15th March 2021

How do brands connect with their customers in the wake of the pandemic?

Connect to make a FULL recovery

The customer connection journey: what’s changed?

A year after the first lockdown began [March 23rd], life has been transformed beyond all recognition. With no theatres, pubs, restaurants or cinemas open for business, consumer habits have gone virtual. Netflix says its subscribers have collectively been streaming about 203,840,000 hours per day, or three hours every day per average subscriber, during quarantine. And so far in 2021, UK internet users have spent an extra day per month online. The average time an individual spends online everyday now totals six hours 26 minutes compared to five hours 28 minutes in 2020. The events of the past year have altered or accelerated almost every facet of retail. Data from the ONS shows UK online sales in January 2021 accounted for 35.2% of all retail, a record that beats even last May’s high of 34.1%, when the coronavirus crisis was at its first peak. And since the pandemic began, nearly half (46%) of UK consumers have purchased a product online that they had previously only ever purchased in store.

So how are consumers connecting with the brands they want, need, love (and didn’t even know existed)?

Found (in a crowded ecosystem)

When the high street was reduced to a laptop screen, old-world brands who had neglected their digital presence suffered. Topshop, which had been slow to invest in online development, sank in the face of new digital-only, ultrafast fashion players like Boohoo and Missguided, which won over Topshop’s Gen Z customer base with slick websites, better social presence, and cheaper, cooler products. Once the heroine of the high street, Topshop was purchased by Asos for £265m, but its 510 shops were jettisoned. And the brand was dropped into an ecosystem of 799 other product lines, where it must shout to be heard. Brands need to be omnipresent to be found by consumers via TikTok, Insta, Snapchat, Pinterest and Twitter. This is why global social media adspend grew 50.3% year-on-year during the peak of the 2020 holiday season (mid-December), rising to a massive 92.3% growth in North America.

Understood (in a confused world)

It’s a truism that brands with purpose will achieve standout. The ones whose meaning, personality, and brand essence can be clearly understood are the ones who are going to win the hearts and minds of consumers. Take Bloom & Wild, which vowed not to sell red roses on Valentine’s Day for the first time in 2021 because its customers “don’t want to buy into cliches”. The letterbox-bouquet brand was also the first to send customers an email (in 2019) offering to opt them out of Mother’s Day marketing messages if it was a sensitive or painful reminder for them. These actions highlighted the brand’s empathy, propelling its slogan ‘Care Wildly’ to the point of action. And its ‘Thoughtful Marketing’ strategy is working. In January it announced £75 million in new funding after a year that saw 160% growth. Founded in 2013, Bloom & Wild completed four million deliveries in 2020, more orders than had been made in all previous years combined and pushing the business into profitability for the first time.

Loved (in the wake of disaster)

Since there will be no light-switch return to normal in the wake of the pandemic, consumers are looking for brands they can trust; clinging to the familiar. But there is a way to break through and inspire consumers to alter their purchasing habits: brands must inspire consumers to love them, by building powerful connections. In the aftermath of the pandemic, brands should focus on giving customers more than they were expecting, and exciting them. In this way, they can achieve cut through with consumers that may otherwise have overlooked them. In a move praised by footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford MBE, Marks & Spencer announced in January that it would offer additional support to families receiving the government’s free school meals vouchers by adding £5 to every weekly £15 voucher. And whether they’re shopping for beans or books, it’s thought that consumers ponder a brands’ principles as much as its products. Nearly half (48%) of all consumers believe it’s easier to get brands to address social problems than to get government to take action.

Lived (for the future)

While not all brands can ask their employees to go and live in a rainforest like former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, she is a literal paradigm for what it means to live the brand. In all the uncertainty and upheaval of the past year, consumers want brands to shoulder responsibility, safeguard them, and help them find their way back to normal. And brands can only do that if they engage and inspire their employees to consistently live the brand from within. Take BrewDog, the craft beer brand known for its irreverent personality and sweary ads. One of the Times’ Top 100 Best Employers, it now employs 2,000 people and boasts 130,000 ‘equity punks’ or consumer stakeholders. When it shifted production lines to create 50,000 units of hand sanitiser (which it gave out for free) its quick responsiveness and innovation made headlines. Through this, and fundraising for charities like Street Dogs and Help the NHS, as well as becoming the world’s first carbon negative brewery (Fuck you CO2), it has shown that brands who live by their values inspire love, and are seen as a force for good. Proving that brands who act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large, can “immeasurably strengthen the bond they have with consumers”.

And who wouldn’t want that kind of connection?