It began with the sympathetic, sentimental commercials.
But there's only so many times you can hear "we're in this together" until it loses all meaning.
Now, in the second year of the pandemic, things are different. Customers have moved on, and so have brands.
During 2020, we saw seismic shifts in how brands operate and communicate. Changes in marketing were extensive: all the way from comms and advertizing to retail channels to customer interaction and more. Some companies made small operating tweaks, while others pivoted their entire business model.
As we’ve ridden the second year of the pandemic, we’ve got a better handle on what changes were temporary and what’s going to stick around for years to come.
Here are five ways branding and marketing have changed since the start of the pandemic — and what marketers need to be aware of if they want to keep up.
1. Your Supply Chain is Now a Marketing Asset
Consumers care more and more about where their stuff comes from and how it's made.
The pandemic heightened environmental awareness among people around the world, with 87% of respondents to a BCG survey saying they think companies "should integrate environmental concerns into their products, services and operations to a greater extent than they have in the past".
The supply chain is one of the main areas where this can happen — and it's where branding and operations are deeply intertwined.
"Transparent supply chains reduce reputational risk and enhance a company's standing. It also helps in attracting and retaining talent who are keen to work for responsible companies," says Lucy Flinter, director of Zero Procure, speaking to Courier Magazine.
As well as improving brand strength, researchers at MIT found that "consumers may be willing to pay 2 - 10% more for products from companies that provide greater supply chain transparency."
So it's certainly something to invest in. But how can you prove to consumers that your supply chain is squeaky clean?
One method is blockchain technology, which is having an increasing impact on supply chain visibility, as it provides a verified ledger that can be used to trace all transactions. So consumers can, in theory, easily view the provenance of the goods they buy, from raw materials to production to distribution.
Not everyone will care deeply enough to trace each record of course, but the fact that the data is openly available is a strong branding asset in itself. And software like Provenance can help translate this data into verified, customer-friendly statistics.
Imagine you're a sustainable ecommerce brand and your customers think you're "greenwashing" a little — making claims about your green credentials that are a little far from the truth.
Previously, you'd be able to shout about the amount of CO2 you've saved, or the trees you've planted. Now, you can combine these with real-time data on the farms your materials come from, or the workers you've helped lift out of poverty with employment opportunities, with actual verified data.
That's one powerful way to increase the amount of trust customers have in your brand. And in the future, this will be more of an expectation than a luxury.
2. Digital Events are the Future of Gathering
The first big change we saw during the pandemic was the global shift to remote work. That shows no signs of slowing down — while Zoom took over the world during 2020, there's been a wave of follow-up innovations making digital interaction even more engaging. For brand builders and marketers, this is a huge opportunity to reach consumers in new and exciting ways.
Teamflow is one example — "a virtual office for your team to hang out in". Having raised $50m in recent funding, they're paving the way for life after Zoom, as remote work isn't going away anytime soon. But notably, Teamflow is a virtual events platform too — where live video avatars can move around a virtual space, listening to speakers and networking like they would in person.
Despite the phenomenon of "Zoom fatigue" — the exhaustion that comes from talking to a screen for hours on end — the idea of remote conferences and gatherings is still highly attractive. (And increasingly so, as concerns grow around climate change and the sustainability of unnecessary travel.)
If there's one company that shows just how huge digital events are, it's Hopin: "fastest-growing European tech startup of all time". The virtual events platform has raised a total of $1bn in funding at a valuation of almost $8bn, despite only being founded in 2019. It aims to provide "immersive virtual, hybrid and in-person event experiences for your audience, no matter where they are".
Crucially, it's all about data — analytics are built in to see how attendees are interacting and what they're engaged with. For brand marketers, especially ones building communities, it could be a game-changer. Anyone who's brought people together in person before has to accept that a big part of community brand building in future will be done in virtual space.
This doesn't signal the end of physical events, of course. It's more of an evolution.
According to SAP's Global Business Traveler Report 2021, 96% of their survey respondents are willing to get back to business travel over the next 12 months. 45% are concerned that unless they get back to business travel soon, they'll lose out on the ability to develop and maintain business connections.
So it looks like the hybrid model is the post-pandemic future: lots of us will work both remotely and in-person, and we'll attend both virtual and physical events.
3. Your Target Audience Has Changed, Even if You Haven't
Marketers expecting to return to a post-pandemic business to find everything the same as before are in for a bit of a shock. (And not just because it's hard to define when exactly "post-pandemic" is).
The personas, segments, and mailing lists you've carefully curated throughout your history have gone through some pretty dramatic changes in the last few years.
Consumers have changed. We've lived more than 1.5 years through an altered world. We've had enough time at home, away from "normality", to think about where our lives are headed, and make some big choices.
Huge numbers of consumers in their late 20s to mid 30s have gone from wanting a hedonistic, fast-paced city life to a more settled, suburban or rural existence with property ownership and a growing family. Not just because of ageing, but also through the psychological impact of lockdowns leaving them craving more space. And this has had a big impact on the brands they ally themselves with.
In fact, the pandemic changed the brand preferences of a staggering 45% of US consumers.
Lifestyles change as time moves on, but social issues come and go, too. Diversity and inclusion, for example, has been a hot topic throughout 2021, and shows no sign of slowing down. Political divisions mean that consumers increasingly ally themselves with brands that "play for their team", and vocally boycott those that don't.
If you don’t recognize that your customers are influenced by the prevailing winds of societal concerns, you're at risk of being left behind.
4. Lifestyle, Wellness, & Mental Health Take Center Stage
Along with the demographic shift to different living arrangements, health is now on people's minds more than ever. It affects where they live, what food they eat, how they work out, and which brands they feel support their lifestyle and wellbeing.
The wellness industry is enormous, and constantly growing. Estimates of its value go between $1 - 5 trillion (depending on how you define it), with an annual growth rate of 5-10%. A recent McKinsey report shows that consumer interest and purchasing power in this category continue to rise, with 79% of survey respondents saying wellness is important to them.
While spending on personal wellness grows, it's not just brands directly within this industry that'll have to adapt. It's pretty much everyone. McKinsey defines the six dimensions of wellness people care about as: general health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep, and mindfulness. Brands — ignore these at your peril.
If you're running an office-based company, you'll be expected to offer ergonomic seating, filtered water, ventilated spaces, and provisions for mental health support, like counselling and therapy.
If you're a tech brand, you'll be expected to make sure your app doesn't exploit addictive psychology and encourage unnecessary screen time.
If you're a food brand, you have to be prepared for your sugar content to be under scrutiny from consumers as soon as you release a product. And with the rise of personal health trackers and biotechnology, consumer awareness of their own health is only going to get stronger.
And that's before we even mention the strength of feeling people have towards potential mandatory company vaccine programs in light of the pandemic. Get this wrong and you risk alienating a large part of your brand following.
What's the right way to go about it? There's no definitive answer, but make sure you know how your customers feel before making any big decisions. This way, you'll be prepared for the consequences.
5. Customer Experience is a Digital and Physical Hybrid
It's almost too obvious to mention, but the pandemic caused a tidal wave of digitization from brands forced to pivot when physical commerce was shut down.
Well, the current global ecommerce market totals $4.89 trillion in 2021. That's up from $3.3 trillion in 2019 — a 48% increase in just two years. In the same time period, the portion of total retail sales made online went from 13.6% to 19.5%. This trend is expected to continue over the next five years and beyond.
Just look at Amazon, one of the biggest winners in this volatile economic climate. According to MacroTrends, "Amazon revenue for the twelve months ending June 30, 2021 was $443.298B, a 37.76% increase year-over-year."
And it's not just direct sales that are booming. Amazon Marketplace is fertile ground for new brands wanting a ready-to-go platform for online retail. It's currently valued at $300 billion, and estimated to double in the next five years. There are 5 million third-party sellers on the platform today, with a million of those joining in 2020.
The market for Amazon-based DTC brands alone is enormous, with funds like Elevate Brands and Unybrands sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of capital, ready to acquire ecommerce brands that'll continue to grow far and beyond the pandemic.
And companies like this act as a bellwether for the market: expect more funds, platforms and marketing channels to spring up as it evolves.
What do these changes mean for the future of retail branding and marketing?
Marketers simply have to understand the seismic shifts happening in ecommerce and customer expectations. For more and more industries, a lack of online presence blocks a number of opportunities.
It means you lose out on building brand awareness and finding new customers. It means customer acquisition costs remain high. It puts the brakes on remarketing and building loyal repeat purchases. And it means that margins are dependent on a logistics chain that can be inefficient and full of potential conflict.
It signals a traditional mentality, a refusal to embrace a new way of doing things. This might work for certain demographics, but this won't be the case forever.
This trend doesn't mean the future is entirely digital, though. Humans are social animals, and some of the most persuasive sensations can only be experienced in the physical world. Touching a dress before you buy it or smelling a cologne just isn't possible if you're buying online.
But why not have the option? Aesthetics don't have to be limited to one sense. Online is perfect for visual and informational branding, while offline fosters touch, taste, and scent. Why not give customers a chance to experience you through a variety of channels?
After all, evolving with the times is the only way for brands to survive in this ever-changing world.