17 Nov 2020

Thoughts in Progress #6

In this Thoughts in Progress, Andrea Meltzer, Strategy Director, explains why in order for brands to stay relevant and creative, they need to live in the now. 

Andrea Meltzer, Strategy Director

There is one point experienced psychologists and the pop psychology of Instagram agree on, that 'living in the now' and 'being present' leads to a more fulfilled life - one that is more creative, culturally connected and collaborative. And all these elements lead to delivering a more fulfilling brand experience. 

But life right now is an anxious time for the individuals who deliver those brand experiences and for businesses themselves. It's understandable that individuals and brands are worrying so much about the future that they are desperately looking for precedent, tune out of the here and now, or revert to the tried and tested - their own psychological crutches.

But to succeed they must be fully present and respond authentically to the new circumstances. I think brands, marketers and agency teams can stay focused if they bear the following in mind. 

1. Acknowledge COVID is scary...

And the people you are dealing with are scared - whether it's your agency, your team, your collaborators or your customers. 

Creativity flourishes when people play. And this is about the least playful most of us have ever felt. The primary benefit of the best offices I've worked at have been that they feel like creativity zones - outside of the doldrums of the everyday. We need to actively work at fostering this feeling in teams, which can often feel like an un-creativity zone. Not losing this will help brands flourish. 

How to do it? Permission from the top to not have to drop the serious face, allied with workshop techniques that are proven to ignite creativity and passion, can work. Note for them to be productive everyone has to buy-in from the start - our new circumstances mean it's all too easy to turn the camera off in such sessions and let the mind wander on to worrying about the next thing. 

2. ...But digital shouldn't be scary

Our digital lives have been accelerated by the pandemic. But this should not unsettle anybody. Digital is something we all engage with every day. Need to know how your brand should behave on a channel? Spend some time on that channel. Need to understand some complex jargon that's holding you back from getting what your digital team is saying? Ask. There are no hard and fast rules. It's about deciding how to best make digital work for your brand. 

My favourite example of a simple and effective digital strategy from an unexpected quarter was when John Lewis emailed all its customers that its first Spring/Summer TV ad had arrived. There was an email subject line: "Our new tv advert is here". Brave, simple clear and in line with its wider communication strategy. People do look for and relish John Lewis' long-form storytelling. The company understood how to make its equity (beautiful, uplifting films) and digital platform work in tandem. 

My tip is think of the way you use digital channels and tools in your everyday life - that's how everybody will be using them. You don't need to understand digital if you understand people. 

3. Be present in the pandemic...

Understand the role your brand can play in the pandemic and make sure it stays true to its authentic core. My own friendship WhatsApp groups demonstrate different roles that help in this awful time. There is the Information Provider, who provides the latest news updates before Boris Johnson finishes his sentence; the Meme Queen, who manages to get a laugh on the worst days; The Empathetic one who sympathises and encourages; The Oracle who gives the answers to desperate questions like "what's next?!".

We all have a role to play, whether it be informing, amusing or encouraging. And brands are no different. John Lewis has always celebrated the magic in the everyday. And in this pandemic, it's created magic and entertainment in the aforementioned For the Joy of Home campaign. Dove has always been about accepting women as they are, and the brand's joyful celebration of quarantine hair falls perfectly in line with that. And KFC has doubled down on its self-aware, tongue in cheek approach of recent years - so it has a license to approach a serious topic such as pandemic hygiene in a playful way with the 'no finger-lickin'!' message. 

Brands should be out of the crisis management phase of the 'new normal' now and beyond the 'we're all in it together' message, which was the necessary strategy but did result in a lack of creativity and a slew of sameness. Now what role is your brand going to play? How is it going to use its positioning and tone of voice to inform a point of view on life against the backdrop of the pandemic? 

4. ...and participate in culture

The pandemic is not all that is happening right now. The cultural conversations that were happening last year are still going on and incredibly important to sections of your audience. 

The Black Lives Matter movement is still prominent in our mass consciousness which has only been accelerated by the pandemic. Brands have an opportunity to be involved in something else historical and important. The discussions about climate change, sustainability and gender parity are all still alive and kicking. I hope the brands that were already involved in those conversations have not slammed the brakes on and become risk-averse or paralysed by Covid anxiety. 

And of course, culture embraces regular everyday stuff like eating, drinking, working from home and finding entertainment. So, when considering your Covid strategy, ensure you aren't taking your eye off everything else. Life keeps going, and opportunities are all around us for adaptation, involvement and the ability to make an impact. 

Brands can focus on the big things, and it wouldn't be a modern branding article if I didn't mention Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign. Or focus on the little things, as Oatly's hilarious, self-aware billboards taking on the much smaller culture phenomena of milk avoidance has managed to do. 

Ultimately, to stay connected and relevant to the world, it's more vital than ever to be human-centric in your work and to understand that as a brand or individual you have to stay active and aware. That will take bravery, creativity and learning on the go but it's a chance to own the 'new normal' and not be subdued by it.