands.

For those brands that are communicating, there have broadly been 3 key themes: togetherness, gratitude and practicality. To make the right kind of impact with each of these messages we need to return to the question about how brands can add true value.

Togetherness: To stand out in a sea of “we’re in this together” messaging, brands operating in this space need to go above and beyond solidarity and tangibly contribute to togetherness. Many brand managers have wondered if humour is appropriate - it is, but not in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. However, entertainment and helpful advice to people stuck at home (especially families with children) has been a winning strategy.

Gratitude: Many brands have rushed to thank front line workers across their advertising, and this is wonderful. However, offering real help makes the message that much more powerful. There are several great examples ranging from discounted Bolt trips, to skincare parcels, to donated Land Rover Defenders – all helping front line staff fight the crisis. Many of these brands are not communicating their acts of gratitude via paid channels. It’s a simple formula: show gratitude, genuinely do something to help, just don’t make it commercial.  

Practicality: Those communicating practicality are generally the closest to a commercial message, and in this space instead of simply urging the consumer to buy, brands need to back their words with a truly helpful offer. This is where deep understanding of consumer motivation is key. Instead of offering a discount, consider whether flexibility of payment terms or pay holidays would offer your consumers greater peace of mind than a one-off discount.

Short-termism is a natural reaction, after all, this is a disruption and, by its nature, disruption is temporary. However, we don’t believe that to be the case this time. Whilst this crisis is a moment in time, the effects of it will be long lasting. With only nine percent of Britons wanting life to return to normal after the coronavirus outbreak is over,* brands can’t afford to simply wait for this moment to pass. As demonstrated by case studies from previous recessions, we know brands that adapt and continue a level of communication during an economic downturn tend to reap benefits in the long term.  In addition to preserving their presence in the market, the earlier brands start establishing a new adapted tone of voice and communication approach, the easier will be their exit from this crisis and emergence into the “new normal.”