How should brands be approaching comms around COVID-19 in 2021?

Thought Leadership

This is an extract of a piece written for WARC by our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir. You can read the full article here.

A second ‘Roaring Twenties’ complete with ‘sexual licentiousness’ and ‘reverse religiosity’ is likely after the pandemic crisis passes following month after month of suspended social interaction, social epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Yale, colourfully predicts.

Brand owners are best advised to be more cautious, however. Analysis of social conversations between November 2020 and January 2021 reveals stoical optimism, modest desire for pleasant surprises, and responsibility as prevailing consumer sentiments.

Since March 2020, our Global R&I team has been monitoring social media sentiment about the COVID-19 pandemic across 14 markets, including the UK, France, Germany, the US, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Using in-depth social listening, to better understand consumers’ emotional state about the present as well as their hopes and plans for the future.

And for brand owners, the latest quarter – covering the period from November 2020 to January 2021 – contains a number of surprising and actionable insights.

For a start, talk of ‘never getting back to normal’ fell 77% between July and October last year and, since then, has remained low. This demonstrates the ‘slowly but surely’ mindset that now prevails, with raised hopes that life will return to normal balanced by the acceptance that this will take longer than many might like. But overall, the consensus was that though things are improving, 2021 will be ‘a difficult year’.

A sense of relief was also evident in social conversation as the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered and people began sharing stories of loved ones being vaccinated and, in some cases, plans – such as travel plans – for when restrictions ease.

Frustration was also evident, however; as was a sense of concern about the spread of misinformation – about vaccines, especially – and the negative effect this is having on trust, in particular regarding lower than average uptake of the vaccine in the UK among certain ethnic and religious groups.

Finally, our evidence suggests consumers’ desire to treat themselves – both as a reward and, also, to break the monotony – not in a ‘Roaring Twenties’ kind of way, as predicted by Dr Christakis, however, but in a way that is responsibly indulgent.

In light of all this, we recommend that brands should consider the following responses:

1. Don’t centre communications around COVID-19
Consumers are tired – of the restrictions on their lives caused by COVID-19, of the uncertainty of when normality will return, and of brand communications that attempt to reassure with messages like ‘We are here for you’ and ‘All in it together’. The message is clear: consumers on social media are talking about it less.

2. Don’t bang on about the imminent ‘return of normal’
The social chat is loud and clear: the world’s current predicament is anything but short-term, and brands should also factor this into their thinking. Marketers need to be responding to consumers’ normal-for-now attitude towards COVID-19 and its related restrictions (for however long ‘now’ lasts).

3. Do accentuate the do-able …
Consumers tired of lockdown restrictions and craving old freedoms want to hear about what they can do under current circumstances, not what they still can’t. The opportunities for brands lie in offering consumers entertaining and engaging content that provides a break from lockdown monotony and, also, in providing pleasant surprises that reward.

4. … but accentuate the do-able responsibly
Responsibility is key – as underlined by the recent backlash against influencers jetting off to Dubai to ‘do lockdown’. The clear majority of consumers want to be as sociable as they can be, but only within current restrictions. This creates opportunities for brands to position themselves as a responsible enabler, and to then innovate around that accordingly.

Brands should proceed with caution, however. Ryanair’s ‘Jab and go’ ad, which was first condemned as irresponsible then withdrawn after being criticised for misleading claims by UK advertising watchdog the ASA, is a case in point.

5. Do keep reading the room, emotionally
Consumer sentiment is fragile, and emotions are intense. Yes, many people are now starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, but that light still feels – and is – a long way off. Brands cannot and should not assume that people are yet ready to celebrate – or, indeed, ever will be.