What’s Next? Navigating the COVID-19 impact on marketing

We in marketing often turn to technology, pop culture and even futurists to try to divine, ‘What’s Next?’ Our interest in knowing what lies ahead has intensified over the years as technology ratchets up our need to understand trends and our role in creating them. But COVID-19 has forced all of us to look forward very carefully, not just to stay ahead of trends, but as a matter of survival. No one knows exactly how COVID-19 will impact the marketing industry, which is prompting several questions::

  • How can brands nurture meaningful customer conversations with the world changing so quickly?
  • How do we have conversations without seeming tone deaf?
  • How will we re-engage as things return to normal?
  • What does the new normal even look like? 

The good news is, there are some guideposts to help us navigate a path forward. And by guideposts, I mean the past. If we look at the patterns of public discourse and marketing before, during and after other moments that tested us as a nation, we can see themes that range from ebullience to ‘What the $#@! just happened?’ In the more recent 24-hour news cycle past, we can look at the dot com boom and crash, September 11th and the economic recession of 2008 to identify a few themes that can help many brands move forward with some confidence. Because, as volumes of data show, the last thing you want to do is go quiet and miss opportunities to deepen your brand’s relationship with your customers. 

Phase 1: Authenticity

This is the phase right after a catastrophic event. It’s the moment when the dust starts to settle and our desire for normalcy flips the switch from being shell-shocked to seeking re-engagement. A recent example is this year’s Budweiser “One Team” commercial. We typically see heartfelt conversations about working together and the power of good. This kind of marketing feels good for a while but quickly wears thin, as we’re seeing right now with memes deriding large brands suddenly finding their hearts. We’re currently at the tail end of this phase.

Phase 2: Performance

This is where we start seeing conversations about how to move forward and reposition your brand to win in the new world. We see a lot of marketing around optimizing your business, finding new customers, streamlining operations, embracing new technology, etc. For example, two years after the economic collapse of 2008, FedEx aired the TV commercial, “Kyle.” This is where we get back into Game-Think mode to fine-tune expansion plans and grow things intelligently. 

Phase 3: Simplicity

Since Phase 2 is powered by marketing noise and economic momentum, it’s no surprise that Phase 3 counters it with the market’s desire to turn back the knob and refocus on the things that truly matter. An example of this is VW’s Pink Moon commercial from 1999. Youth and millennial brands were already trending this way over the last decade, but the COVID-19 reboot has super-charged it. In a way, it’s akin to the romantic poet and arts movement of the 19th century Industrial Age. Today, it’s a rebellion against expansive commercialization, technology and information overload. It’s a call to remember what really matters in our lives: family, friends, community, giving and authentic and shared experiences.

Phase 4: Humor and Irreverence

Remember the dancing monkey in the Etrade ad during the dot com boom in 2000? They actually bragged about how much money was cranking through the investment community. It was funny. It was celebratory. It also preceded the dot com crash. It’s kind of where we’ve been over the last year. The point is, advertising in this phase becomes as much about entertainment and likeability as it does about driving sales. A recent example of this is the Doritos’s 2019 Super Bowl commercial, “Now it’s hot.” 

Three ways to navigate the COVID-19 impact on your marketing

Remember, these themes don’t happen in a vacuum. The current state of the world has forced us to consider not only how COVID-19 impacts marketing, but also new ways of doing business in general. Aside from the obvious points about the importance of data and the need to be agile, here are three things brands should do now to remain relevant:

1. Be More Transparent. 

This is directly related to brands becoming more authentic. We’re seeing this already with how brands manage their social channels to better convey the good things they do for society. But without an element of transparency, this all rings hollow and, dare we say, sounds like marketing. Transparency is the engine of authenticity. 

2. Find Your Tribe.

For more than a decade now, we’ve been seeing a willingness among Americans to coalesce in groups (or tribes) around brands they like and trust, even if their prices go up or, on occasion, they make a mistake. Why? Because people don’t just like products, they like the brand and what it stands for. This kind of allegiance is invaluable and is nurtured by several key elements within a brand’s control: the products or services they sell, their actions as a company, and how they express all of this in marketing. Few brands do this better than Patagonia.

3. Embrace Humanizing Technology. 

Our zest for technology and data has meant many brands lack the spark of human creativity and the ability to make deeper connections. But COVID-19 has supercharged momentum toward the importance of tech serving people as much as it does IP portfolios. In a way, COVID-19 is giving us a chance to reboot and really think about how technology improves customer experiences for the long term. Acorns is a company that does this well. Facebook has been improving its game in this arena, too. 

Though COVID-19 is a new phenomenon, some reflection on historic marketing cycles indicates we are migrating from Phase 1 to Phase 2. As upside-down as things seem to be, the inclination might be to tap the brakes and pull back on marketing. But history indicates, now is the time to keep your marketing moving forward. Sign up here if you’d like to read our forthcoming ebook on how to navigate marketing in a post-COVID-19 world.