The brands that want to thrive moving forward will be those that recognise the importance of experiences, service, collaboration and inclusivity.
‘The new normal’, ‘pivot’, ‘work from home’, ‘shift to digital’, ‘now more than ever’. The advertising, communications and creative industries in 2020 were nothing if not dominated by clichés, bandied about in circumstances so fraught, so unexpected, that just surviving the year was considered an achievement.
It was flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants stuff as we grappled with the impact of Covid-19 on our businesses and lives.
From the looks of it, 2021 is not going to be any easier. There is no magic switch. This year is likely to be even tougher and more demanding personally and professionally. But it has to be different; if indeed there is a ‘new normal’ out there, we have to acknowledge, understand and work with it. Reacting was last year’s default; this year requires a lot more from us.
Our ethos as a digital agency is that conversation drives advocacy and advocacy drives business growth. This has never been more important in our industry, where the focus will increasingly be on brands becoming conversation leaders.
They will move from being either not known or talked about – or being perceived as no more than the sum of their products or services – to being brands with purpose, brands that transcend categories and shape conversations in society. It certainly takes bravery and stepping out of comfort zones, but if 2020 taught us anything, it is the importance of courage and resilience.
There are four key, practical takeaways to help brands become purposeful conversation leaders.
Experiences replace brand promises and messages
Communication in 2021 is far less about saying hello and making an offer. It has to be about how we can use tech and innovation to create experiences and value that ensure our customers never have to say goodbye. Brand messages and promises are no longer effective on their own; consumers are looking for experiences that are seamless, convenient and allow for escapism.
Brands will need to demonstrate their promises through authentic experiences and rich, immersive, value-based communication. This is where a focus on CX and UX will also play a vital role in how we help our clients build sustainable brands in 2021.
It can’t merely be about shifting marketing budgets and brand messages onto digital platforms, but rather how our audiences experience our brands within this space. Why should they trust a brand and why should they keep coming back? They will continue to trust their inner circles and networks more than Adcept A or B. Brands will need to back up their promises in unique and innovative ways to build trust and indeed talkability.
Helping versus selling, brands as a service
Consumers are looking for brands that will make their lives easier, brands that go beyond merely selling, brands that are of service. Forbes listed Shine Distillery, in Portland USA, as one of the brands who got this right in 2020. The distillery started making and giving away hand sanitiser during an acute shortage. This was made possible by the distillery using the first batch of alcohol produced but often thrown out. Closer to home, SAB did something similar, donating alcohol from its breweries to help manufacture more hand sanitiser. Both were innovative ways of building brand awareness while supporting the community.
It’s also important for brands to recognise that their employees can either be their greatest advocates or most powerful detractors. Being of service needs to be internally focused as well. Take Google, which created a Covid-19 fund to enable contract workers to take sick leave when quarantined, and Twitter providing employees cover for additional childcare expenses incurred due to schools being closed.
The real magic happens when brands partner with entities with a common purpose – it allows for more compelling creative, better reach and, if you really nail it, far-reaching impact on people’s lives.
Lifebuoy is one of the few brands that properly leveraged the benefits of collaboration in 2020 when they partnered with the Global Handwashing Partnership in the ‘H for Handwashing’ campaign. The movement literally changed the conversation we have with our children around critical hand hygiene, and further entrenched the brand’s purpose and position within communities across Africa.
Brands should look to collaborate not only with suppliers, partners and other brands, but also most importantly with their biggest asset: their customers. Marketers who want to appeal to today’s consumers need to master the art of inclusivity in their marketing efforts. Finding simple and innovative ways to have consumers adopt the brand mission and purpose as their own is incredibly powerful. Consumers become your media, wilfully and happily propagating your promises in a meaningful and believable way. Get your audience to do the talking to drive up positive sentiment and deliver growth for your brand.
I love the quote from Howard Gossage: “Nobody reads ads. They read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”
And it’s never rung truer. We can’t know what the rest of 2021 has in store, but we also can’t wait for the year to happen to us. We need to take what we have and carve out a space where we become valuable and interesting to our audiences and communities, sparking conversations that are meaningful and useful right here, right now.
If we want to drive business growth in 2021, if we want this year to be really different, we need to be proactive, not reactive. We need to move out of last year’s shadow.
Uyanda Manana is managing director of Conversation LAB, a full service ‘born digital’ agency founded in 2012 with offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and London. Conversation LAB consistently delivers highly effective digital campaigns for blue-chip clients with relentless accountability. Sister agencies in the group include strategic communications firm Power LAB and paid media consultancy Media LAB.
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