Mark Read, chief executive officer at WPP, shares how his teams are helping clients navigate in the midst of COVID-19 and plan for the road ahead. Editor’s note: This piece was written and published before the current Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd.
The world is changing incredibly quickly. As news, data, and rules about COVID-19 change daily, it’s hard to keep up with the latest developments and hard to parse all of the information coming our way. It’s natural to feel unsure of the right steps to take today, let alone tomorrow or next week.
It’s also natural to want to hunker down and find ways to escape what’s happening in the world. But the savviest companies recognize this is no time to go dark. Instead it’s a make-or-break moment for brands.
Reputations are being won and lost every day. How companies behave and communicate now will define their brand — with employees, customers, and entire communities — for the next decade. Brands that people see taking action today are the ones they’ll remember years from now.
Brands also need to plan for a post-pandemic world. Market disruption fuels innovation. And those who embrace and lead the changes happening across our industry will emerge stronger.
Here are three mantras our teams are following as we help our clients navigate this moment and look ahead to the future:
People clearly expect brands to be visible right now. A survey conducted by our agency Mindshare found that 71% of Americans want to hear how brands or companies are taking action against COVID-19. And our data shows those brands that stay visible during a crisis rebound faster and stronger, and can increase market share by three times.
According to the same survey, 65% of people believe brands should commit to making society better. Ninety-three percent of consumers want brands to step up and help the most vulnerable and affected communities, like the elderly, the unemployed, and front-line workers. Brands can start by identifying the intersection of their purpose and the immediate needs of society, and then focus their efforts there.
Look at the incredible work KFC is doing with the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack to provide weekend meals to kids in need. Likewise, working with WPP agency Grey, P&G is encouraging social distancing among younger people through the #DistanceDance with TikTok influencer Charli d’Amelio. And Unilever has committed to providing €100 million worth of free soap, sanitizer, bleach, and food to consumers and communities around the world.
Above all, marketers must resist the temptation to launch another plain vanilla corporate ad that talks about the current crisis but does little. Empathy is important, but it’s more important to actually do something to help. People are smart enough to work out when you do.
As different markets and industries around the world find ways to reopen for business, the goal will be to stay relevant through the ups and downs. Those who most closely follow government regulations, the advice of medical experts, emerging needs, and consumer demands will be best positioned to provide fast, helpful responses.
Brands will need to build on the relationships they’ve nurtured during the crisis and find ways to sustain them for the long run. Companies will need to reflect and evaluate how their brand positioning, purpose, strategies, and goals fared under pressure. Are they still relevant?
This will be a critical period — when new consumer behaviors take root and where smart marketers can innovate, launch new products, and test new strategies to work out what will be the winning combination longer term.
Loyalty is up for grabs. We’re seeing more than one-third of U.S. consumers choosing brands they normally wouldn’t. And, it’s worth noting, 80% of Americans are likely to support a brand that has taken action and helped communities impacted by COVID-19. Don’t count on these new preferences being temporary.
Market disruption speeds up culture, so now is the time to act and experiment with a new strategy or creative approach. Around the world, our agencies are creating and delivering work remotely using smartphones, video calls, and messaging platforms. We’ve seen a decade’s worth of innovation take place in a matter of weeks.
It’s not just about navigating immediate challenges; clients are asking us to help them come out the other side ready for the future. Technology-driven transformation was already happening. Now it’s reached a speed no one could have imagined. At the same time, people are yearning for a return to normal human interaction and physical, real-world experiences. The future will not be digital only.
Brands need trusted partners who understand those trends and complexities, and have the capability to deliver solutions on a global scale.
Planning now for an uncertain but hopeful future means making contingencies, anticipating different scenarios, and being ready to respond as things shift day to day. It’s moments like these when we all need to embrace creativity and collaboration, and to focus not only on getting through today, but on the possibilities of tomorrow.