What have brand leaders learnt and what do we do next?
The 20s roared in with intensity and a very clear message: everything is about to change. For businesses around the world, a quick reaction was the key to survival. Pivot, adapt, reinvent, go digital. Find a way to keep the business afloat, supply lines open and employees paid, all with health and safety at the forefront. As brand leaders, we focused on informing stakeholders, emphasising purpose and connecting authentically and empathetically with our audiences. We talked about the ‘new normal’, resilience, going virtual, the speed of tech-celeration and the upending of the traditional marketing calendar.
The enormity of global change is unknown, with the true human and economic impact of the pandemic yet to be fully realized. It will be years, not months, before any semblance of pre-pandemic life returns. What we do know is that we need to do things differently. The world has changed, and with it, we need to change too.
A year on, it is now time for a more considered response as we plan for recovery. There was no playbook for 2020, but that is not the case for 2021. So, what have we learnt and how do we best prepare for what comes next?
WHAT HAVE WE LEART?
The value of reputation: Brand reputation proved to be our most valuable asset. Reputation is built on a strong foundation of trust and results from the consistency and clarity of purposeful actions and communications across an organization. With marketing communications teams at the centre of business response to the pandemic, the importance and value of investing in public relations expertise was clear.
Visible, authentic leadership: From the start, corporate leaders were put in the spotlight and expected to make statements quickly about what was going on and what they were doing about it. With an infodemic of misinformation as widespread as the virus itself, leaders that addressed their stakeholders with authenticity and honesty were the winners.
Brand purpose and responsibility: Who put society before profit, who stood up to help communities in need? Brand purpose was put to the test by consumers who expect brands to have societal obligations. This is especially true of younger generations. Community support by responsible brands across the globe was heart-warming and will be remembered for years to come.
Back to business basics: With revenues slashed, many organisations had to get back to basics quickly, consolidating their operations and understanding their prime reason for being in business. From a communications perspective, it was important to refocus. We asked, what are the key functions that customers or clients really need from the brand?
Creativity as the driving force: Creativity was the clear winner of the year. It takes brave and bold leadership to allow creative ideas to be launched in a year of uncertainty. With most budgets slashed, brands got imaginative and connected with genuine understanding of the new emotions and behaviours of their audiences.
A localised approach: The pandemic may be global, but the way and time that it impacted lives was very local. Each individual market experienced different sentiments at different times. Companies were forced to act locally, ensuring brand narrative and messaging was appropriate to the current context at any given moment.
Collaboration over competition: Organisations were quick to understand that collaborating within their industry, local markets and with competitors was essential. This resulted in a resurgence in the importance of trade organisations, a willingness to share challenges and solutions publicly, and renewed positivity towards collaboration. Let’s hope that this is a learning that is here to stay as we look towards global recovery; there is no doubt that working together makes us all stronger.
Employees as ambassadors: Internal communications became external as organisations scrambled to manage the unfolding crisis. Employee announcements were shared on social media and quickly picked up by news organisations. It was a hard learning curve for businesses who had not before considered the wider implications of staff communications and employee dissatisfaction, and whose HR departments are not channelled through communications experts. The opportunity was in the understanding that employees can be powerful brand ambassadors and advocates. Facing the often-unseen force of the pandemic with an authentic commitment for the welfare and wellbeing of employees was paramount to distilling fear and confusion.
Importance of stakeholder management: With traditional supply and distribution chains in upheaval, having centralised and well-planned stakeholder mapping and communications channels were important. It was vital for everyday operations and functioning to be able to quickly outreach to stakeholders about operational disruptions and adjustments.
Need for speed: Timelines for rolling out new campaigns and communications plans went from months to weeks, and sometimes days. With timing of paramount importance, marketing teams had to break down the silos and work towards integrated rollouts of messaging at a speed never before considered.
The changing audience: The huge cultural and behavioural shifts taking place – panic for necessities, online shopping, work from home, school by laptop, social bubbles and fashion casual, to name a few – made data analysis an essential tool for understanding how to respond. Access to timely insights and trends for the c-suite became business critical, and enabled brands to adapt to the new needs of their audiences and respond with meaningful programmes.
BEING PREPARED FOR WHAT COMES NEXT? Marketing Communications Tips for 2021
Considering our learnings from 2020, we can prepare for 2021 with a new mindset of growth and an always ready approach. Here are some tips for marketing communications teams to build towards recovery in what will be another transformative and turbulent year.
From crisis to growth mindset: The immediate change as 2021 kicks-off is in our mindset. Following a year in ‘crisis mode’ we need to reset our perspective. A Growth Mindset is a powerful tool, with focus on finding the opportunity in each situation and striving for success rather than survival. To get there, teams require top-down encouragement to embrace the accelerated pace of change and create a positive outlook on how we respond to challenges as they arise. We need to empower our teams to be on the frontline, driving the change at an operational level.
Updated brand narrative: Audit your owned channels to ensure information, brand narrative, messaging and storytelling are still relevant in each market. Realise that social media is now the face of your brand, and that websites are the HQ rather than the go-to in the digital world. For social media content, revised your tone of voice and visuals towards a human and empathetic approach.
Always-on marketing: Rather than a series of campaigns based on calendar moments, transform your marketing structure towards an always-on approach. With the mantra of ‘less is more’, consolidate messaging into strong central themes that can be rolled out at appropriate times of the year, such as between Covid ‘waves’ or to ride on a specific consumer sentiment. Reproportion and reallocate marketing budget with an emphasis on digital. Allow a try-fail-try approach to marketing, where ideas are seeded and tested, and the ones that work are amplified.
Invest in insights: Understanding what’s really going on through a substantial investment into monitoring, research, data analysis and insights capabilities. Seek expert external advice. This information flow enables your brand teams to get out of their bubble and attain a bigger picture view of the ‘new normal’.
Be ready for tech-celeration: 2020 was a call-to-action to release our young leaders. With ‘digital’ now at the centre of communications and sales, digital natives will lead the way with their intrinsic understanding. Brands need to unlearn and upskill, leaving behind old assumptions and embracing a new digital-first sales and marketing funnel. Communications are bite sized, video-led, livestreamed, real time, influencer-driven and sharable. Break down internal marketing silos to create a united and integrated team refocused towards a core creative message that is shaped and distilled clearly for each channel – be it TV, billboard, press release, search or social.
Consider your new brand influencers: Tap into nano and micro influencers that engage with specific segments of your audience, and work with them to co-create content. Consider internal stakeholders, sector experts, cultural communities and customers or clients as influencers – how they can be activated for marketing initiatives.
Sustainability is everyone’s purpose: No longer is sustainability a talking point or a CSR initiative; it is a fundamental part of every brand’s core purpose. If there is one thing we have learnt from 2020, it’s that people expect more from companies than ever before and this expectation will only continue to grow.
Let’s make 2021 a year that we respond to change with purpose, a positive attitude, a growth mindset and a dedication to being prepared for the unknown.
From the team at Sinclair throughout the APAC region, we wish you and your family a year of good health and wellbeing.