Guy Hanson of Validity Inc. discusses how award-winning marketing campaigns have evolved during the pandemic to effectively engage with consumers.

2020 has been a year of disruption, and marketers, like most businesses and consumers, have been on the receiving end. Validity’s “Disruption” report showed that while digital channels like email have generally benefitted, they’ve also had to deal with new challenges. The shift toward working from home, lockdown restrictions, and general fatigue all meant consumer engagement with marketing changed radically.

This year’s DMA Awards showcased a cross-section of marketing programs that responded most effectively to these pandemic-driven changes. The ability to analyse and interpret customer data, and then apply innovative technology to personalise with humanity, was the template for success. Several common themes connected the winners which we’ll explore in more detail: why they are important, winning examples, and how they are being applied more generally in the run-up to Christmas and New Year.

1. Data Strategies

Data has become the oxygen that marketing breathes, informing effective product selection, engaging content, and compelling tone of voice. Harnessing technology to deliver these outcomes is a crucial success differentiator, and we saw some outstanding data strategies from the winners.

Toyota acknowledged a need to rethink how they used their data to deliver true hyper-personalisation. They drew on their internal data (model, colour, etc.) fused with external data (DVLA, local service centres, etc.) and leveraged dynamic content to create literally trillions of permutations that accelerated response rates and revenue!

Great data strategies need great data quality to succeed, and the three “Cs” are vital: compliance, correctness and completeness. The latter represents a big shift in 2020, with brands needing to know more about their customers. We’re now seeing a rapid increase in progressive profiling techniques, encouraging/incentivising customers to share additional personal data that drives more effective messaging.

2. Personalisation

2020 placed a premium on effective personalisation, and brands drew on every shred of customer knowledge. They needed to craft messages acknowledging why things were different, the impact being experienced, and how they could provide meaningful help – credibly and authentically.

Titan Travel took brochure personalisation to a new level, using attributes like demographics and previous transactions, but also considering personal attitudes, values and needs, preferred design layouts, and favourite colours. The travel industry faced existential challenges this year, but this highly personalised approach delivered a genuine bookmark for future travel planning.

The Guardian effectively personalised an entire city with its “Berlin Takeover” campaign, wanting to promote Guardian Weekly to an audience sharing their values. Berlin – highly educated, English speaking, tuned in to issues like social justice and climate change (and willing to protest about them!) – was a natural target, amplified by placing copies in ‘in case of emergency’ boxes.

Marketers also have a new lens through which to view personalisation. Many new e-commerce customers, who traditionally shopped online, may have a different profile – older or less technically proficient perhaps. Brands are adapting to accommodate these different needs and interests, and provide more assistance with navigating the online shopping experience.

3. Emotional Marketing

Messaging strategies have undergone a profound change, with promotional offers and discounts giving way to displays of empathy and kindness. “We’re here to help” has become a common refrain and many winners were successful because they delivered on this promise credibly and authentically.

Churchill’s “Little Chapters of Chill” campaign helped locked-down families with a series of mindfulness podcasts for 4-7-year-old children – a real blessing for frayed-at-the-edges parents craving five minutes of respite!

The Fragrance Foundation tapped into embodied cognition – the behavioural science of how external stimuli like colour and temperature influence people’s minds. In its “Fragrance Lasts” campaign, “memory triggers” unlocked relationships between scents and personal experiences such as childhood and first love.

Laughter has been in short supply with some brands recognising their customers could do with a smile. Tommee Tippee’s “Nipplevision” re-imagined an animated world where (in their words!) “everything is a bit booby!” The result was a funny, disruptive campaign that reached their biggest audience ever.

This compassionate theme is also reflected by the traditionally “blockbuster” Christmas campaigns from brands, which have adopted a more muted approach this festive season by supporting charities and are encouraging their customers to do the same,

4. Innovation

We often see accelerated innovation during crises, and marketing was no exception. Increased adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and Augmented Reality (AR) supported a range of tactics including engagement prediction, best-offer selection, personalisation optimisation, and next-best channel identification.

Grand Prix nominee Klarna moved the innovation needle with its “Heartbeats for Sneakers” campaign. Using pulse BPM technology, Klarna’s “Sneakerheads” entered a sneaker raffle using their individual heartbeats – eliminating bot entries, and delivering massive engagement!

BT Sport took decades of Premier League match stats and worked with Opta, Squawka and Google Cloud to produce an AI-authored 60-page script of how the 2019/20 football season would unfold. They ignited a huge global debate around their predictions, and drove a big uplift in subscriptions.

Recognising that many customers can’t visit their shops this festive season, retailers are using AR to bring traditionally in-store experiences to their inboxes instead. MAC Cosmetics encourages use of their digital tools to virtually try on eye shade and lipstick. Ray-Ban provides a virtual mirror to decide whether Wayfarers or Aviators provide the better look, while Pandora allows virtual customisation of their charm bracelets.

All these themes are established best practices, but it took a pandemic to fast-track adoption, and many of the DMA Awards winners were quick out of the blocks in responding. As we saw with GDPR, enforced good habits are not necessarily a bad thing. Marketing programs will benefit from the greater engagement (and revenue) they are now generating as they emerge, strengthened and burnished from 2020’s trial by fire.