By Fiona Blades, President and Chief Experience Officer of MESH Experience

Fiona Blades, President and Chief Experience Officer at MESH Experience

Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11.

COVID-19 is a pivotal moment in society.  People will remember the details of lockdown and their new daily lives for many years to come.

They will remember the brands that helped them, and those that didn’t.

What experiences should brands be creating to build long term equity?  And what new customer experiences will become important post pandemic?

Getting Back To Basics

Now is the time to let go of fancy brand ads with high profile celebrities and hold onto brand purpose and brand values to take appropriate action.   Paul Marsden, consumer psychologist in the UK asserted in a Forbes article “This will be the stake in the heart of brand purpose (as a marketing message).  It’s clearly about action now.” How can brands fundamentally help customers (and society) to meet their goals?

Early in the pandemic this led brands like LVMH to switch from perfume production to hand sanitizer and Ford in the US to run ads offering help with car leasing costs, whilst reminding people that Ford had come to the rescue in previous crises, like building munitions during World War II.  Later, Ford and GM were producing ventilators.  In the UK Boots the chemist issued daily videos on its social platforms, presented by its chief medical officers, answering commonly asked COVID-19 questions.  

The Importance Of Trust

Trust was a hot topic before the pandemic and, with the erosion of consumer confidence, it becomes more important than ever.  Trust covers a multitude of different aspects.  Do you trust that the product functions properly and do you trust the brand to do the right thing by society?  These are two different aspects of trust.  In this time of crisis, the second becomes very important.  Customers want to know that banks will help small businesses to receive funding to survive, for example. 

At a point where people feel out of control, how can brands help them feel more in control?  Early in the pandemic Halifax bank in the UK produced a Q&A newspaper ad and TSB Bank showed how customers could avoid fraud.  These experiences helped customers to feel more empowered to take the right decisions and act positively.

The Value Of Familiarity

Through our UK retail banking study we saw the reassurance provided by the Lloyds Bank black horse campaign, with strapline “By Your Side for 250 years”, tailored for the pandemic.  This iconic advertising not only generated positive experiences but seeing the ad made people much more likely to choose the brand next time.  They are attracted to brands that are supporting them through the crisis.

What does this say about iconic brands, like Coca-Cola, that “go dark”?  History tells us that those brands that are present during the difficult times come out stronger.  But it is hard for companies to manage conflicting needs.  For example, letting go of staff at the same time as advertising on TV could be seen as the wrong decision.  P&G’s Jon Moeller has committed to advertising investment “This is not a time to retrench,” he said. “And really that’s all in service to our consumers and service to our retail partners, and – we believe – in service to our society.”  With strong business performance, it makes this decision easier.

Embracing The New “Virtual” World

As many people moved to working from home, companies and families embraced Zoom and Microsoft Teams.  Zoom claims to have over 300 million daily meeting participants during the pandemic.  Sectors that prided themselves on the importance of face to face meetings, such as investment managers meeting high net worth individuals, have been forced to adapt.  And in many cases have found that this has worked.  There has been a rise in fitness work outs and virtual yoga classes.  Headlines from the Wall Street Journal such as “As Home Workouts Rise during Coronavirus, Gyms Sweat” indicate the fundamental shifts that we are seeing in adoption of new experiences.  Will people want to go back to the gym when they can exercise in the comfort of their own homes?

What New Experiences Should Brands Be Creating?

As lockdown eases safety is going to be a priority.  In the US we have seen customers praising banks for use of plexi-glass, sanitizer, masks, gloves, social distancing and drive-thru.  In the UK we have seen issues with ATMs – not just broken but problems with waiting in queues.  This simple experience needs adjusting in a world of social distancing.  Drive-thru movie theaters are open for business again in some parts of the US.  Low-tech, safe social distancing entertainment resulted in sell-out viewings.

Packaged goods will need to move experiential in home, teaming up with delivery services like Deliveroo or by sponsoring events from the Artists Den, where fans watch extraordinary music artists in intimate settings, now moved to TV.  5G can allow marketers to implement AR and VR within online streaming experiences to take experiences to another level. 

No Turning Back

Some things will change forever.  It is highly likely that the pandemic will accelerate digital adoption.  My 88 year-old father in the UK started getting online grocery deliveries.  As guidelines relaxed in the UK last week, he drove to a store to shop.  But the queue and the difficulties with social distancing meant that he said he will go back to ordering online.  The bricks and mortar store in his village required larger orders for free delivery so he has already switched to a grocery chain he never went to previously.

If banks and mobile phone companies could re-train branch and retail staff to provide customers with service from their own homes in lockdown within 10 days, will customers want to connect with staff remotely via Zoom or to travel for an in person meeting?  What does this say about the real ability companies have to create new digital experiences quickly?

In Summary

  • Brands should dig deep and put their staff, customers and society front and center.  People will remember the brands that supported them during the crisis.
  • Experiences that reassure and are focussed around safety will be essential as lockdown eases.
  • Brands need to radically re-think the experiences people will value in future.  There is a massive opportunity to embrace digital transformation with a human heart.