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Post-Pandemic, Brands Must Find Empathy

Five lessons for companies from this pandemic year. Customers have new values, needs and expectations

In early 2020, almost overnight, people were confronted with radical shifts to their day-to-day lifestyles as they learned to live with the stress of an ever-present contagious virus—all amidst a tumultuous backdrop of challenging politics and civil unrest. With state-mandated shelter-in-place and the fear of getting sick, consumerism shifted. Consumers learned to become digital-first for both essential and nonessential purchases. They found themselves reevaluating decision-making processes in almost every transaction. As a consequence, how consumers see brands is now reset, triggering the need for them to reimagine what they stand for.  

Memory is the key to strong relationships

There will be stories to tell of these times of struggles, learnings, and triumphs, and they will be deeply felt by people with each recollection. Thus for brands, connecting to user memories will be an even more powerful accelerant than before for discovering and conveying meaning, attracting and retaining customers, and forging loyalty.

There’s a unique and incredible opportunity, right now, for brands to be part of those stories and memories. Beyond the basics of communicating “we are all in this together,” brands have to mean something that connects deeply with customers. Connecting to user memories is a powerful way to create sincere ties and grow productive relationships. Brands can stand for something significant and worthwhile, so they can stick positively with consumers, and be recalled when those memorie, and the emotions tied to them are triggered in the future.

First though, executives, marketers, and partner agencies need to understand the new landscape themselves and how consumers are changing as a result of COVID-19.

Here are five insights to help companies connect brand, purpose, and relevance to consumer memory.

1) Digital is no longer niche, it’s the new normal

Years ago, we described a new generation of connected customers, Generation-C as we called them, people who embraced digital technologies not just as the latest trend but as enablers and drivers of new ways of living. The members of this generation have been growing steadily in number, but COVID has accelerated that growth.

Prior to COVID-19, ecommerce consistently trailed physical store performance. It had grown steadily, of course. Ten years ago, ecommerce represented only 5.1 percent of total retail purchases. In Q1 2020, pre-COVID, e-commerce revenue was already growing at a 20 percent rate. But by the end of the second quarter e-commerce had soared to 35 percent of retail spending, experiencing 10 years of growth in 90 days, McKinsey reported in its Quickening research

E-commerce will only continue to accelerate in a post-quarantine world. Digital innovation is now a non-negotiable. “Digital-first”, “mobile-first” and “visual-first” are the new pillars for connected brands and marketing strategies. In fact, Salesforce found in its “State of the Connected Customer” research published in October 2020, 88 percent of business customers and consumers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives.

2) Brands must understand and reflect customers’ need for a sense of both autonomy and connectedness

Despite the very real losses and hardships inflicted on nearly all of us by the pandemic, consumers learned to assert both individuality and connectedness with others.

A renaissance of creativity was ignited. Some took the opportunity to learn new things, from baking to playing an instrument or speaking a foreign language. We also saw the rise of live and collaborative music, as local and world renowned artists serenaded fans, DJ’ed virtual dance parties, and produced incredible collaborations and performances while sheltering-in-place.

Accenture research published at the end of April 2020, found that this crisis would build lasting communities rather than separate them. According to their data, 80 percent of consumers felt more connected to their communities, or at least as connected as before. And 88 percent of consumers expected these connections to stay intact after the virus is contained.

Digital became a common means to manage isolation, to learn and play, and emulate offline social life, in whatever ways possible. These experiences are unifying and human. They create lasting memories. They reveal a new and evolving normal that will define who we are as consumers.

Monitoring and understanding expressions of autonomy and connectedness during these times will help brands understand how to earn cultural and contextual relevance, spark personal connections, and create new memories going forward.

3) Brands must align with consumer values to inspire trust

During this pandemic, too much branding seems to have disappeared, replaced by a generic pandemic playbook rich with platitudes. This was a missed opportunity.

Salesforce found in its research that 90 percent of customers say that how a company acts during a crisis reveals its trustworthiness. And customers see the role of brands changing now. Fifty-six percent have reevaluated the societal role of companies this year.

Trust and values now matter more than ever. Customers are watching. For instance, 31 percent trust some companies less because of its response to this year’s crises. Business customers and consumers also reported that they generally don’t trust companies to tell the truth (42 percent) and don’t trust companies to act in the best interests of society (41 percent) or customers (36 percent).

Customers want companies to stand for more than capitalism and shareholder value. In its research, Salesforce learned that corporate values impact customer acquisition and retention. For example, 89 percent of people expect companies to clearly state their values, and 90 percent want them to clearly demonstrate those values.

Companies are being held to a higher standard, and in areas that “boardrooms have largely not considered,” according to Salesforce. Consumers recognize their power to influence change in companies’ behavior. Seventy-one percent pay more attention to companies’ values than they did last year. Sixty-one percent have stopped buying from a company because corporate values didn’t align theirs.

But customers also want brands to make them feel something, especially now that they are feeling a full spectrum of emotions. And now is a perfect time, on this emotional rollercoaster that we’re all living through, to inject some feelings of hope, humor, happiness, or in the least, relatability.

Susan Frech, Social Media Link CEO, says “This is a critical time for brands to imprint themselves in consumers’ minds, and that will ensure staying power through the crisis and beyond.”

4) New collective memories and behaviors call for new ways of understanding customers

This is not a moment, or an episode, or a series of one-off experiences. This is an epoch. We are all living it, everyone, across the world. We have all been shut in, quarantined, operating in a state of fear, anxiety, and hope. And, crucially, it has lasted for a long time, far longer than the 66 days it is estimated to take, on average, for new behaviors to become habit.

We’re building a new – or at least rare – type of memory, a memory of the time rather than of a moment or episode. It’s at once cultural, emotional, autobiographical, and shared. And it’s a memory connected to a range of behaviors, attitudes, states, and outcomes that have emerged and become habituated through long exposure to this unusual time. We’re calling it epochal memory to distinguish it from the far more common episodic memory, and we think it’s going to be an important feature of consumers’ lives for years to come.

Those new behaviors, opinions and attitudes will continue to play out over years and possibly decades. It will involve not only how we feel about brands, but also how we feel about our work and education and health. How we look at nursing homes and schools and prisons and churches; how we communicate with one another; how we think about public versus private transportation; and how we think and feel about freedom.

How your company groups and segments your customers moving forward requires swift re-examination.

Brands need an updated view of who their customer is and who they are becoming. Yesterday’s personae, and the data used to create them, are outdated. Moreover, our existing construct of how we visualize customers is incomplete, post-pandemic.

Things like demographics, purchase frequency, loyalty membership, or products owned don’t provide a true 360-degree view, nor do they reveal the customer’s truth. Segmenting your customers based on their emotional responses to this crisis and how their behaviors and interests evolve will be much more meaningful.

If the memories we are acquiring are epochal, if the behaviors we are developing are long term, then the segmentation needs to be epochal as well. As such, we are calling this epographic segmentation, to understand the role of user memories on sentiment and how that affects behaviors, values, and desires regarding decisionmaking and relationship building. Epographics reflect the changes in standards and aspirations across the entire population this virus has inscribed.

5) Marketers need to listen and learn, not market and sell

Digital empathy and human empathy have taken on a new urgency. Companies now have to understand customer emotions, how they’re feeling and thinking, the stressors affecting their lives, their desired digital and real-world experiences, as well as current trends. These insights will inspire the design of brand pillars, in addition to what’s still core to what a brand represents. These new pillars need to be empathetic, touching, sought after, and aspirational. They will align with how customer behaviors, values, and expectations are evolving. Empathetic brands will reimagine products, services, and the entire customer journey as a result.

Together, new customer journeys will unfold and lasting memories will be made that carry meaning and nostalgia for years and generations to come. 

There are already consequences for brands that do not convey empathy in their branding/marketing, customer experiences, or products. In one devastatingly brutal finding, McKinsey discovered that brand loyalty is up for grabs. In its research, 75 percent of consumers reported trying different stores, websites, or brands since COVID-19. And, 60 percent of those consumers expect to adopt new brands and stores post-pandemic.

Why are customers so ready to change? Empathy matters. Salesforce research discovered that almost 70 percent of customers expect brands to demonstrate empathy and that 66 percent expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations. Compare that to the perception those surveyed have that only 37 percent actually demonstrate empathy and just 34 percent treat customers as unique individuals.

There are rewards for paying attention, testing, and learning. Seventy percent of customers now expect new ways to access existing products and services, e.g. digital versions of traditionally in-person experiences. Fifty-four percent want expanded engagement methods and 54 percent also said they want modern types of products and services.

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We will all remember life in this epoch for a very long time, maybe for a lifetime. Whether we’re looking for a return to pre-viral life or for a new normal, we’ve all been infected in one way or another down to our core. There can be no better time to start telling more personal, collaborative, and productive stories. Now’s the time for companies to act, to associate and tie brand identity and values to important memories emblazoned during the pandemic. 

It’s said that listeners make the best conversationalists. For brands it now is about listening to learn and grow…together. Listening leads to learning and learning sparks human-centered creativity. This empathetic communication can inspire innovation in products and services and humanize brands at a time when “humanity as the new engagement” takes center stage.

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This article was co-authored by Henry King, an innovation and transformation strategy leader at Salesforce and author of Flow by Design, a new paradigm for the design of customer experiences and business processes in a connected world. King is a former CIO with over 35 years of consulting and executive experience, both in the US and internationally, with expertise in innovation, design thinking, and information technology. He has been published in Fast Company, Huffington Post, ZDNet, and Businessweek. King studied Classics at Oxford University and teaches postgraduate innovation and design classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Institute of Design.  

One Response to “Post-Pandemic, Brands Must Find Empathy”

  1. Earl Hackett says:

    What a timely article. This pandemic is a whole world event. World War II was the last major event that effected most of the world. I am a Baby Boomer who was born after the war. My dad fought in WW II and I was a Vietnam War Era and Golf War era veteran. I even survived the civil unrest of the 60’s but this pandemic has changed so many things. People don’t like change but to survive they must. All the pandemic numbers are not in yet but the effects will last for a while. Trust and value matter, and marketers need to listen and learn, not market and sell.

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