The Dragonfly Market Research agency in India offers some guidance for how brands can lift the curse of “sameness” that has befallen brand communications since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Given that we live in a world with a population of 7.8 billion people, it is quite difficult to grab someone’s attention and be heard. Similarly, in a brand population of over 500,000 brands, standing out amidst competition is no easy task. Therefore ‘breaking the clutter’ has always been a key objective for brand marketers in their attempt to achieve salience and, ultimately, increase sales.

However, given the current global pandemic, this task of ‘standing out’ has become a little more complicated.

COVID-19 has brought certain fundamental needs to the forefront, and it is critical for brands to align their communication to these needs to strike a connect. Some of the codes that brands need to keep in mind while designing the tonality of their communication are comfort, compassion, contribution, gratitude, and humour.

To read the playbook, Brand communication in the post COVID era, in full, click here.

While the storytelling in communication must be aligned to these codes, brands should also be mindful of the new norms governing the behaviour of people during this time. The key norm, here, is social distancing. Additionally, to be perceived credible, brands must ensure that the tone of their communication remains aligned to their core values. Any discrepancy can lead to consumers questioning the campaign.

While it is necessary to keep these factors in mind, it is also important to remember and revisit the key objective of brand communication – breaking the clutter.

How can brands stand out in this new reality?

Do the unexpected

It is safe to assume that messaging on COVID-19 related themes will continue for a while. However, creative thinking lies in figuring out different ways of saying this. Taking an unconventional, bold or creative approach can surprise customers, and well, who doesn’t like surprises! Creating shot-at-home videos, using pictures from Shutterstock and tweaking brand elements are just some of the ways in which brands are trying to make their campaigns more memorable.

For example, sacrosanct logos of well-known brands are now being used as creative tools for communication. Audi, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s were the first few brands that tweaked their logos to promote the message of social distancing, thereby catching everyone’s attention. Cadbury Dairy Milk made an unexpected move when it replaced its brand logo, for the first time in 70 years, with ‘Thank You’ in eight different languages to express gratitude to the unsung COVID-19 warriors.

However, it is also important to assess whether the brand elements being modified enjoy a strong recall. Otherwise, it will probably go unnoticed. For example, the effectiveness of the HDFC Bank safety grid campaign, wherein the company placed its logo as social distancing markers, is debatable. While the move was appreciated by industry experts from the point of view of doing something good, the campaign failed to deliver on expectations since many could not identify the logo.

While being the first mover in creating a creative strategy does give one an edge, it is important for other brands to remember to capitalise on the trend before it fizzles out. At the same time, capitalising on the trend does not mean a mere imitation, but the intelligent adoption of a creative trend.

Bring brand purpose to life

Another way for brands to effectively use the codes to their advantage is by seamlessly introducing their product or service offering into the narrative of their communication. This helps the brand to stand out amongst the sea of advertisements that are aligned to a code. It also aids in building brand relevance by communicating how the brand can fulfil consumer needs within our current reality.

According to Dheeraj Sinha, managing director and chief strategy officer of Leo Burnett South Asia, “general emotional whitewashing” will not deliver results anymore since brands need to add value to people’s lives.

Hindustan Unilever’s tea brand Brooke Bond emphasises the importance of compassion through its new TVC. It beautifully uses the product to communicate how a cup of tea can help overcome prejudice and bring people together during this time.

Another example is Tata Sky’s latest ad campaign, #StayHomeStayJingalala, which urges people to stay at home and learn something new during the lockdown. The film shows people learning new things from home using Tata Sky’s paid channels which have been made free-of-cost for consumers during this period.

Hence, brands must marry their purpose with the communication story and offer solutions through their campaigns.

Explore and redefine the narrative

While the two points above are linked to the creative execution of communication, it’s critical for brands to also think through the narrative to break the sameness.

Over the past few months, the aim of all brand communication has been to educate people on safety measures, express gratitude to frontline workers and instil a sense of positivity. But now that the reality has sunk in, brands can take it easy when it comes to direct COVID-19 messaging.

It would not be incorrect to state that ‘gratitude’ as a theme has been excessively used by multiple content creators and brands. While the importance of the theme cannot be negated, brands must explore other facets to the theme now.

For example, one can look at the #Heartwork campaign by Lay’s. It began by thanking farmers and truck drivers, and gradually extended the chain of gratitude to other brands for their contribution. This included Flipkart and Vistara for their products and services, Ariel for its share the load message, and Spotify for simply helping people cope with stress.

Apart from exploring other dimensions of communication codes, brands can also redefine the narrative itself and help customers adjust to the ‘new normal’.

Unlike other ads, which look at the future with hope, Coca-Cola in ‘The Great Meal’ campaign acknowledges that people have now learnt to savour the moments that were always there. Featuring a mosaic of 13 households across eight countries sharing meals and drinking Coke, the ad highlights togetherness in times of isolation – an emotion that truly stays with the viewers.

The bottom line, thus, is that brands must not lose sight of their objectives in these unprecedented times. They must respond to COVID-19 by pulling the right levers of communication to grab consumer attention, instead of drowning in the sea of sameness.