When we turned the calendar to 2020, none of us could have envisioned what we were in for. The global health pandemic, the ensuing economic meltdown and political upheaval, and most recently the mass global protests to highlight systemic racial injustices have completely overtaken any predictions for what the year had in store. On top of ongoing personal debt concerns, the climate crisis, and serious foreign conflicts, the first six months of the year are the poster child for the adage “the only constant in life is change.” The debasing of basic feelings and beliefs we once held as constants have tested our collective human spirit. For us at Emotive, they only serve to understate our purpose in establishing the company in the first place - to reveal the human connections that drive business success.
It was barely six weeks ago that our team was discussing how, in the midst of a pandemic that has revealed its effects to each of us in so many distinct, personal, and sometimes unexpected ways, we thought we could provide some answers for businesses seeking a path forward. Today, Covid-19 has been rightly shoved off the front pages as racial justice and equality have become the rallying cry in the U.S., with many other countries joining suit. This is a fight that has only just begun, with appearances of lasting momentum, and we intend to report on its impact on our collective attitudes shortly. Meanwhile, the pandemic is not leaving us anytime soon, with fresh predictions by the OECD that it will take at least 2 years for a recovery, and this is the reason we are publishing our initial Covid-19 Pulse Report now.
The purpose of this article is to begin sharing what we’ve learned from our initial study. To help leaders make decisions that are evidence-based. To provide the audience-led parameters within which brands can build reengagement strategies. And most importantly, to do all of this rooted in the fundamentals of how humans engage with anything and everything - through their feeling and belief systems. Our good friend and engagement expert Scott Gould describes engagement with a single word...togetherness, and we ascribe to this as a guiding principle of what businesses need to accomplish, to manage in these uncertain times.
What did we learn?
It all needs to start with being Relatable
Our company measures 16 distinct attitudes that audiences have towards the companies, organizations and brands in their lives. We also measure how likely these attitudes will drive their actions. We expected to, and did see in the findings, differing feelings or beliefs leading the engagement metrics of specific brands, but we also saw some commonality across categories. Being relatable was one such example. What does it mean for a brand to be relatable? The agency Cult describes it as "perfecting how brands personify human traits." People inherently want these brands to succeed, because they see themselves in those brands, and feel a shared sense of their success.
How does a brand embrace and action relatability? To begin with, communicate, act and operate as peers with your audiences. Customers must be treated with respect and should neither be seen as above or below them, but alongside them. Relatable brands also embrace human values that are relevant to the company, because they are relevant to their audiences.
A common strategy, since Covid-19 has reared its ugly head, is for companies to say that “we’re in this together.” This statement rings hollow when brands don’t walk the talk. More importantly, the thought itself can only deliver maximum value when audiences come to that conclusion on their own, because of the actions of a brand. A great example of this is UCLA Health and their #teamla initiative. They are leading a community-based, grassroots effort to collaborate with organizations and individuals together in Los Angeles, to demonstrate how they collectively deliver emotional and practical support, and help community members cope with the effects of the pandemic.
Being seen as relatable begins with acting in sympatico with your audience, sharing in the emotions of their tribulations as well as their triumphs, and operating as a brand expressing honest, authentically human traits.
Create moments of Joy
The world is going through troubling times, and we have seen that it is contributing to the decay of emotional health in all of us. Covid-19 is of course a serious health issue, with serious effects, yet people continue to cling to hope for a better tomorrow, and they need some fuel to drive that aspiration. Give them some Joy.
In three short months, consumers have told us that Joy has jumped to become one of the strongest feelings they are seeking in their relationships with brands. Joy is a relative idea, provoking different meanings and reactions, and people are open to the entire spectrum. It can be frivolous or coy. It can be smile-inducing. It can be whimsical. It can be empowering. As long as it's not a trojan horse - disingenuous, deceptive or self-serving.
A brand who gets this is the NBA. Months have ticked by without live NBA action, which would normally be knee deep in the playoffs now. But instead of waiting it out, or just pushing reruns of games to fill the void, they’ve invited fans to express their Joy of the sport through the hashtag #NBAmoments and TikTok. This hashtag has attracted over 1.5 billion views to date, in part because they are inviting TikTok users to recreate and post some of the greatest clips, with them in the starring role.
If you set a goal in the coming months of scoring 7 out of 7 to the audience question “Does your brand always put a smile on your customers’ faces”, you’ll be sure to see engagement move in your favor.
Men’s and women’s desires differ, but perhaps not how you expect.
Being Relatable, and creating moments of Joy were universal ideas across brands, segments, and countries. These were also equivalent desires amongst men and women. And both genders firmly declared similar expectations of becoming emotionally engaged as they leaned into brand relationships.
But people told us how they differed in expectations according to their gender too.
Males are primarily looking to engage with brands that are uncomplicated, who make it feel simple, easy and intuitive for them to transact and interact with. Females seek brands they can trust because they deliver what they promise, and that resonate in a personally meaningful way. At the same time, the head and the heart play complementary roles in building brand relationships for both sexes.
It would be a huge mistake for brands wishing to rebuild business through a specific gender strategy, to lean on broad myths that females are more attracted to an emotional appeal, males to a more rational plea. Attitudinal drivers by gender are equally right and left brain, and much more nuanced than this.
Attitudes are both connective tissue for your audience, and differentiators within your category.
This study confirmed that key attitudes drive engagement with brands, and with categories too. It also underscored how strongly a short list of specific attitudes are being underserved by most brands in these categories, and provide a window of opportunity today to become differentiators for them tomorrow.
If you’re in financial services, feelings of Dependability are in short supply right now. If you’re a quick serve restaurant, commitment to Accessibility and Helpfulness are a void looking to be filled. If you run a hotel, people want to feel you act in a Principled way, never hesitating to make up for your mistakes. And if you operate in the mobile telecommunications space, a feeling of Honesty would be welcomed, to reinforce a sense that you are open and transparent about yourself and your intentions with them.
Recognizing and capitalizing on the attitudinal “open space” in your category is as important as building a brand story that’s reflective of its origins or purpose. In fact, your reason for being should be strongly informed by the emotional and rational attitudes of your most important audience members, if you want to create a relationship that's built on engagement.
There are no quick fixes or tidy steps to take in order to succeed amidst this pandemic, but this study provides important clues to engage. You need to be methodical about understanding how people want you to make them feel, and what they want to believe, in order to pivot towards reengagement. And you need to recognize that this approach will not only assist your short term survival, but may actually drive your long term success. Furthermore, consumers are actually anxious for you to step up and take the reins.
Our study revealed that 69% of people expect brands to play a fundamental role in leading the way through the pandemic and into the future, while only 46% believe governments are acting in their best interests. Are you up for it?
These findings are from a May 2020 audience engagement initiative titled Covid-19 Pulse Study, conducted by Emotive Technologies Inc. To download your copy, free of charge or obligation, please visit here. We’ve also created more in depth reports for specific categories, available upon request.
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.