Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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COVID COVID COVID. That’s all I’m hearing.

Of course I get it … it’s a terrible situation with ramifications that could fundamentally change the way we live, work and operate forever.

Hell, just a few weeks ago, the head of the Automobile Association, Edmund King, suggested the demand for travel - by road or rail - will reduce so dramatically [due to companies and employees recognising the ability to work from home] that the government may be better putting money into broadband instead of bolstering infrastructure

That statement, if true, would have a seismic impact on an incredible amount of industries ... from car manufacturing, train services, commercial leasing and banking to name but a few. And then, when you add in the expectations that [some of] society is placing on the actions and behaviour of brands through websites like, you see why some are saying the societal reset button has been pressed.

But I’m not going to write about that. Not because I don’t believe it, but because everyone is writing about it. My point is less dramatic. It’s simply that how we live, work and operate is always evolving, so if you only think it is happening now, you’ve been asleep at the wheel.

If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards

R/GA has always loved playing to where culture is heading, rather than where it is.  It’s part of the reason why we’ve continually reinvented ourselves as a company, and why we’ve been able to fuse creativity with technology to either define the future normal or open the door for it to start establishing itself.

Some of these ideas required us to be ridiculously audacious – like when we created Fuel Band for Nike to start changing the way everyday athletes train and develop. Or when we created one of the first digital banks - NEXT in Brazil – because we saw how the values and aspirations of 20-30 year olds were totally different to the products and services the established banks were offering.

While those two are on a grand scale for liberating change, the reality is it doesn’t matter what the size of the project is, we always place huge value on exploring cultural and sub-cultural changes because pandemic or not, people are always evolving.

While I really didn’t want to talk about COVID-19, the fact is the biggest shifts occur when there is a crisis and it’s fair to say, that’s what’s going on now: put simply, crisis collapses time.

What could take decades to evolve can happen in years, months, weeks or minutes.

For example, after arguably centuries of being denied, women were finally recognised as societal equals after people [read: men] saw the vital role they had played in the war effort of WW2.

Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Newton’s 3rd law, which states ‘for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction’ has been around since 1686.  But some had started to believe these shifts only occurred through technological revolution when the reality is cultural adversity is equally as powerful, and the reality is COVID-19 is creating some major changes of attitude and behaviour:

These are all big shifts with major implications. While I accept there is a chance things will return to the ‘old normal’ when the situation becomes a bit more stable – there are 3 things to remember:

  1. The longer this goes on, the more likely these new attitudes and behaviors will become established and self-sustaining.
  1. Not everyone’s situation is the same, including when isolation will end for them.
  1. Even if things do return to the past for every single person, they will all continue on their individual journey of evolution … whether in attitude, behaviour, aspiration, ambition or a combination of all.

A new value of money?

Once upon a time, the rock singer, David Lee Roth, said: “Whoever said money doesn’t buy you happiness doesn’t know where to shop”. While this may well have been the attitude for multiple generations, right now - across the entire world - the value of money is being re-written by society.

I’m not talking about what and where people want to spend their cash [though there are some fascinating facts emerging, such as Ann Summers – the adult romance company – revealing the shortage of pasta in supermarkets had led to them selling more of their ‘penis pasta’ in 1 week than they’d sold in all of 2019] ... I’m talking about their relationship with it and, as a result, their relationship with their banks:

And while on their own, these might not seem scary – even though they only represent the first 4 weeks of COVID-19 impact in the UK - when you overlay it with some of the cultural narrative appearing on Mumsnet and Reddit during this time….

  • “I don’t want to live in a city where I can’t afford a back garden”
  • “Why have investments when they go down when you need them most?”
  • “Who thought I’d value a full fridge more than full wardrobe?”
  • “The government needs to see public services as an investment, not a cost”

Of course, many of these shifts in attitudes regarding money may be being driven by their circumstances.

Maybe they can’t believe how quickly their financial situation has changed.
Maybe for the first time in their life, access to what they’ve always enjoyed faces obstacles.
Maybe the lack of human contact has highlighted how alone they are.
Maybe it’s seeing a business they built for years fall apart in days.
Maybe it’s not being able to leave their apartment and breathe fresh air for weeks.
Maybe it’s realising that how you live is becoming more important than what you have.
Maybe it’s realising this isn’t a matter of wealth or poverty... but life or death.

Whatever the reason, you start to think that just maybe some of the fundamental values, attitudes and behaviours entire industries have banked on – and actively fought to maintain - are starting to shift.

If that becomes reality, then not only are the ramifications going to be mind-blowing for business, it will mean Alvin Toffler – the futurist, writer and businessman – was right when he said the illiterate of the 21st won’t be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

While I readily admit I have neither the brains, vocabulary, or even the look of Mr Toffler, I wholeheartedly subscribe to his belief that change is the only constant. Here’s three ways we can help brands be more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

1. The most valuable thing you can give your client is honesty

When we were helping create Next Bank in Brazil – part of Bradesco – we discovered nearly 70% of the target audience would rather visit the dentist than go to a bank. No-one likes to hear they’re not liked, but knowing what people really thought of them allowed us to make decisions that could drive the biggest impact and value. In simple terms, it meant everyone was behind creating a bank that didn’t act or operate like a typical bank.

2. The culture of the category tells you the direction of the category

We spend a huge amount of time understanding the culture around a category. Not just in terms of how people transact or interact … but how they live, act, talk and behave. From the music they love to the hashtags they use. For example, with our work on the NIKE & GurlsTalk podcasts, we use interviews, social listening and data to understand how athletes are talking about sport … because often shifts in language indicate changes in how they see or play sport. Some may not think this is important, but it’s the difference between talking athlete to athlete or brand to customer.

3. Use technology to be more human, not more automated

We believe customer experience builds and defines brands. It’s why we look at technology as much more than a tool to drive efficiency and optimisation … but something that can engage audiences emotionally and distinctly. For example, COVID-19 is revealing a multitude of ways people are using tech to feel connected to others … from Zoom background hysteria to virtual pub quizzes to mega concerts on Fortnite.  All of this shows the multitude of ways society plays with tech to provide them with emotional - not just functional - fulfilment, which should remind brands their customers need more than just, ‘category best practice’ digital efficiency.