AANA Reset: How brands can ride out the four emotional stages of crisis

Strategic leaders from Ogilvy, Wanderlust share how brands can best respond given consumer needs during the various stages of COVID-19 crisis

The most important thing brands can do right now is be of service to their customers. Because if you do that, your brand will improve in people’s estimations and be better off post-COVID.

That’s the view of Ogilvy’s chief strategy officer, Toby Harrison, and Wanderlust CEO and former Mars Wrigley CMO, Suzanne Morrison, who both spoke on dos and don’ts of brand engagement during the COVID-19 crisis as part of the latest AANA Reset Forum online.

Harrison applied four general emotional stages of crisis to the way consumers are responding in the COVID-19 environment: Destabilisation and fear; transition and stabilisation; tentative emergence from the crisis; and rebuilding. He suggested Australia has just begun entering the third phase, a time of both hesitation and cautious optimism.

“There are no clear examples of how this is manifesting, but it’s pretty evident some states are relaxing laws, some people getting ready to have the party or all party, while others still really worried about how to behave at this time,” Harrison said.

Regardless of the stage, it’s clear brands have to be mindful of what people want and need and how they can deliver it, he said. “As we move through these phases, the most important thing is to think about how people are feeling at this time and what as a brand you can offer that’s valuable,” he said.

The biggest indicator for brands trying to navigate these tricky waters is consumer behaviour, Harrison said. “You’ll either see people re-engaging with your brand or not,” he said.

“It’s critical to be sensitive to how people are feeling, and to be considering what their needs and feelings are, before triggering anything.”  

To ensure the best chance of adapting to these emotional stages, Harrison advised marketers to adopt to new behaviours, be agile and move quickly. Yet he saw brand tracking as a distraction in the quest to gauge consumer response.

“Right now, the most important you should be doing as a brand is being of service to your customer. If you’re doing that, your brand will improve in the estimation of people. Full stop,” Harrison said.

“Focus on what’s important, rather than those vanity metrics, because they will improve in the long-term. Think carefully about how to apply yourself to be the best and most useful brand you can be right now. That stuff will follow on afterwards.”  

Harrison agreed it’s a tricky time for brands, noting even the slightest hint of inauthenticity will be seen as insensitive.

“If you are thinking to capitalise from a brand perspective, people will smell that right away,” he continued. “In fact, the best thing you can do is just be helpful and not even talk about it.”

By way of example, Harrison pointed to Coca-Cola and KFC, two companies providing products to the Rural Fire Service during the recent bushfire crisis.

It was a similar message from Wanderlust CEO and former CMO at Mars Wrigley, Suzanne Morrison, who stressed the importance of understanding who you are as a brand and what role you play in your customers’ lives, in order to navigate the marketing path forward.  

According to Morrison, early brand advertising as COVID-19 struck was too much the same.

“It was actually a bit embarrassing as a conglomerate of marketers - we were all talking uncertainty, that it’s dark times, but then yes we can do together. Maybe that was needed in phase one but we’re passed that now,” she argued.  

“This is a perfect time to understand and check in with who you are. When you are clear on your brand and tone of voice, it’s amazing how much cut through you can have.”

However, Morrison didn’t agree brands had to be apologetic about selling during this time. “It’s important in our economic environment we keep generating sales, margin and putting value back into the economy and creating jobs,” she said.

“Yes, we need to serve. But through serving, you will be able to recognise sales and profits. This is where some brands have got it really right – a lot of the banks have done a good job here, and supermarkets.

“It needs to be done in genuine, authentic way that’s true to you.”  

Morrison also raised the criticality of balancing short-term with long-term activity. “The worst thing you can do right now is turn off the tap in terms of talking to consumers about your brand, focusing in on the brand and how you are serving,” she said.  

“During my time at Mars, we did a lot of research and for every four-week block you went dark, it took about 60 per cent more funds to get that mental availability or saliency back up.”

It needn’t be expensive media buying either. From a short-term perspective, Morrison highlighted Burger King’s offer of free whoppers to anyone taking a selfie in front of one of its billboards as a joyful and playful example of how to engage with consumers by repurposing existing assets.

Long-term, Morrison said she’s using the current environment as a time to instigate conversions with partners she wants to align the Wanderlust brand with in future. These include yoga studio owners and teachers, who she saw an opportunity to support.

“Some of the greatest campaigns and creativity has been when 2-3 people collaborate,” she said. “I encourage you to think about who I can have conversations with – retail partners, brand ambassadors, or even internal conversations. The idea is you’re connecting and creating something for when we start getting into that growth phase. That will help with that growth trajectory.”  

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