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 This week we turned our attention to consumers' perspectives on how brands and organisations have been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

People have experienced no shortage of well-meaning messages from companies and CEOs, but what’s clear is that amidst this noise some communications are being heard louder than others, and some responses are aligning more closely with what people need right now.

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#1 Actions speak louder than words 

People are receiving a lot of similar communications from companies right now and they aren’t paying attention to a lot of what’s being said to them. But what cuts through are communications that don’t just say things, but that show people how the organisation is actually doing things. 

8 in 10 people agree that a brand’s actions speak louder than its words during COVID-19

There’s positivity towards brands doing some ‘good’ - such as contributions to good causes, raising money for charities & NHS. 

Beyond this, people have been noticing organisations that have been putting their capabilities to good use to offer some practical help to the situation on the ground. For example a local cafe delivering its usual food stock to vulnerable customers, or a beer brewery producing hand sanitising products.  

People have also been noticing examples of where companies have gone beyond just communications and have made actual tactical adjustments to their product, experience, or service delivery to better reflect customers’ needs right now. 

People have also valued communications that offer helpful and relevant offers, discounts or extended free trials for products and services that represent new essentials during this time. 

“I know every organisation (Brand) wants to let you know about COVID-19 but the sheer number of emails can be exhausting to read and if they all send them, there is a chance we will 'switch off'.”

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#2 Commit to the cause or nothing at all 

People can be cynical towards some of the communications and messages they’re receiving. There’s a delicate balance to be struck between showing great intentions and appearing to be trying to profit financially from the situation. 

There is some cynicism towards communications that try to use COVID-19 as a way to capture people's attention and then follow-up with a hard sales message. This is transparent to the customer and feels like the organisation is trying to gain from the situation.

Almost half of people (47%) feel that a lot of the advertising they have seen during lockdown is from companies trying to take advantage of the situation

The consumer view is that if a company is going to centre communications around COVID-19 then it needs to follow through and commit to it fully. For example by providing clear benefits to the customer, by outlining what the organisation is uniquely doing to help the situation or by making adjustments to the service to better match consumers’ needs during this time. 

If not then in the minds of consumers, organisations are better off sticking to their regular marketing activity and focussing on best meeting consumers’ needs as they always do. What the customer really needs above all else is clear, easy-to-access information on any practical changes or disruptions to the experience and fulfilment of your offering on key communication channels.

The consumer is clear in their view that not every brand needs a COVID-19 brand marketing campaign.

“I want to hear that their workforce is being looked after, that they are focussing on keeping people safe and contributing as much as is possible to supporting social-distancing and the efforts of the NHS and other key workers.”

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#3 Show your true colours 

During this time of great difficulty and struggle, there’s a greater focus on how all members of society act and behave. It’s important for us all to be pulling together, doing our bit, treating each other with kindness and more. This includes the companies and brands around us. How companies behave right now is being noticed. 

People are paying closer attention to companies that are treating their employees well, acting responsibly, following guidance, leading the way in terms of adjusting the customer and retail experience and getting their communications right. Supermarkets have been commended within this space, and so have insurance companies offering cashback to customers.

Half of people agree that the situation is showing them which companies are most important in their lives

On the flip-side, people are also noticing those brands who are not covering themselves in glory. The companies who haven’t treated workers well, who have been rebellious against the rules, have not been clear about changes to their service, have not taken safety seriously enough or are getting the tone of communications wrong.

During a time when people are examining the behaviours of everyone and everything around us more closely, it’s important that brands are doing the right things to build and not damage their reputations.

“Hearing about how a company has treated both its customers and its workers with care and generosity during this time gives me some faith that not all companies are just there for themselves, they’re there to support.”

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#4 Tone should reflect your brand and the channel 

Getting the tone of communications right is absolutely key. In its broadest sense, the tone needs to align closely with the needs of the brands’ audiences, the role the brand is playing in the situation and the channel. 

People expect services still open for business to communicate key service information with a tone that reflects the seriousness of the situation. It should be responsible, official, helpful, but also decisive - able to make the right call and be considerate of staff and customer wellbeing and safety. They expect to access this more official ‘need to know’ information through email, on company websites/ app homepages and local notices.

However there are other channels where a different tone and approach is welcome. People talked about how they’ve seen more content-focussed and celebrity featured communications on social media. There’s more permission for longer-form experimental content on these channels that is well targeted to the tastes of your customers. Social channels are seen as more appropriate mediums for warmer, richer messaging and even some humour and playfulness based on everyday situations that people are in now (ie the struggles of working from home).

With lots of people at home looking for things to engage with, social channels present an opportunity for agile experimentation with content.

4 in 10 people (42%) feel that light-hearted posts on social media are a great way of brands dealing with lockdown. 18-34s and family households are more likely to feel this way

1 in 6 (17%) disagree with this idea, though. Men, over 55s and single person households are more likely to disagree that the light-hearted route is a good one

 “Brands need to be careful at the present time, I don’t want to see 'in your face' advertising, or anything inappropriately funny, as people are losing loved ones and there is an air of anxiety.”

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#5 Getting the basics right with clear, helpful information 

While people are open and often complementary towards brand campaigns about COVID-19, there’s a simple truth that much of what people primarily need from brands right now is information around whether they can still use their services and purchase from them, and if so how do they do it, where’s the information and how can it be done safely.

People are looking for businesses to lead the way here. They feel some information has not been totally clear, so if you are open for business it’s about providing basic information loud and clear through primary retail & marketing channels and the user experience. People want to know where, when, and how you are selling, and what you are doing to keep staff and customers safe along the way.

“I wanted to buy a plant pot for the garden, but can I still do that? I know that sounds silly, but I don’t know... what’s the rules for plant pots? I went to the website of my local garden shop and it’s as if they’d pre-empted my worry! All the information was laid out really clearly, spot on.”

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#6 Local information is spreading fast through social networks 

Local social networks are growing (e.g. via mobile messaging apps and social media platforms) and are now awash with information about local services, with questions and answers on dentists, post offices, local restaurants that are delivering, queue length, opening hours and what’s in stock at the supermarket, or community initiatives to support people who are self-isolating. 

In general information about businesses in local areas is being communicated by customers on social networks faster than the business can.

But there’s a need for more and better information. While community networks are filling some of the gap, the information is not seen by people as always reliable and substantiated, and actually people are looking for more reliable and easy ways to access information from official channels.

Over half (56%) wish communication with shops and local services was easier than it is right now

“At a local level we have a community Notice board and a local news sheet has been introduced. Our street has a new WhatsApp community of about 12 houses all helping one another and caring for each other’s needs.”

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Next week we’re going to be exploring money and finance, so keep an eye out for updates!

Lockdown Unlocked is an online qual community with 50 members across the UK, combined with a nat-rep quant tracker of 1,000 UK adults.