Written by Erik Zijdemans, Vice President of Operations at Publicize
COVID-19 has forced companies and consumers to reassess their priorities. What mattered prior to the pandemic is different to what matters now, and there is a greater need for businesses to effectively communicate how they are demonstrating new value.
Markets are shifting and research shows that people are shopping more consciously, buying from local retailers, and using digital tools. Plus, with internet usage up by 50 percent in some parts of the world, brand communications are hyper visible. As a result, brands have had to be very conscious of what they say and how they say it.
Even prior to the crisis, 52 percent of consumers said they expected brands to know when are the right moments to communicate, and that ‘quality’ and ‘ability to relate’ meant more to consumers than frequent interactions. Applying these expectations to the current climate creates an opportunity for companies to react in the best possible way and develop different, more impactful forms of communication with their audiences.
Here’s why COVID-19 is opening doors for stronger company communications:
1. Consumers want guidance
COVID-19 has brought about mass uncertainty. People are concerned about their health, their finances, and their future. These fears have shaped new customer needs – people want clear, accessible information on things like operational changes, limited availability, price fluctuations, and employee safety. Not to mention, a study by Twitter found that only 7 percent of respondents believe brands should continue using their normal brand tone of voice during COVID-19.
Heightened demands for advice and guidance have put strain on many companies’ customer service channels. In fact, the average company received more than double the usual amounts of calls in the first two weeks of the pandemic. In response, companies that have improved their overall communication have been able to alleviate the increased volume, as well as boost their brand image.
For example, Ryanair made a social media post in March stating that all flights would be grounded, all passengers would receive an email with their options, and unused aircrafts would be offered to the EU government for repatriation flights. The post was a clever way to inform customers on a mass scale (and for free), and placed the airline in a positive light for supporting essential travel. Win, win.
This type of communication can help manage information and expectations, as well as manage the perception of a crisis. PR is a core element of any company, but the reality is, it’s often not viewed that way until extreme circumstances require an immediate response. In pressing circumstances, companies have to speak promptly and authentically – there isn’t time to conduct market research and test new ideas. Instead, action has to be swift to help navigate customers through unchartered territory.
2. Companies need a place in the new normal
The pandemic is serving as a learning process, and the companies that have adapted and finessed their communications on a long-term basis will be the most successful. That said, companies have come to realize that implementing powerful PR is no easy feat. Professional comms teams (both internal and external) need to have the skills, input, connections, and tools necessary to orientate businesses relative to what is happening in the industry and world.
For example, Hotels.com had to abandon a campaign showing their mascot on a plane stealing popcorn from another passenger. The brand quickly aired another ad showing the same mascot at home and using hand sanitizer before eating popcorn, with the slogan ‘Just Stay Home’. The contrast is powerful because it shows how Hotels.com changed its business stance and how that fits into a wider new landscape. Additionally, the honesty of the ad builds customer trust – which is extra fragile during crises.
Meanwhile, smaller companies have begun keeping documents to track key developments in the pandemic: things like statistics, trending messages, and communications from competitors. These kinds of observations are feeding into more tailored business communications, as well as helping companies address gaps in their existing strategies.
Brands are quickly discovering that superficial communications weaken their influence. Consumers care about the actions being taken by brands to help the people working with them – whether they are offering employee sick pay, adhering to social distancing in factories or offering PPE. As PR expert, Patrick Strother says, “brands are really going to be judged for a long time by how they behave through this.” The greater pressure then, is forcing brands to reflect on their own practices and communicate how these are being optimized in COVID-19.
3. Company ethics are front-and-center
In the same way that consumers want companies to take internal action, they equally want businesses to advocate for fairer systems and processes as a whole. The severity of COVID-19 has caused many people to question how business is conducted and whether these models are sustainable. In the UK, one study revealed that 56 percent of consumers believe the pandemic has made them realize the importance of local community.
For example, Nike has taken both a macro and micro attitude in its communications. The sports brand has created a COVID-19 Community Response page listing all its donations, affiliate organizations, and reasoning for targeting certain groups. Because Nike’s headquarters are in Oregon – the first U.S. state hit by the virus – the brand has placed particular emphasis on helping small businesses and local community members there.
Nike also chose to alter its international advertising and encourage people to ‘play inside, play for the world’ during lockdown. One of their Instagram posts read ‘Now more than ever, we are one team.’ The simple, sincere wording garnered the brand huge waves of approval because it highlighted how Nike was advocating personal safety over sales. The empathetic language also helped bridge the gap between a faceless brand (especially corporate-sized) and everyday consumers. By drawing on the shared experience of COVID-19 and backing safe behavior, Nike’s communication solidified a tighter relationship with its customers.
4. The audience expectation is ongoing
Without doubt, COVID-19 has opened doors for stronger company communication. The pandemic has made company comms integral to inform consumers, support those most affected, and establish safer business protocols for the future. Likewise, it has shone a light on the companies who already had strong foundations in comms and were able to leverage those when COVID-19 struck. Building strong communication will always matter because it’s impossible to know when the next crisis will hit.
It’s important, however, to note that once the pandemic subsides, communication will be just as significant as it was during the crisis. People will look to brands to continue pushing forward new ways of business and to apply their learnings for positive change. Companies have a big responsibility in the new normal to rebuild a sense of normality, and how they voice their participation will determine their longevity.