Seeking Permission to be a Brand Again


"How are you feeling?" In the still-unfolding days of the global pandemic, it's the first question we ask of family, friends and colleagues. It's the orientation we start every day with. It’s the concern that is driving our collective thinking and our individual actions. But how does this question affect the relationships we hold and interactions we make with companies, organizations and brands?

Humans are emotional creatures by nature. Our feelings determine how we behave, and define the depth and nature of engagement that exists in our relationships, both personal and with the brands we know and admire. They shape the likelihood that we’ll take action or say kind words in support of those we love. And it's these attitudes that have taken a dramatic downward turn from Covid-19. In the past six months alone, according to Gallop, Americans have experienced an unprecedented shift in their attitudes, feeling 20% less enjoyment in life and a similar percentage of increased worry.

If the leaders of today are to make informed decisions about their businesses during the uncertainty of the novel coronavirus, they need to understand the signs of when and how people are prepared to re-engage with brands out of desire, not just need. They must reconsider their own role in bringing confidence and trust to new norms, and not just, as Julio Vincent Gambino recently wrote, gaslight people into believing they will magically bring people the comfort and happiness people have been so desperately missing. They require a whole new playbook. Here are three key steps that should guide the path forward.

Understand the true signals of re-engagement - and how to measure it

The attitudes we hold towards brands are the fabric of our relationships with them. They are informed by the friends and family we trust, our personal brand experiences, and through advertising and news coverage. Now, in very short order, these attitudes have been turned on their heads.

The importance of research and customer listening has been elevated in a post-Covid-19 world. Our feelings and beliefs are being reshaped by the news media, governments at all levels, social feeds and video chats with friends and colleagues. Brands, especially those who have been forced into dormancy, are feeling the effects of this very directly.

Immediately preceding Covid-19, we conducted research that revealed the most important indicators driving engagement for customers across a number of industries. In banking for example, the three most important attitudinal desires among customers were very functional in nature, centering on service that was predictable and uncomplicated, with committed and accessible service representatives. This same study indicated that retailers need to take a much more emotive approach to build a competitive advantage, focusing on personal brand relevance, innovativeness, and ensuring a unique experience.* Fast forward to today. How have these attitudinal drivers been eroded by shifts in consumer perceptions over the past weeks, and what will be necessary for them to become positive in the coming months? We currently have a study in-market to find out, but we’re willing to bet that some critical differences will arise. Studying demographic patterns, behaviors and psychographics are the most common places marketers search for answers, but in today’s new climate, efforts to reconnect must be led by measuring and tracking a brand’s ability to align with and affect evolving audience attitudes too.

Knowing how people are thinking is not enough, marketers need to measure and understand the emotional feelings and rational beliefs of their audiences to more confidently predict their intended behaviors.

Recognize, honor and respect new habits

Managing the effects of the coronavirus outbreak have been guided by public health directives that are reshaping how we go about our lives. We are being retrained to exhibit an abundance of caution when interacting with devices, surfaces, places, and people. Physical boundaries and respect for people’s space has been redefined. Protecting others by restricting one’s movement and actions is a new societal expectation.

Brands need to reconsider their approaches to direct consumer interactions with all of this in mind. The classic insistence of “try before you buy”, be it a test drive at a car dealer or exploring cell phone features in the palm of your hand at a retail store, will need to be recalibrated to demonstrate care and concern for the consumer’s expectations of safety and security, right down to the smallest details.

An example can be found with Mercedes Benz of Salem, MA, who recognized that a virtual at-home test of a new car with your computer or tablet is not a suitable substitute for the real thing, and is offering a Test Drive from Home. They will bring you the car you’d like to test drive to your home, so you can still get behind the wheel in person and experience the “Mercedes-Benz difference”. They fully clean and sanitize all commonly touched surfaces in every vehicle, before and after, to reinforce their commitment to safety and security 

Brands must continually evaluate intentions through both the lens and mindset of the audience, in today’s new reality. 

Feel empathic, act with compassion

Making a connection, whether it's through the messaging of an ad or the pitch of a salesperson, has for decades been seen as a singular exercise aimed at getting consumers to buy. Transactions are the gold standard measure of effectiveness, and positioning the brand as a smart solution to a consumer problem is the well trodden roadmap. With the pandemic fanning the flames of heightened emotions, sellers need a different approach.

Emotional empathy is no longer one of many strategic options to make a connection, but rather an imperative. Brands need to uncover the opportunities to meet buyers based on emotional desires, not just rational requirements. They must seek out and respect the less tangible necessities of a mutually beneficial relationship, and satisfy them honestly and sincerely.

A great example of this comes from a collection of independent retailers in a small Calgary community called Kensington, who have banded together to create a box of goodies for customers to satisfy a craving for browsing and exploring while also making them feel good about supporting small local businesses. And for their part, they get a little cash to live another day. As one customer wrote, "I bought one - it was like opening a present on Christmas morning.. something the whole family enjoyed!"

In today’s fluid circumstances, compassion is the currency of trust, the more brands invest in building it, the greater the return.

Suggesting there is a new reality in the world of marketing is obvious. What’s less clear is the path forward. Understanding the emotional ingredients of the relationships marketers seek with each of their key audiences is an imperative today. It’s not enough to look at business needs through the lens of the brand. Companies need to understand the complete expectations of their audiences, and how to align with their newly fragile and unsettled emotional desires to find a connection. The ways the world operates have changed, but the values and attitudes that drive engagement have not, they’ve only heightened their importance. Tap into it.

*These findings are from a January 2020 audience engagement study conducted by Emotive Technologies Inc. A follow up tracking study is currently in the field to understand how Covid-19 is affecting engagement, and results will be made available, free of charge, to interested companies and organizations. See here for more information and to request access.

Marc Whitehead is founding partner and CEO of Emotive Technologies Inc., a technology-based research company that has developed a scoring system which enables businesses, organizations and brands to measure engagement with their most important audiences, and build strategies to deepen it.