We are a lonely nation. A 2018 study by Cigna found nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. Enter a pandemic of an unprecedented scale and swiftness that has forced people to take refuge within their four walls. What has so far been described as an epidemic of loneliness is rapidly transforming into intense isolation. Forrester measures consumer energy along four dimensions: identity vs. isolation, trust vs. distrust, novelty vs. comfort and efficacy vs. vulnerability. The more people are orientated toward identity, trust, novelty and efficacy, the more open they are to new experiences. The more they move away from these dimensions, the less likely they are to engage with innovation. The March 2020 read out shows a 10-point drop across all dimensions from same time last year, with the biggest drop in Identity. People are moving away from an orientation toward a tribe or community, into isolation.
This is not surprising in light of the overnight shut down of cities across the world. With events of every nature suspended indefinitely, our sense of community is under threat. As office lights go out one by one, we no longer have the shared in-person experience a team provides. We’re also missing the almost religious ecstasy of 20,000 people singing along to an encore. The shared outrage at an unexpected plot twist in a TV show. The graduations, the rallies, the festivals, the physical experiences that take us out of our virtual worlds to connect us to something bigger than ourselves are deferred for an indefinite time. The moments that bring us physically together have dried up and at a time when our anxiety levels are at their highest, we have lost connection to our tribes.
As global leaders offer inconsistent messages that do little to offer comfort, we look to brands to step into the vacuum. Brand building is a long game, and like any relationship, requires constant nurturing. The best brands create a sense of belonging by using their own channels, paid media and influential voices to communicate a purpose and a consistent set of values. With uncertainty around consumer spending, supply chain challenges and consumer behaviors not seen in any marketing playbook, brands are faced with tough decisions around their communication. It is tempting to go dark with brand communication as marketers manage the health of their business. While it may be prudent from a revenue perspective, consider this through the lens of a relationship. Are you ghosting the people who have given you their attention and money at a time when they crave normalcy and are looking for signs that the world will return to a better place?
Cheers to Guinness for their St Patty’s day message of unity and community, their assurance that they are here for the long run and to offer us the hope that we’ll march on again. Guinness, like many other brands, has pledged monetary support to local communities, putting its money where its mouth is. McDonalds in Brazil has used the visual power of its Golden Arches to encourage social distancing by separating the arches. Nike has stayed consistent to its equity but adapted it to the times by encouraging people to play inside and reminding people of the community impact of social distancing. Nike has also stayed consistent to its content distribution strategy, leveraging its athletes to amplify the message of social distancing and the importance of community. In a world where familiar signposts are disappearing every day, these brands provide comfort through their instantly recognizable voices and the assets they are known for.
While we make the case for the importance of brand communication at a time of extreme dislocation, it is important to acknowledge the tightrope brands walk in their bottom of funnel communication. As people prioritize their spending and are yo-yoing between panic buying and cutting back, now is not the time to flood mailboxes with unsolicited catalogues that add to clutter and stress or to lean into ‘buy me’ messaging. Ask permission before selling someone something and work hard to recognize the individual consumer so you can acknowledge them when they interact with you. This is a good time for brands to strengthen their omnichannel intelligence, so they are able to leverage consumer data to read the signals and respond with sensitivity. For example, McDonalds in Dubai showed great empathy with a simple message that read ‘We’ve seen you’ve placed your order from the hospital. Hope you’re keeping well. Your order is on us.’
Broadway’s lights are out tonight and will be for many nights to come. But the hope is that brands will keep the lights on, creating content that is empathetic and in the voice that we know and love, to inspire us to stay the course to a time when this will be behind us. They can put a smile on our face as we try to winnow out fake news and false hope. Because if not brands, then who will?