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How can a brand advertise when it can't trade?

My name is Michelle Marais. I've been involved in all aspects of campaign management for several years at R-Squared, and have recently been appointed as the digital marketing manager. I feel strongly about how brands have adjusted their marketing efforts during this crisis (some have kept limited communication open, and others have closed communication channels due to being unable to trade immediately during this period, disregarding their long-term consumer relationships), and I've written this article to share my opinion on how brands can communicate efficiently with their audience, maintaining brand love, even if unable to trade as usual.

“If companies can create true desirability for their brands, customers will not only be loyal, they will also act as brand champions.” A bold statement, from the IEDP (International Executive Development Programme – part of the ESADE Business School), who believe that desire is the philosopher’s stone of brands.

We’re all affected by Covid-19, every single one of us. For some, the lucky ones, they can continue trading despite the restrictions placed by the government, and so their business models are sustainable despite this life-changing global event.

Other companies and industries can’t trade at all during the lockdown. But this doesn’t mean they should cut all communication until they can trade again. There is a risk of breaking a strong bond that was built over the years with their audience. Keep the communication open, even if you can’t trade, so that you will be the first ones to be remembered by the consumers at the end of the lockdown. At R-Squared, we believe that for most brands, it is no time to sell, it is time to be there for your audience and to strengthen the brand affinity. But how? Let’s explore it in this article.

I believe that this pandemic will change the global mindset and landscape. But it’s also essential that brands stay in business, preserving jobs until the end of the crisis. It’s important to find creative, alternative ways to maintain their relationships with their audiences through this. It took many years to build that relationship, and some clients have incredible brand loyalty, staying faithful throughout their lives. It’s valuable to acknowledge and reciprocate that investment of loyalty.

Professor Oriol Iglesias, the author of Brand Desire, says, and I agree implicitly as it perfectly illustrates the current scenario, that “brand desire explains how companies can engage customers emotionally and create value for them.”

Yes, it’s a time of economic uncertainty, brands can drive the vision of their business. I’ve seen fantastic brands suddenly cut communication with audiences – no more mailers, digital marketing or other forms of touching base with us, their dedicated fans. They just disappear into thin air because they can’t sell at this moment. I realise spending is sometimes pulled back in difficult financial periods, but why would they retain my loyalty as a consumer when the market lifts? Why shouldn’t I shift my brand loyalty to a competitor that demonstrates their consistent care for me? This leads me as a consumer to believe they’re only interested in me when it’s good for them. It’s not a time to focus on hardcore sales tactics right now. I want to see the relationships and brands I’ve been loyal to demonstrating that they value my business, even when consumerism isn’t possible. Create a concept that will captivate me until the crisis is over, and you will reinforce all the reasons why I’ll go back to you as soon as it is.

This example of content posted by Crocs in the USA on LinkedIn demonstrates that they have stayed connected, and really care about people. It’s not about sales. It’s about showing they care, and people will remember this after the crisis.
Even though most of us are housebound and frustrated, we’re living in a digital age. I spend time communicating with friends and loved ones through social media, not because of the pandemic, but as an extension of its impact in my social life. I can’t experience the dinners, the getaways, the retail purchasing that makes me happy when everything is business as usual. I can dream though. And that dream is what sustains me until there’s an upturn again. The fact that I can watch influencers who share their dreams, means I share a stronger emotional connection with them, and with what they’re sharing.

I love spending time with my children. I really miss the time spent with them at the park and at other outdoor events. I’m sure other moms can relate to this – privileged moments with our children before they grow up. Roadtrips, maybe driving the kids to their grandparents or visiting a farm. When I see influencers who are young parents creating content, expressing how much they miss this experience too, I can strongly relate, because we are in the same boat; and even if the content is branded for a car, I can feel that they’re authentic and really feel the loss of freedom through the lockdown, which emotionally connects with me in a stronger way. This is true word of mouth – people really connecting with each other.

Everyone, from CEOs to secretaries, from celebrities to influencers, are all in the same boat. Nobody can travel. I can’t take a road trip with my kids, but neither can anyone else. This makes everyone relatable to me in a way not possible in normal circumstances.

Another example in South Africa, the trade of alcohol is forbidden during the lockdown. My colleagues and I have a passion for wine. As a team, every Friday afternoon we talk, laugh, have a drink and look back at the week that’s passed. I can watch an influencer share a throwback picture with your alcohol brand. When a South African influencer shares his favourite wine, he knows he can’t purchase again until the lockdown is over. Every sip he takes and shares online makes us feel like we can’t wait to try this wine, and this will probably be the first bottle I want to buy afterwards.

Taking the same example further, the travel industry, which is facing a worldwide shutdown. After a long period under lockdown, after working frantically throughout, I’m going to need a holiday, a happy getaway from the four walls surrounding me. From the time I could travel, I’ve aspired to visiting Zanzibar. It’s a country with so many facets. There is no greater dream I have than tasting the flavours, shopping the markets, imbibing the scent of the natural environment. My boss challenged us to a set of milestones, which are underway, which will ultimately lead to my staying in Zanzibar for a holiday, but the reality is even if I had achieved my milestones today, I still wouldn’t be able to travel to Zanzibar. These travel restrictions related to Covid-19 have ensured that. I nevertheless follow travel influencers on Instagram, and I’m amazed at the lifestyle images they have previously taken in the locations I look forward to staying in. Influencers showcasing pictures of their last trip in Zanzibar sponsored by someone in the hospitality industry, by sharing their dreams of returning, even if they were sponsored by brands, by giving us their amazing experiences, enables me to share their dreams, and want to visit the same places they visited.

This influencer projected me into her Zanzibar dream
I can’t go to Zanzibar, take my boys to the park or even buy a bottle of wine right now. But neither can celebrities and influencers who are also under lockdown. Everyone in South Africa is facing the same restrictions. It’s a level playing field. This is the first time in my life that there are no barriers in society. Whether you are in a relationship or not, whether you’re in a good job or not, this is a time when people can truly relate to others. We’re all in the same boat.

Influencers are real humans facing all the same restrictions I am. Whether they are rich and famous or not, have a fantastic job or not, whether they have a beautiful family or are single, have a big house or live in the same flat, when I see their content during this period, I can feel that we are all in the same boat, and all missing the same basic goods and experiences, so when they endorse a service or product and dream about it too. Brands that haven’t cut contact or shared a corporate message with me, but who showed me that they care, are the ones I’ll turn to when the lockdown is lifted.

This is a human crisis, and we all need the human touch right now.

Michelle is the digital marketing manager at R-Squared, a leading influencer marketing agency partnering with some of the largest brands in South Africa and internationally. Through this crisis, our team has seen a change of behaviour and attitude from audiences and influencers who are connecting at a much deeper level, and we wanted to share this experience with you.

R-Squared SAFounded in 2014 and based in beautiful Cape Town, R-Squared is an Influencer Marketing Creative Agency that designs, builds and executes kickass influencer marketing projects locally and internationally, and is recognised as one of the Top 5 Influencer Agencies in South Africa. Our projects are curated to be engaging, authentic and to protect both brand and advertising agency brand equity.
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