Distancing from Convention:
How Brands Need to Adapt

By Anna Burzlaff

We’re living in a time of upheaval. That brands will have to change is clear; what that change looks like is more uncertain. We chat with some leading marketers and trend experts on what they want from brands in the future.

Consumers are changing. That should come as no surprise. In the face of a global health pandemic the way we think, behave and perceive the world has shifted. The tragic loss of life will undoubtedly shape society’s largest scars from Coronavirus, but we’ll also be left with the economic and societal fallout that comes from weeks, if not months, of shutdown. In a time of uncertainty, one thing is clear: if consumers change, so too must brands.

Over the past few weeks we have seen some of the world’s most loved labels respond to this new normal in ways that go against commonplace assumptions of how a brand should behave. Some have halted production lines to aid public health (see Irish Distillers, LVMH, and BrewDog). Some have offered out their platforms for free (see Adobe and Apple); while others have placed their priorities firmly on their staff over their profits (see Morrisons in the UK and Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart’s joint talks to create a fund for gig workers).

As we begin to ponder the ways in which COVID-19’s impact may shape our behaviours long after it is gone, it is worth considering how brands’ presence and actions might shift too. For all the anxiety, trauma and destruction this global health pandemic brings, might it create a better way for brands to function?

Real Purpose

According to research by GlobalWebIndex on the impact of Coronavirus, 28% of consumers across 13 markets worldwide said brands need to advertise differently. That is a significant chunk of consumers hungry for change. “With any big historical shift comes opportunities to be a cultural leader,” says Doug Cameron, founder of the New York agency DCX and co-author of the seminal marketing book, ‘Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands’. “It creates a tension, which creates a vacuum of power, and the most interesting responses that come out of that will channel respect.”

Over the past number of years, much of advertising has been dominated by purpose-led narratives. From Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ to Gillette’s comment on toxic masculinity in ‘The Best Men Can Be’, purpose led advertising has occupied a significant portion of brands’ creative capacities. While there is no doubt that some purpose led ads are blazing a trail and connecting with consumers, the terrain feels saturated. “It’s become a very cluttered space so you need to do it really well in order to cut through,” says Cameron. “The more brands that don’t do it well, the more consumers start to become cynical, and the more something starts to become a cliche.”

In times of crisis, our tolerance towards superficiality might be waning. As Shira Jeczmien editor of the magazine, Screen Shot says: “As we all face economic uncertainty and as our jobs go into a flurry of pause, furloughing or straight up redundancy, the usual positive and generalistic brand messages simply won't work.” Take Coca Cola. The drinks brand experienced backlash thanks to its gesture of separating the letters on its logo, with the line “Staying apart is the best way to stay connected.” For many, it was viewed as an opportunistic, awards-baiting move, and nothing more.

Sarah Johnson, co-founder of The Akin, a London-based consultancy that specialises in creating future-focused strategies for brands, wants to see recent brand gestures turn into more concrete operational change: “It’s a time for brands not just to make these PR moves. We need to ask, what are brands doing to contribute to larger society here?” According to 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic, 71% agree that if a brand was seen to put profit before people, then they would lose trust in it for good.

Brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have long been touted as best in class examples when it comes to speaking to consumer values in an authentic way. Could our dwindling tolerance for vacuous claims of ‘purpose’ make brands put their money where their mouth is, and truly prioritise their workers, communities, and environments, as much as their profits?

Maybe it is not about forgoing growth, but reconsidering what growth means. “For us, the term growth has always spanned a broad range of definitions,” explains Cameron. “On the one hand, you have the business metric linked to profit, revenue, and valuation, but we’ve also asked clients to focus on growing union membership, growing influence, or growing support for their organic legislation.”

Conscious Producers

Changing how we consider growth relates to how we consider consumption. In a recent interview in Dezeen, trend forecaster Li Edelkoort said that “the impact of the outbreak will force us into slowing down the pace, refusing to take planes, working from our homes, entertaining only amongst close friends or family, learning to become self-sufficient and mindful.”

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down industrial activity and temporarily slashing air pollution levels around the world. Levels of nitrogen dioxide over cities are markedly lower now than in the same period last year. “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, told The Guardian. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Not only have we witnessed what can happen when movement and production slows down, we’ve also witnessed the shortcomings of a reliance on global supply chains. “The last 25 years have seen an increase in globalization and interdependence, a massive increase in travel and more complex supply chains in businesses,” says George Wallace, chief executive of MHE Retail in a recent article in Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “But there are signs of a greater preference for locally supplied goods and simpler supply chains.” As the coronavirus limits trade and travel, companies and consumers are looking at local solutions.

“I’m hopeful people understand their consumption needs, their access to things; that they start understanding the system more, and start making better choices because of that understanding,” says Johnson. What does all of this mean for brands? Well, some will undoubtedly be able to capitalise on a renewed appreciation for local production. Similarly, witnessing the positive gains our reduced mobility is having on the environment is a welcome news story in a harrowing landscape. When all this comes to an end, as Johnson says, “Brands need to start educating people that it’s not just about producing locally to meet produce demand, in the future this is also why it’s important to continue producing locally.”

Risky Business

When we slowly begin to return to work and school, it will not just be a matter of rebuilding our economies. Our social fabric is being pulled in unprecedented ways, from school closings, a widespread shift to working from home, and social distancing. We used to share dozens of experiences a day with friends and strangers; now many of us have been reduced to limited social encounters with our family or flatmates, if any at all.

Over the past number of years, much has been penned about the declining number of cultural spaces. In Ireland we’ve witnessed the loss of institutions such as the Bernard Shaw, in the UK the (almost) closure of Fabric, and even in Berlin, the bastion of free space to create, the club Griessmuehle recently shut its doors. Oftentimes distinctive, daring spaces and cultural programmes have been shut to make way for more conventional and generic offerings. It turns out that free market, neo liberal capitalism was not so great for artists, musicians, and curators looking to do something different. However, change is knocking.

"Every artist, every musician, every person is locked away and there’s something very levelling about that,” says Aoife Woodlock, a music consultant and a driving force behind the likes of Other Voices and St Patrick’s Festival. “Whether you’re Beyoncé or Dermot Kennedy, you’re at home. There is a solidarity in that, the variation is square footage!”

Brands have always been great supporters of culture in theory. Yet oftentimes, this support has come with conditions. “Brands often rely on the stable, tried and tested option, versus the riskier smaller one,” says Johnson. “What’s happened in this crisis is we’re realising that that stability doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

A renewed appreciation for the arts is already clear. From the MET in New York, to the National Theatre in London, people are availing of the litany of content available online. “People are realising the beauty and necessity of culture, how it’s such a big part of our lives, and how - now that we're trapped indoors - it’s about more than just having a few drinks on a night out,” explains Woodlock. “They hold the experience in a different way."

Everything is in sharper focus. Our values, and what and who we hold dear, feel clearer than ever. Where there are changing patterns, behaviours and ideologies, there are opportunities. The brands that realise that and activate in the right way, are the brands set to survive and thrive in this new normal.

Illustrations by Gavin Connell