Branding After COVID: Restoring Trust Through Purpose and Meaningful Action

July 20, 2021

On July 14, 2021, DELVE hosted a webinar with UNICEF USA, Virgin Voyages, and branding agency, Mother, to discuss how brands can restore trust after the COVID pandemic.

During the webinar, we discussed:

Shelley Diamond, Chief Marketing Officer, UNICEF USA
Katie Longmyer, Managing Director & Partner, MOTHER
Tamara Pluviose, Director of Marketing Technology, VIRGIN VOYAGES

Moderator: Emma Marcotte, Head of Engagement Consulting, DELVE

The Changing Expectations of Brands

In a lot of ways, 2020 was a defining year as we witnessed significant changes in consumer behavior, civil liberties, and social issues. 

While it has long been documented that Millennials and Gen Z (“Centennials”) are becoming a force in the workplace and society at large, their expectations on brand behavior reached a crescendo in Summer 2020 as social issues forced many brands to re-examine their stances and, most importantly, their actions.

A report by the London-based brand consultancy, Kantar, notes that “Millennials and Centennials expect brands to act as an example and guide change. This presents a unique opportunity for brands to act as a force for positive change. However, the fact that brands are regarded as role models amongst younger generations is a double-edged sword. Any inconsistency between action and words will be scrutinized and amplified.”

These expectations serve to add to the growing list of sometimes competing priorities as brands try to appease shareholders while pursuing a social mission and navigating risks. 

Shelley Diamond, Chief Marketing Officer, UNICEF USA, notes, “You have your Internal compass (employees and consumers that shop your brand) and then you have shareholders that drive a lot of decisions that the CEO makes. One thing that I think is obvious, is, if you don’t have a brand that stands for something — that’s not good for shareholders.”

Before rushing into taking stands on social issues, brands are advised to first gain internal alignment — from the Board of Directors to front-line staff — and be prepared that taking a stand on any issue may alienate some percentage of your stakeholders.

The Risks of Not Having a Purpose-driven Brand

Today, consumers buy more than products or services — they buy experiences. Part of the experience is being associated with the brands behind the products and services consumers buy. Whereas brand neutrality on some issues may be the most prudent approach, in other situations, lack of a brand stance could create a competitive disadvantage in the eyes of the consumer.

This point is amplified by Katie Longmyer, Managing Director & Partner of Mother, who says “what you have to do is to say ‘here are the consequences of not having an end-to-end purpose-driven brand.’ Yes, you will have risk of loss in some areas, but the gain in other areas may be so much higher. The internal conversation you have to tackle is showing what that is — metrics and comparing (your brand) with other brands in the category can be really helpful to help you win those arguments.”

Tamara Pluviose, Director of Marketing Technology at Virgin Voyages offers an additional lens by which to think about this topic: “The whole idea from a consumer’s standpoint is choice. They’re looking across this depth and breadth of your competitors and are really trying to understand what makes you different and it’s not about the slick marketing materials anymore. It’s about what do you stand for? Knowing who you are as a brand and staying true to that, while overlaying what that means to your consumer is a big key.”

The Erosion of Public Trust and the Impact on Brands 

Several data points are revealing the decline in public trust of institutions. Pew Research data going back 70 years shows a steady decline in public trust of government to historic lows — including the current Biden administration. Research from brand consultancy, Edelman, shows that 59% of consumers believe that journalists knowingly report fake news and exaggerate claims. Equally, 59% believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting a political ideology than informing the public.

One of the fallout results is that brands are increasingly being scrutinized as to what they say and how they act to provide cues to consumers relating to trust. In short, can consumers trust the brands they buy from?

One of the big changes in how information is shared has been the explosion of social media channels in the past 15 years. Pluviose notes, “You have all of these various sources outside of the news that you are now thinking is your source of truth…it’s really confusing because you have a thousand different (people) talking about the same thing with a very different lens and it starts to confuse you.” She goes on to say, “With this explosion (of information), there’s a lot of noise. News and journalists want to be the people that stand out in the noise. So how do you do that? You keep doing the click baiting, those grabs — like a honey trap — to get people to pay attention to what you are doing. In the rush to be the first or loudest, or capture the most attention — some things fell to the wayside in the quality and truth (of information). It’s a short-term win, but long-term you start to see these (trust) things.” 

People want to put their trust in brands and NGO’s and this means it’s important to take a stand on issues and communicate to consumers in new ways. According to Edelman research, consumers expect CEO’s to lead when the government fails as they are the organizations standing in the consumer’s circle of trust. 

When talking about highly visible CEOs like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, Diamond notes, “In many ways, CEOs are the new rock stars.” Each of our webinar panelists agreed that as a capitalistic society, we can use (corporate) money to make change. Since the government is out of money, businesses need to step up — and the first place to start is how CEOs treat their employees and investing in local charitable opportunities (think: charity starts at home.)

CEOs — and brand executive management — can leverage their status to communicate a point of view and position their brand in an authentic way to stand out. However, the panelists agree that consistency is key — what you say, where you say it, what you do, etc. Taking the time to create a brand POV (point of view) across channels is key to ensure a consistent brand voice is important. Shaping consumer perceptions about a brand relies upon consistent message and channel alignment.

Impact on Marketing Tactics and Media Channels

Consumer mistrust extends beyond institutions and news outlets to also include media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and others. While search engines somewhat democratize information to give consumers a choice of information sources, social media channels largely contain opinion posts and are now increasingly censored. As consumers have become more savvy about recognizing click bait, ads, and other marketing messaging, they are selecting which channels and information they consume.

This is an important consideration as brands develop their paid/earned/owned media strategies: (1) select channels that are trusted by your target audiences, and (2) ensure your narratives and Creative are aligned with audience values.

A key insight shared by the panelists is that while there’s only so much a brand can do on earned media channels, it’s critical to be consistent in your narratives there. Additionally, there is a huge opportunity to be intentional about the partnerships a brand establishes and to ensure POV is consistent with your brand POV. Again, consumers are comparing what a brand says with how a brand acts — and partnerships send signals about what brands stand for. The right partnerships can be valuable, including tapping into their owned media channels to reach audiences in authentic ways.

Diamond notes that consumers are upset by their data being used for ad retargeting, political donation calls, and other invasive interruptions — instead of value. Brands that are using consumer data for their agenda (to sell something) as opposed to taking a consumer-centric focus (to deliver personalized value) will suffer in the long run.

The panelists agree that the biggest risk is taking no risk as it relates to brands taking stands and being a force for good. Authenticity is key, as this is not a marketing program. It will require careful planning but brands willing to take the step(s) will be rewarded. 

Diamond concludes her recommendations by declaring “brands with no position, will ultimately disappear into the ether.”

Want to learn more about how your branding and marketing efforts can be more impactful post-Covid? Get in touch with the DELVE team today.

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