The pandemic continues to remind us that actions speak louder than words. People, communities and brands alike are showing what they are made of by what they choose to do (or, not do, as lockdown continues).
Brands doing stuff – whether that is in the service of their customers or in a larger societal sense, is a good thing. But it is an odd concept too; the idea that a brand itself does anything undersells the role of the people involved.
Over the last few weeks, I have been speaking to our client, Morrisons’, Community Champions. They are a great reminder about the brand power held in the hands of colleagues. As a nation, we have had a collective epiphany about the essential role played by people on the retail front line, especially in grocery.
From organising food donations, to doorstep deliveries they see the glory and grief of humanity and meet all of it with empathy and resourcefulness. A scroll through the Worksop Community Facebook page gives you a flavour. Their Champion is promoting store-made Afternoon Teas as a lockdown treat and responding personally to every request to swap in cheese sandwiches for prawn ones. Their work is brand action in the rawest and purest sense.
Brands are built from the inside out. They are a sum of the beliefs and behaviour of the people that shape them. Feeling the heartbeat of a business is essential to shape a strategy and then to communicate it authentically.
On the surface of it, this is easier for some categories than it is for others. Retail has had the benefit of store-based staff, ditto dining. But in both cases, our enforced adoption of digital has taken away the touchpoints through which a brand’s inherent humanity shines. But a lack of face-to-face doesn’t have to mean that brands become faceless.
There are some obvious examples where brands have made a virtue of their remoteness. First Direct is the poster child for delivering exceptional customer service purely online and on the phone. It was a category disruption of epic proportions when it launched in 1989, but in mid-pandemic 2021, it is the way in which the vast majority of us manage our money. The challenge has come for brands that have relied on more analogue interaction and for whom digital platforms have been built as product-first supplementary support services.
Marketing innovation is thriving as brands search for ways to stay connected with customers whilst at arms-length.
McDonald's has done an incredible job of staying relevant despite the vast majority of restaurants being closed for good chunks of the past year. As with other casual dining businesses, partnerships with the delivery platforms have solved a functional need.
The more impressive side of its lockdown strategy has been how it has retained its role in culture even when culture itself has all but shutdown. “I’m Lovin’ It Live” was the largest music festival of 2020 (and the only live gig for the headliner, Stormzy). It brought together what lots of us have been missing – music, community, fries – and in doing so reminded us that McDonalds continues to get us, albeit through an app. Hats off to the people at McDonald's who turned this thought into action.
Brands that live only online too have demonstrated that empathy need not be absent. Bloom and Wild, the postal florist, launched The Thoughtful Marketing Movement last spring. It has since gathered supporters as diverse as Naked Wines, SilkFred and The Accountancy Cloud who have all given users the chance to opt-out of communications about cultural calendar days they may find hard.
For businesses that operate entirely digitally, driven by data, the humanity in this movement is a testament to their desire to understand and treat people as people. Behind every one of the many companies signed up to this movement is a team that made the choice to do so.
There are differing views on the motivation or permission for brands to play a role in the big challenges we face as a society, but brand action in the everyday sense is a good thing. Seeing those actions as central to, as opposed to on the periphery of, communications helps build brands who have their humanity intact.
Whether built in bricks and mortar or in data and algorithms, a brand is no more than the million human choices that make it. Like saying yes when someone wants cheese rather than prawn in their afternoon tea.
Jo Arden is chief strategy officer at Publicis.Poke.