This fall, brands need to hope for the best but plan for the worst

This fall, brands need to hope for the best but plan for the worst
By Jeremy Mullman
Sep 23, 2020
Prepare to be helpful… or be quiet.

This year has taught us a lot about living with uncertainty.

What began with shocking celebrity deaths and a presidential impeachment has given way to pandemics and shutdowns and civil unrest and raging wildfires, and who knows what else. For brands, communicating through these various shocks has been a constant challenge of figuring out what stories are appropriate at any given time. Marketers are desperate to simply revert to their long-planned content calendars and media-outreach plans, touting line extensions or funny new campaigns or some other aspect of regularly scheduled programming.

But 2020, as a year, has often had other ideas. In its most intense moments, a good rule of thumb for brands has been to “be helpful or be quiet.” When brands have found a logical way to contribute to making a challenging year easier, they’ve earned genuine appreciation from their customers and often energized their colleagues. 

Making news with helpful acts

When the COVID-19 pandemic created a shortage of hospital beds this spring, it made perfect sense for Serta Simmons Bedding to jump into the fray. The brand made an initial donation of 10,000 beds, then created a platform that let other companies and individuals donate more beds at cost.

Not every gesture needs to be quite that grand to be relevant. After a photo of Olive Veronesi, a 93-year-old Pittsburgh woman holding a sign (and a can of Coors Light) asking people to send beer, went viral, the Silver Bullet jumped in to help. Veronesi got her beer, and then the brand took to social media and solicited suggestions for other people who needed a brew. 

In the moment, these acts felt nimble and spontaneous, which is one reason why they were also newsworthy. But making news with helpful acts in the months ahead won’t require simply seizing on unexpected moments. 

Hope for the best, expect the worst

If we’ve learned anything in 2020 so far, it’s to hope for the best and expect the worst. And that’s exactly what brands should be doing. 

It’s not hard to see where the disappointments could come from. 

A brand focused on parents, for instance, should be thinking about what happens if and when schools go remote in areas where the virus resurfaces (as many experts expect will happen). At a moment of enormous stress for parents, brands that find ways to make it a little easier will be more appreciated. 

If your brand sponsors a major sports league, is it thinking about how to soothe fans’ feelings if and when seasons are interrupted by COVID-19 clusters?

The anticipation of election results, the delayed releases of blockbuster films, the closures of beloved bars or restaurants—this fall promises to introduce bumps in the road that will require brand leadership and empathy. And while brands shouldn’t root for these disruptions and disappointments, they should prepare to help their customers through them.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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