Is the pandemic driving a new marketing rebellion?


A friend commented to me the other day, “The Marketing Rebellion is happening right before our eyes. In the crisis of the pandemic, big companies are being forced to demonstrate true compassion and empathy. They have to be more human. This is what you predicted in your book.”

That’s a very nice compliment, but is it true?

My friend is referring to a manifesto I wrote calling for more human-centered marketing — outlined in my book Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins.

I’ve contended that small companies are ideally positioned to be “the most human company” in their communities, but large brands are too locked into obsolete ideas about marketing and agency relationships that prevent them from adjusting to new consumer realities. They’re asleep.

Is the pandemic forcing companies to adopt a more human approach, and will this transcend the crisis?

Are companies waking up?

“Of the community”

One of my favorite lessons from the book comes Fabio Tambosi, now a brand executive with Adidas. He provided an example where he created highly-successful World Cup promotions in the streets of cities, neighborhoods, and the poor favelas of Brazil.

His explanation: “Today a brand can’t just be in a community. It has to be OF the community.”

So far, the rebellion has largely been led by emerging young marketers who look at our world of spam, interruption, robo-calls, and “lead nurturing” and think, “why would we do that to one another?”

In this world where every brand is trying to jump on the purpose-driven marketing bandwagon, we’ve become weary of hazy, agency-driven promises of sustainability and social good. We want to SEE something happening in our own lives and communities. And NOW is the time it has to happen.

I’ve written that in this coronavirus crisis, most companies have to wipe the marketing slate clean and focus on a customer base that is suffering, grieving, and worried about basic human needs.

We see some evidence this change, this rebellion, is happening. One study showed that in a period of just a few weeks in March, 86 percent of marketers had pivoted to change their approach and message.

My observation is that some of the biggest brands were slow out of the gate. Coca-Cola and Audi changed their logos in a cute way to support social distancing. But that isn’t really “of the community,” is it? That’s not getting down into the streets and neighborhoods.

Finally, we’re seeing a number of companies roll up their sleeves and working in the trenches to solve problems and connect with customers where they are now. Their marketing is “at the tip of the shovel:”

  • Burger King waived delivery fees, provided free burgers to students, and delivered meals to hospital workers in hundreds of communities.
  • Fashion brand Everlane is donating all profits from the sale of its 100% Human collection to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund, providing food and supplies to local food banks nationwide.
  • Cottonelle pledged $1 million and one million rolls of toilet paper to United Way Worldwide’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund.
  • Frozen food brand Steak-umm leveraged its popular Twitter account to share tips on handling the pandemic and to dispel misinformation regarding the coronavirus. It’s been doing such a good job that it’s received recognition and endorsement from medical and health institutions.
  • Household appliance brand Dyson plans to shift production to make 15,000 ventilators to support the global response to the pandemic.
  • To promote self-care and help reduce anxiety during the coronavirus outbreak, fitness brand Lululemon is offering a variety of free yoga, workout, and meditation classes through its online community #thesweatlife
  • Luxury retailer Nordstrom is using its alterations teams to sew more than 100,000 masks, which will be sanitized and donated to Providence Health & Services, a nonprofit that operates hospitals in multiple states. 

The common idea here is that even the largest brands are finding ways to meaningfully serve people on a local level.

It gives me hope that lessons in human-centered marketing will be learned that can transcend the crisis and help the Marketing Rebellion take hold.

However …

I hope these meaningful efforts will amount to something more than a short-term PR initiative and that the idea of a human-centered approach to marketing will stick.

But we’re also seeing many brands show that they are nowhere near this goal.

We’ve been into this crisis for a couple of months now, and companies unable to disconnect from their legally-approved scripts and Mad Men-era advertising sensibilities are grating on me.

Here is a great example of the emotional disconnect the biggest brands have put on display. Watch this short video. It’s a hilarious illustration of how many companies are just checking a box when it comes to connecting in a crisis:

If you can’t see the video, view here on YouTube: Annoying pandemic ads

So let’s get back to the original question — is the pandemic creating an environment that is forcing the kind of overhaul in marketing I predict in my book?

Here’s the way I look at it. I’m sure my book is right. We don’t have a choice but to connect to customers on their terms. The customer is in control. The customer is the marketer.

The pandemic is accelerating the inevitable. 

  • For example, brick and mortar retail locations are closing now instead of five years from now.
  • Working from home has probably been pushed ahead by 10 years.
  • The race to create enhanced online commerce and digital experiences has hit hyperdrive.

Look at any long-term societal prediction and it’s happening faster now.

Same for marketing. Nobody believes ads. Nobody wants ads, especially the sappy memes featured in the video I shared. The world is demanding a new, more human-centered approach to marketing and this is also accelerating now.

Some companies don’t get it. They’ll never get it. They’ll become a meme and a symbol of irrelevance.

Our customers are suffering and need real help. They need to see their favorite brands at the ground level doing something bold and meaningful. Our customers need to recover some sense of confidence that the future is something they should invest in, with you.

That’s human. That’s meaningful.

And that’s what people will remember on the other side of this pandemic.

The most human company wins.

Note: I’ve prepared an inspirational, 30-minute virtual presentation designed for weekly team meetings. Filled with inspirational case studies and real-world solutions, it’s called “Fighting to The Other Side.” To learn more, or to bring this to your next meeting, send me a message here.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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