When customers feel vulnerable, they are more inclined to scrutinise brand messages. Communicators need to adopt different strategies to avoid eroding trust, says leadership consultant Kellie Cummings

When the McDonald’s advertising company in Brazil found a clever way to illustrate social distancing by separating the two golden arches in the company’s famous logo, a firestorm of criticism erupted on social media. Consumers and politicians were quick to point out that McDonald’s was in no position to demonstrate solidarity with the public, because the company doesn’t give workers paid sick leave. McDonald’s quickly pulled the logo from its social media accounts.

By normal standards, clever advertising doesn’t have to align with ethical corporate behaviour in order to please customers. But in a crisis, when hedonistic consumerism takes a backseat to responsible conduct, the standards change suddenly and drastically.

Ride-sharing company Uber found itself in the crosshairs of public outrage back in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy barrelled into the north-east, taking out New York’s subway system. When Uber implemented its surge pricing model, which is designed to incentivise more drivers to pick up stranded customers, the public believed Uber was price-gauging and feverishly took to Twitter to complain. Uber’s leadership responded with detailed blog posts communicating the rationale of their pricing model; when that didn’t work, Uber sacrificed $100,000 in revenues by reducing fees and still suffered a massive public relations blow.

What marketers need to understand about communicating in this crisis is that customer sentiment has changed

Today, it appears that Uber has learned from its painful lessons in the past as its sub-brand, Uber Eats, proactively waived delivery fees for independent restaurants during the pandemic. Considering that Uber Eats is facing a class-action lawsuit from independent restaurants, this move isn’t as philanthropic as it may seem, but it might keep the company out of customers’ crosshairs for now.

What marketers need to understand about communicating in this crisis is that customer sentiment has changed. A recent YouGov poll showed that only 9% of Britons want their lives to return to “normal” after the quarantine. In the survey, Britons said that they have made lifestyle changes during the crisis that they enjoy, such as cooking from scratch, connecting with old friends, and spending more time in nature. They don’t want to lose these pleasures when the quarantine ends.

When people feel vulnerable, things that once seemed important suddenly hold little value. For example, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the values of young people across Europe changed dramatically. Before the crisis, young Europeans valued self-directedness, hedonism and stimulation. However, after the crisis, their values became centred on security, tradition and benevolence.

During lockdown people have enjoyed activities like baking and connecting with nature. (Credit: Albert Gea/Reuters)

According to psychologists, these changes in public values can be attributed to how people frame their choices. A decision frame shapes how people perceive their choices and prioritise certain options over others. For example, when our lives are busy and our son’s baseball coach schedules an extra practice, the importance of cooking from scratch is diminished. But when those pressures disappear, our desire to spend hours in the kitchen becomes more important.

There are ethical implications of our shifting decision frames, also. Psychologists use the term “ethical fading” to describe how the ethical consequences of a behaviour are removed from a person’s decision-making. When customers are more focused on getting an inexpensive cheeseburger and milkshake than the fair treatment of a company’s workers, the ethical aspects of that purchase have less influence over their choice.

But in a crisis, when our focus shifts to survival, the ethical implications of each decision become more palpable. Suddenly, our decision frame prioritises honesty, compassion and goodness over self-gratification. These changes require brand communicators to think about their work very differently.

A playbook for marketers

Because customers’ values have changed, marketers need to adopt a new set of guidelines to extend their brand promise, remain contextually relevant and uphold trust during this period of uncertainty. Here are some recommendations, along with best-in-class examples from leading brands.

1. Lead with your values. Right now, customers are seeking reasons to trust your brand, not clever marketing tricks. Your most effective messages will demonstrate an alignment between your company’s core values and the values customers admire. Earn their trust by showing that you are living by your values even when the world is uncertain. Best-in-class example: Ford Motor Company, Built to Lend a Hand, Built for Right Now.

2. Tone down the production value of your advertisements. This isn’t the time for big-budget commercials, which can appear superficial and possibly aloof to financial difficulties many people face. When people are struggling to pay bills, or worried that they might lose their job, they are more likely to connect with brands that keep it simple. Best-in-class example: Cottonnelle, Share a Square.

3. Centre your messages on actions your brand takes to help others. Research by Wunderman Thompson reveals that 92% of customers admire actions companies take to stop the spread of coronavirus. Best-in-class example: Dove, Wash to Care.

4. Use your own brand voice to deliver messages. Direct-to-consumer messages are earnest and genuine, which gives customers a reason to trust. Additionally, research shows that millennials are not looking to influencers for information during this crisis, so your brand should flex its own voice. Best-in-class example: Walgreens, Helping You Stay Safe, Healthy and Calm.

5. Expand your definition of responsibility. Brand messages that reflect care for the welfare of others must demonstrate a commitment to the public good. Using earned media to tell your brand story is a reliable method of demonstrating that your actions are truly for the greater good. Best-in-class example: Dyson, innovating ventilators in record time.

The changes ahead for businesses and for brand communications are not easy, but they may help all of us grow, both personally and professionally. In the words of Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO: “This is a unique period in world history – the steepest learning curve of all our professional lives. Those who embrace it will emerge as better professionals, and maybe even better people.”

Kellie Cummings is a leadership consultant, writer and international speaker. She teaches in the Master of Arts in Communication program at Johns Hopkins University, holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and has won a variety of awards, including the Platinum MarCom Award for her communication leadership during the financial crisis. Follow Kellie on Twitter: @kellcummings or visit her website: www.kelliecummings.com

Main picture credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


advertising  Covid-19  Coronavirus  marketing  Uber  McDonald's  Dove  Ford  Walgreens  Dyson  philanthropy  purpose 

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