Is your brand ready for a COVID-aware world?

Let’s start with one important distinction: there is no “post-COVID.” As a marketing strategist who works with a diverse set of brands and businesses, I continuously hear the refrain of “when all of this is over we will XYZ”. What most of us secretly know, although rarely want to admit, is that there is nothing in our future that goes back to the world we knew before COVID-19. While much of that involves things we would rather not deal with, like fear of disease, wariness of physical contact, loss of control and measuring everyday actions with life-and-death weight — there is a silver lining. COVID has taught me a lot about what I can live with and more importantly what I can live without.

Materialism that lacks utility is cancelled for 2020.

I definitely don’t need a lot of the fancy clothes that I spent an embarrassing amount of money and time acquiring. My feet recoil at the sight of high heels. It turns out my kids don’t miss days overscheduled with birthday parties, toddler yoga, and overpriced “fill-in-the-blank” lessons. (It also turns out that everyone needs accessible childcare and healthcare, but we’ll talk about that in my next article). Discarded Amazon cartons, once they have quarantined in the garage for a couple days, produce hours of fort-building fun. And these days, I need a flashy car as much as my kids need new back-to-school wardrobes.

But there are a number of things that we collectively miss more than most of us can verbally express. A spirited face-to-face conversation unconstrained by a 40 minute Zoom cut off and spotty WiFi. The spontaneous invitation to a friend’s house that transforms into an unexpectedly epic evening. Watching children form new, organic peer relationships without the weight of social distancing and masks.

Connection that transcends fear of disease is pandemic gold.

In short, many of us (who are privileged enough to stay home during this time) do not miss the obligations that came with life before COVID: long commutes, over-scheduled weekends, crowded venues and interactions with people whose company we don’t particularly enjoy. But we do miss freedom and spontaneity, planned activities with friends and chance encounters with the world. And this feeling of longing and the emptiness that sits where social connection used to reside, leaves an indelible mark on our souls.

Which is why I began this article asserting that there is no post-COVID. There is simply before COVID and how we choose to live once we learn how to live with it. It’s a brand new state of mind I have coined “COVID-aware”. Because this period of our lives has been so protracted and emotionally taxing, it will not fade quickly from our collective and individual memories, both conscious and subconscious. Nor should it. As we move through this period while striving to minimize further unnecessary death and long-term economic destruction, it only makes sense to hold people and brands to a higher standard.

After the ultimate elimination diet, the bar has never been higher for brands and products to make their way back into our lives.

So as a business is trying to evaluate how to rekindle, rebuild or resuscitate relationships with consumers, it can be a dizzying roller coaster of twists and turns. Many attempt to cling desperately to the space their brand used to occupy, only to find that quadrant in the two-by-two matrix obliterated and their brand without an intellectual or physical home. We wonder if all the rules of marketing have changed overnight. My humble assertion is no — the underlying rules have not changed in as much as the frame of reference has shifted. Your channel strategy has evolved to meet a digital, contactless medium. Your imagery has become all about social distancing, hygiene cues and tight shots to avoid things looking too stilted or sterile. Your messaging has attempted to empathize with this global pandemic struggle. But three fundamental marketing truths remain:

  • Brands are tools
  • Tools solve problems
  • Best problem-solvers win

As we consider how to position our brands in the COVID-aware world we now forever inhabit, what timeless problems matter now more than ever?

Fear and anxiety about a new disease and a rapidly changing reality can cause strong, unwelcome emotions. Much of self-care can involve giving our overwhelmed sensory receptors a break and focusing on a positive diversion. Enter the distractor brand — “hey, look over here.”

Masterclass website

Distractor brands can include simple pleasures that provide a momentary salve to big, difficult feelings or more grandiose escapes that transport someone for hours on a more regular basis. The right kind of frivolity can make for a powerful brand when COVID is our reality.

Miss that mindless visit to your favorite store? Has the joy of shopping given way to a manic, fruitless search for Clorox Wipes? Introducing Wish which promises ”Shopping Made Fun.” It’s the 2020 version of cruising the mall with your friends: mindlessly browsing inexpensive, whimsical items with no specific purchase goal in mind. Wish is not a new company (est. 2010), but it has taken on an enhanced role in customers’ lives during this time. The platform employs browsing technologies which personalizes shopping visually for each customer, instead of the industry standard: ubiquitous, utilitarian, and efficient search bar.

Is your brain paralyzed between the 24 hour news cycle and binge-watching your 100th Netflix series? Need a mental retreat? “Learn from the Experts” on MasterClass, an online learning platform that avoids teaching hard skills in favor of passions and creative outlets. An approachable price point gains you all access to the star-studded collection of instructors. Learn shooting and ball handling from Stephen Curry. Brush up on your photography skills with Annie Liebovitz. Try something new. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Tired of making your own coffee for the past 6 months? Miss that barista who always knew your name and favorite $5 beverage? When COVID-19 hit, Starbucks had to do a hard pivot away from its “third place” cafe play towards a lower touch drive-thru and walk-up window concept. This shift to convenience is part of a longer term strategy to make the Starbucks experience more accessible and efficient. It also positions Starbucks as the perfect pandemic escape. Periodic treats that remind us of the world before COVID-19 can reduce stress and provide hints of normalcy in a world that is anything but.

2. We feel isolated and alone

This probably goes without saying, but people (your consumers), are lonely — really lonely. Those who lived alone when the world screeched to a halt feel especially unlucky with their surprise starring role in Cast Away. But anyone who relied heavily on interactions with people outside their household for emotional care and feeding (i.e. most of us) has a void to fill, stat. And this is not a trivial need. Decades of research support that our need for social connection is as fundamental as our need for food and water, according to social psychologist Matthew Lieberman.

Facebook @onepeloton

Connector brands help consumers to transcend the now larger physical divide and create emotional and quasi-physical connections — in both high and low tech ways. Take Peloton, for instance. What would motivate a rational consumer to spend $2000+ on equipment and $39/month to ride a bike indoors? Community, that’s what. Peloton experienced a 66% year-over-year increase in sales last quarter, due in large part to the nationwide stay-at-home orders. But, with a net promoter score of 91 (which is higher than Apple and Netflix), the digital fitness experience brand is offering more than just exercise. Peloton instructors and peer groups connect subscribers to support, encouragement and friendship.

Zoom is to the video conference what Kleenex is to tissues — synonymous and also the gold standard. For Zoom and its founder, Eric Yuan, the goal has always been sustainable customer happiness. This may sound simplistic, but achieving it requires assessing every product feature and customer interaction through this very empathic lens. The rigor paid off, because when people were looking to video meet and chat amidst coronavirus, Zoom won a disproportionate share of the marketplace. It was customer-driven features, such as ease of use, free limited subscriptions, participant tile view and even a choice of backgrounds that helped enable connection when consumers needed it most.

3. We are facing an onslaught of novel problems that need to be solved concurrently

Need to educate your kids while also WFH? Have to get a COVID-19 test result within 3 days before showing up to a new job? Need groceries but don’t want to leave the house? The list of never-before-seen problems is seemingly endless. Transformer brands approach existing solutions and often re-invent them through a COVID-aware lens. Clayton M. Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail asserts that “firms that were most successful in commercializing a disruptive technology were those framing their primary development challenge as a marketing one: to build or find a market where product competition occurred along dimensions that favored the disruptive attributes of the product.”

Take medical testing, for instance. In the pre-COVID world, it was acceptable to visit a healthcare site, get a blood draw and then wait a week for most results. With this highly infectious and often asymptomatic virus, a week delay could mean many lives lost. Transformer brands, such as Sorrento Therapeutics, are turning this legacy testing model on its head. The company entered a licensing agreement with Columbia University and are racing to produce a rapid on-site detection test for SARS-CoV-2 virus using saliva. If successful in receiving FDA approval, this test would eliminate the need for lab processing and yield results in minutes.

Courtesy of SchoolHouse

Transformer brands need not be tech-forward. Microschools and learning pods, possibly the biggest innovation to hit primary school education in a century, is in many ways a pandemic-fueled return to the low-tech, one room schoolhouse. After the remote-learning experiment of Spring 2020 yielded mixed results, companies like Prenda and SchoolHouse have experienced a surge in demand to create instructor-led, in-person learning pods of 3–10 children. Families pool their financial, talent and/or space resources to supplement or replace the educational experiences offered by local school districts. While this innovation will arguably widen social-economic achievement gaps, if scaled with an eye towards equity it could bring about necessary change in how education is delivered to all children.

The next steps for turning pandemic into possibility for your brand are both simple and hard.

Get real with reality, it’s happening

Companies lose precious time and competitive ground by filtering first time events through a lens of their prior experience. The thing about the novel coronavirus is that it is just that: novel. Unprecedented circumstances are uncomfortable and many people will cope by trying to move through them as quickly as possible. Don’t be in such a hurry for these moments to pass. As marketers we have a lot to learn by sitting with and observing this discomfort. When we allow ourselves to really let the insights set in, we can paint a breakthrough picture of the future unknown.

Stop worrying, start repositioning

The differentiators that propelled your brand before may fall flat in a COVID-aware world. And the solution isn’t simply hitting harder on these differentiators, like a hammer in search of a nail. Success going forward means looking at the new problems to solve and objectively assessing what existing or new differentiators are now important.

Take your strategic plan, blow it up

This one requires a relentless spirit, as many in your organization will suggest that you tweak the plan around the edges. As marketers, it’s important that we highlight how the change in customer needs may or will impact the nuts and bolts of your company’s business plan. Some of the new solutions will require a multi-step strategic shift to the business. It’s important to document these shifts in a new COVID-aware strategic plan to drive alignment and accountability.

The rules of marketing haven’t dramatically changed. The best problem-solver brands still win. However, certain problems to be solved have risen in prominence overnight, eclipsing others. How is your brand responding?

Chief Marketing Officer, strategist and business transformation leader who inspires organizations to adapt, excel and thrive amidst uncertainty