February 13, 2020 was the 60th day since the first coronavirus death in Spain. I like to consider it the beginning of the crisis, since the arrival of a mortal victim turns any conflict into a crisis. Since then, so much has happened, at an accelerated speed, that it seems like years have passed. The companies, like sailing ships subjected to extreme conditions, have been weathering the storm as best they can, some with well-structured plans and others following their intuition, and all looking sideways at their competitors.
The first step was communication with internal audiences: how to manage risks, what management and communication policies were best to bring the company together around its purpose, how to promote consensus around plans for the future. Today that question has been more than overcome, and the concern is: what communication policy do I follow with my clients? Do I suspend my advertising campaigns, maintain them, or modify them in depth? What do clients expect from me?
We have to thank Edelman, the American consulting firm that every year gives us the Barometer of Consumer Confidence, because it has provided us with an initial survey of consumer preferences and expectations, which gives us many clues to see not only where the wind is coming from, but also where the current is taking us.
I will try in these lines to summarise the results of that survey, adding some comments from my own harvest, in case they help in the decision making in the coming weeks.
The survey to which I refer was conducted from March 23 to 27, 2020 in 12 countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. The responses of 12,000 consumers shed much light on their reaction to the marketing and advertising of their usual companies during the crisis.
The first finding contradicts what many companies have done, which is simply to cut their advertising. A survey of marketing managers conducted last month by the Interactive Advertising Bureau shows that almost a quarter of brands have stopped their paid campaigns during the first and second quarter of the year.
However, consumers consulted say they want to know about their brands. The advertising blackout is not a good idea. We have to keep at it. We are in an ecosystem, where everything depends on everything. If a plant disappears from our environment, the bees that feed on it will die and, after three or four more steps, the big cats will die. You don’t get out of a crisis by promoting selfishness, saving as much as you can, but by thinking about the system. If the media are suddenly and utterly deprived of their advertising income, we will lose a fundamental element in the way out of the crisis: confirmed information and control of power.
What has changed is what they expect to hear from them. It is not primarily information about products and services, but first and foremost information about the pandemic. Yes, they see companies as reliable sources of information, almost at the same level as the media, and more so than public authorities. Consumers welcome companies’ information initiatives that help people understand the threat of the virus and protect themselves.
Secondly, they want to know what “their” brands are doing to respond to the pandemic. They expect them to be proactive, to collaborate in a common cause that goes far beyond the response capacity of civilian authorities. Sixty-three percent of respondents thought that companies had a major role in the victory over the coronavirus; 55 percent perceive that companies have responded more effectively and diligently than their own governments; and 86 percent of respondents see their brands as the safety net that protects those whom public authorities fail to reach.
These data show, on the one hand, the confidence that consumers have in companies, beyond their business responsibilities. The boundary between the public and private sectors, between the first and second sectors, is blurring. Businesses are on the front line of response to an emergency like this pandemic.
The consumer’s view of the company’s duty to “do the right thing” (or, as they say, “do the right thing”) is illustrative. Ninety percent say that businesses should be willing to suffer significant economic losses to protect people’s lives and financial security.
In other words, there is a consensus that these are not welcome initiatives, but rather a real obligation, at the whim of what the company freely decides. To stand aside and watch the bulls from the sidelines would be considered a kind of betrayal. In fact, 71 percent of those surveyed promise to punish companies that put profits before people (the opposite of good crisis management practice, which says “people before profit”), by withdrawing their trust forever.
Something similar to what is asked of companies in places where there has been a natural disaster: opening their facilities to take in displaced persons, collaborating with rescue work, etc.
Thirdly comes information about their products and services. They have to be visible. Consumers must be kept informed of how to get what they need: where to buy them, what has changed in their availability, and so on. This is particularly relevant for basic necessities, but that description covers much more than food. Computers and tablets are essential for teaching young people at home; gym equipment, supply of spare parts for all kinds of equipment, etc.
But the approach is different. It focuses more on meeting a real need today and now, than on selling. Respondents say it bluntly: 54 percent say they purposely ignored all new product communications during the crisis, unless the product in question was specifically designed for the severe challenges of the pandemic.
So the relationship is less “click to buy” and more “this is what we can do to help you today. There is more information and less selling. Or, at least, there is less selling today, in the hope that this current benevolence catchment will be rewarded later, when all this has passed. The survey confirms this: 65 percent of consumers surveyed indicated that their subsequent choices would be based on brand behavior during the crisis. I think I am not wrong to predict a boom in responsible companies that “behave well”, such as those after a war or conflict.
Respondents’ answers also highlight that tone is the message. Communication and marketing in these circumstances cannot be alarmist, because we are facing an invisible and largely unknown enemy, and therefore disproportionate reactions to fear hurt people. But they cannot be light either: an excessively carefree and joking tone is also counterproductive. Consumers reject irony, frivolity and superficiality.
An empathetic, compassionate and constructive tone is therefore required, one that shows humanity and humility. Showing closeness, and speaking through spokespersons who feel committed to the company and its customers. It is not time to use celebrities, especially if their life circumstances are so far from reality (confined to mansions with infinity pools, surrounded by their pets and declaring their suffering for not being able to leave their garden of several hectares) that would make the company contagious for the lack of harmony of those privileged. Bosses, middle managers and normal employees are better spokespersons because they are more authentic.
Good stories that are welcome are offers of free or discounted products and services in essential services (connectivity, for example, or beds for new hospital ICUs); changes in production lines, to create equipment needed in these circumstances (masks, respirators, disinfectants, etc.). ); aid to the most needy sectors, such as hotels for displaced health personnel, food for hospitals, centres for the elderly and home care networks for people without resources; ideas for using objects in a new way, and solving a need of the moment; and monetary donations.
I do not give examples, from Spain or elsewhere, because they are obvious to everyone. I just ask the media to keep talking about them, because they are stories that give hope. However, I would like to highlight not only the contribution of large banks and companies, which is in the millions, but also that of SMEs and individuals. The key to crises is capillarity. Single controls do not work, because life is so complex that it is impossible to foresee everything. It’s a return to the five-year plans of Soviet communism. What is really effective is to draw up objectives from above, and let everyone do what they can. A crisis demands a lot of delegation of competences to those in the front line, and understanding the mission of those above as one of support for those below, and not the other way around.
But beware: help must be given in concentric circles. There is no point in throwing the staff out and then donating food to a hospital, because it shows that the latter is just make-up, hollow and false. The first person to be helped is the staff themselves, and then their stakeholders: giving more generous terms to suppliers, etc. The punishment to the brands that want to thrive in the crisis and communicate with that end will not only come later, but right now: 33 percent of those surveyed said they were already punishing those brands, stopping using them and convincing others, through social networks, to also stop using them.
I end by thanking Edelman again for the service he has provided to the business world with this timely survey, and with a prediction that is more of a plea. Experts say that if it was difficult to enter confinement, the logistics of exiting the enclosure are even more complicated. Companies would do well to think about how to do it in a staggered manner, thinking about all the scenarios and knowing how to communicate with clarity and persuasion. In their hands, more than in those of the government, is the success of an operation vital to return to the new normality.
Yago de la Cierva
IESE Business School Professor and Manager of Crisis Communications at Proa Comunicación