How to Carry on with Business as Unusual & Avoid the Ick Factor

In the few minutes I allow myself to scroll through the news headlines each day, I came across a story about a pandemic poem that an English teacher posted to Twitter. The poem is entirely composed of opening lines to marketing emails that the teacher, Jessica Safia, has received since the nationwide COVID-19 quarantine began. Between pushing content – “Here are 25 Distance Learning Tips!” – and selling tacos – “Calories don’t count during a pandemic.” – the poem shows how companies are trying to shoehorn their messages into the increasingly noisy, panicked digital sphere. 

While many businesses are struggling to figure out how to move forward amidst this pandemic, this poem highlights how these brands’ attempts to carry on with business as usual evoke the “ick factor” – that uncomfortable feeling when something feels less than genuine. It can be challenging to distill the essence of your work or business into a cohesive branded message without sounding slick and corporate because you must walk a fine line between engaging in the cultural conversation and co-opting it. But it is in times of great challenge and change like these that consumers look to brands for integrity and leadership. 

Entrepreneurs and creatives around the world are faced with monumental COVID-related challenges: breaks in the supply chain, slowed customer demand, new rules, and great uncertainty for the foreseeable future. They have to think carefully about how to – and if they should – move forward with their work, but it’s not simply a choice between pandemic opportunism and stagnation.

As creative leaders, some of us are called to create solutions that are novel, useful, and healing in this time of great suffering. And some of us simply must make for the sake of making beauty, the way that hyacinths and magnolias and butterfly balms must embellish the landscape this month. Yet, as many of you have expressed on the Tracking Wonder Facebook page, there remains a tension between the impulse to forge ahead and the fear of appearing inconsiderate. 

Here are 3 tips to help you and your brand or business flourish in this time of great challenge, change, and opportunity in order to serve your customers, your community, and your patch of the planet.

1. Offer perspective, not panic. Your brand community likely hungers for your brand’s point of view now more than ever. During topsy-turvy times like these, consumers look to brands for reassurance and for up-to-date information about how they are responding to our current situation, as well as how consumers can take action. In fact, research shows that consumer expectations are high. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer Special Report on the coronavirus pandemic, 63% of respondents believe that brands play a critical role in addressing COVID-19 and 55% think brands are responding faster and more effectively to this pandemic than our own government. And yet, according to a recent survey of marketers conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), nearly a quarter of brands have gone dark, halting all of their paid marketing communications for the first and second quarters of the year.

In light of our waning faith in government, the Edelman report reveals the essential role of the private sector in sharing credible information and shaping our future. Brands and businesses share a social responsibility to act with the best interests of their customers and communities in mind. Now is the time to step up to the plate and lead with your ideals. 

2. Speak with empathy and integrity. People are feeling especially vulnerable right now, which means that calibrating your brand voice to the current situation is key. Be careful to steer clear of the “ick factor” now more than ever. As Dr. David Nabarro, COVID-19 Special Envoy for the World Health Organization, said, “Brands must strive to be authentic, accountable, and audacious in their communications. The best way to avoid the ick and express authenticity is to set clear, grounding intentions

An intention is a conscious gesture to align your mind, heart, imagination, and body with whatever action you plan to take. Aim to learn what problem(s) you can solve related to this specific cultural moment, or purpose(s) you can fulfill for your audience. View these problems and purposes from various angles – and challenge your own assumptions about what you think you know to be true and right. Decide what issues are relevant to your brand category and discover how your brand can connect to an audience that genuinely cares. 

If you follow these guidelines, you will stand out for providing your audience genuine support and actionable solutions amidst a crisis, rather than merely selling them another product.

3. Pivot. One essential skill in the Business Artist’s arsenal is knowing when to pivot. It might mean letting a great idea go, but learning to tell when a marketing move or message will fall on deaf ears and – more importantly – how to adapt that move or message is essential to a brand’s longevity. 

Just look at Walmart: they threw out their carefully crafted marketing plan and created a spur of the moment campaign around their front line “Retail Heroes” serving customers through the pandemic. Nike wove COVID-19 messaging into their ad copy with a call to action encouraging people to “play inside, play for the world.”

Maybe you’ve spent months crafting campaigns that you carefully laid out for spring only to have your message wither on the vine in light of the current crisis. Maybe you’ve been eagerly planning events that are now up in the air due to shelter in place restrictions. You don’t necessarily have to throw all your hard work out the window, but take the time to evaluate whether your messaging is still relevant – not likely – and determine how you can best connect with your audience to express support and solidarity during this uncertain time. 

Now is the time to advance your most meaningful, impactful work, and it is also the time to offer support to your audiences and create a sense of community. And look ahead to lay the groundwork for your business’s or brand’s recovery once this quarantine is over, because though it seems like this is the “new normal,” change is inevitable. 

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