David Worthington & Jill Peel, Managing Director & Creative Director, 10 Associates

Many of us have been unable to see and hear from friends for a while now. Under the restrictions, it can become too easy for us to lose touch, put relationships at risk and stop sharing our lives with those we have been close to. Consequently, we strengthen the bonds with the ones we do hear from. Our relationships with brands is exactly the same.

Working with brands for over 20 years I thought I’d seen everything… but nothing quite like this lockdown has ever happened before and it has made me rethink the relationships we, as consumers and users, have with brands.

I remembered, from my earliest days in the industry, an article on marketing during World War 2 that opened my eyes to the power of brand. In short, it described the decision by McDougall’s flour to maintain a consistent and visible presence in its advertising and marketing, despite rationing frustrating any increased sales at that time.

While competitors ceased all advertising, on the purely economic basis that there was no need to promote sales of something that had limited availability, McDougalls understood that one day, all this would be over and that customers would once again purchase flour without the limitations of rationing. Which brand would they choose at this auspicious moment? McDougalls reported record sales of the brand that was perceived to have been right alongside the consumer throughout the difficult times. McDougalls became the preferred UK flour brand and reinforced the brand loyalty that laid the foundations for the future growth into the iconic RHM plc it is today.

This, to my young marketing mind, was a startling revelation. It opened up my thinking, beyond design and marketing statistics. It revealed to me that to thrive, brands needed to have a conversation with their customers, they had to communicate in a way that emotionally connected with their audience.

Above everything, to me, it appeared brave. When resources were at their most limited, McDougalls defiantly refused to cut their marketing budget or deviate from their strategy. This to me was a game-changer.

Right now, with the COVID19 situation throwing everything we know into a new state of confusion and with brands seeing potential losses, many companies are reacting by pulling creative campaigns and reviewing creative budgets. A Kantar survey of UK marketers found that 55% have postponed or are reviewing creative campaigns, while 60% are reviewing budgets.

“Brand health becomes vulnerable when companies stop marketing,” says Kantar Insights. “If they do this for longer than six months it destroys both short-term and long-term health.”

With the spirit of the McDougalls campaign in my mind, I agree wholeheartedly with this viewpoint. The messages and approach to what a brand communicates is a topic of its own discussion for another day… but to consistently let your customers know you are still around for them and to say something reassuring and supportive is crucial.

The first casualty of any business crisis is usually the marketing budget. The perception from the C-Suite is, sadly too often, “why waste money on the touchy-feely stuff when we have real problems like wages and bills to pay?”

I have found it refreshingly comforting that many brands have resisted the temptation to fall in line with this outdated thinking, instead embracing the “bravery” of reassuring their customers that, despite the seismic changes to our lifestyles, they are standing strong alongside them. We see this on the Zoom video-interface ads from banks and supermarkets, their staff – regular people, just like you and me – imploring us to stay safe and strong, that we’re all in this together, and that business is continuing, if not quite as usual.

It would be too easy to pull the campaigns they had running and not replace them in order to save resources. In my opinion, there will have been one or two wobbly moments when deciding how to proceed, and I expect no small amount of sleepless nights. But the overwhelming feedback has been positive as brands see their reputations maintained and even strengthened by how they have responded to this situation.

Conversely, it is interesting to observe the social media reaction to those brands that have publicly shied away from their responsibilities and are now paying the price in terms of brand perception. They will have to consider a different type of bravery when it comes to rescuing their brand post COVID 19. I find it difficult to understand any organization looking to rebuild brand awareness when it is so lacking in self-awareness. But that is why brand consultancies such as our own exist – to help brands who have been unable to help themselves. Perhaps one of the bravest things a brand can do is to admit this and reach out for help.

At 10 Associates, we are working through the lockdown with several brands who recognise the value of maintaining a positive message throughout these challenges.

One such client is The Portmeirion Group.

Phil Atherton, Sales & Marketing Director of Portmeirion Group:

“I believe, if brands do not create and stand out by being brave and bold after the Pandemic then there is a huge risk that they will get lost in all the noise. We are confident of the future and have taken the opportunity during this lockdown to cement our plans and you will see some big launches across all our brands that will move the dial.”

Another with strong views on the role of brands during lockdown Freeserve founder Ajaz Ahmed OBE:

“I don’t think all businesses understand the power of their brand and how it is perceived by customers. Following the lockdown period, people’s habits will have changed forever, and customers could be motivated to spend their money in different ways and with different suppliers. Now is the time to look at your brand proposition; it could be that you might have to refocus your brand to better align with your existing customers and attract new ones. How you position your brand right now could change the way you do business forever.”

These sentiments are echoed in the advice offered by Kantar.

Hold your nerve. This will pass and we will be in a situation where things start to recover. Have a view on the longer term as well as the short-term.”

My conclusion is that brands need to continue to invest, not only financially, but also emotionally. The brands that can demonstrate we truly are “all in this together”, who can resonate with the difficult realities experienced by their audience, will be the ones who we will reading about, alongside McDougalls, in marketing’s history books in 75 year’s time. They just must be brave.

Stay safe, stay strong and stay visible.