In this guest post, director of FiftyFive5, Cori Hodge (pictured below), says there’s no time like a global pandemic for brands to reconnect emotionally with their customers. Here are his tips on how to do it…
Uncertainty: it’s everywhere and there’s no going back to normal. Coronavirus is the catalyst for slew of changes, not least for how customers engage with brands. But if we’re heading to a new normal, shouldn’t we think about what brands need to do from now until the crisis ends? A look back at the GFC tells us we can’t just throw open our doors and expect everything to be ok. We need to have a way of engaging people throughout the crisis. After all, brand love isn’t that different from people love: you don’t ask invite someone out to a candlelit dinner without knowing them a little first.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT
A physio I know has switched to online video consultations, but a lot of the personal warmth she offers her patients is getting lost in virtual translation. She’s not alone. Harvey Norman is talking about serving customers “at a distance”, my gym is broadcasting workouts, and changes to the real estate market means that agents can’t schmooze you as you walk around a property for sale.
This all adds up to relationships becoming more transactional. As customer experiences change, relationships will become more about what you can give me, rather than how you make me feel. We’re moving from friendly conversations with retail staff to picking up packages on our doorstep, so maintaining an emotional connection is more important than ever.
We know that a strong emotional connection for brands has a lot of benefits. It helps to differentiate your brand, build loyalty, and buffer against price sensitivity. These seem like pretty useful benefits in a market rapidly shifting towards more remote service interactions.
But with things changing so rapidly, it’s hard to see what the exit strategy is. We know this way of life won’t last for ever, which begs one big question: how should brands capture that emotional connection – the love – with customers, and keep it over time?
STAGE ONE: BUILD CREDIBILITY
When the pandemic first struck, brands went into response mode. We saw emails, tweets, and commercials that all had the same message: “we’re safe, we’re still open, please don’t worry.” The problem with these messages is that it smacks of self-interest. It wasn’t about caring about the community; it was about protecting revenue. Consumers saw right through it.
As we move deeper into corona-territory, brands are learning the lesson: without credibility, people aren’t going to listen to you.
Now we’re seeing brands building credibility in two ways: being empathetic and being generous. Empathy, when genuine, can help consumers feel like they’re not alone, part of a bigger collective. In times of crisis, that’s how people want to feel. Showing you care can engender trust but done poorly can seem disingenuous and patronizing. Australian free-to-air networks have had mixed responses with recent campaigns but are desperately trying to build a sense of collective at a time when people are consuming more on-demand streaming services.
The financial services industry is another desperate to rebuild credibility. Banks and insurance companies are taking a step in the right direction by being generous. Extending mortgage repayments and delaying premium increases was more than most expected. Cynics will argue they are just trying to buy loyalty, but it’s improving their image. Our research shows that 50 per cent of the Big Four mortgage customers think their bank is responding to the crisis better than other banks. Putting customer needs ahead of profits will help rebuild trust and put the banking industry in a positive position to re-engage customers when the immediate crisis subsides.
STAGE TWO: ANY EXCUSE FOR A CHAT
Brands must stay relevant, and “pivoting” has become the most overused word of 2020. Sydney Opera House has dived into digital content streaming, Foxtel are showing classic footy matches, and TripAdvisor’s virtual tour company, Viator, has launched over 100 virtual tours from all over the world. All of these represent conversations to be had with customers in a world where their core offering is less relevant.
But as brands are finding, you can’t just move online and expect everything to be great. First, everyone is doing that, and second, you must add value to consumers’ lives. Many brands are doing this by talking to wellbeing, wanting to distract from the corona negativity. Sports journalists are having epic debates about who the greatest of all time were. Restaurants are offering recipes so consumers to create great experiences at home. My favourite examples are brands for which staying home is at complete odds with their DNA. COVID is presenting brands like Jeep the opportunity to be different and clever.
What this does, is ensure that your brand remains salient and familiar to your customers, long after they’ve bought from you. For car and chewing gum brands alike, a looming recession and a change in how we interact poses a risk. Entertaining through positive storytelling will give your brand a valuable commodity during this downtime: memorability.
STAGE THREE: A CALL TO ARMS
Picture this: the government has just announced that we’ve beaten Corona. We’ve won. We’ve made it. People are flooding into the streets, hugging and high fiving and buying normal amounts of toilet paper. We are tempted to think things will return to normal and all our customers will come flooding back. But then reality hits, and so begins the mad rush; a boxing-day sale stampede of brands clamouring to get into customers’ wallets first.
When the time comes, we won’t be able to just jump in and pick up where we left off. Brands need to have an exit strategy. “Hey, we’re open now, come buy from us,” won’t cut it.
If you’ve successfully built credibility and stayed relevant throughout, you’re in a great position. But, there’s a need to be distinct, a need to be clear, and most importantly, a need to give purpose. During past times of crisis, the need for purpose – a rallying call to arms – is what resonated. It not only inspires action, but minimises the functional, rational, and less exciting components driving choice.
We don’t have to go that far back to find an example. Following the devasting bushfires of this past summer, Tourism NSW launched a campaign encouraging people to holiday in areas that had been worst hit. The message stripped out references to value, diversity, beauty, and traditional notions of tourism. Rather, there was a focus on support – playing to feelings of kindness, duty, and in some cases, patriotism. The result was that consumers felt better about themselves, having contributed to the greater good rather than a weekend away.
SO, WHAT NOW?
The game plan seems simple: first, build credibility, then maintain relevance by entertaining, then inspire. But it’s hard in practice. There’s a plethora of other brands out there trying to do the same thing. This isn’t an event, it’s a tectonic shift. People are worried, brands are losing touch with customers, and loyalty is eroding. By maintaining an emotional connection, we’re ensuring customers don’t forget who we are. To all my single friends out there: I hope you’re regularly telling your crush how much you miss them. Otherwise you might be enjoying that candlelit dinner on your own.