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The Pandemic Has Made Brands Sick Too

October 08, 2021


The Pandemic Has Made Brands Sick Too

There’s no denying the pandemic has created a lot of problems in our societies. It’s affected health in many ways—including mental health effects and limiting access to healthcare. And it’s affected our economies—many businesses are feeling the effects of the pandemic too. We might even look at social and political “symptoms.”

It might come as a surprise to some Marketers, but a lot of brands are also “sick” because of the pandemic. Yes, even brands that seem to be doing well might be sick underneath! What’s going on, and what can you do to make sure your brand stays healthy?

The Pandemic Changed Consumer Behaviour

The biggest issue for most brands is how the pandemic has affected consumer behaviour. While we might have thought we’d be back to “normal” after 18 months, Covid-19 is in the environment now, and it’s clear that the media and government are not letting up in their campaign of creating insecurity. The constant bombarding of fear and divisiveness, people turning on people is overshadowing the fact our economies are open. This vaccine is NOT a get out of jail free card! (Little Monopoly reference)… Most governments are promising we won’t see any more lockdowns, even as policies seem to fuel yet another surge.

Consumer behaviour changed dramatically in March 2020 with so many unknowns. At this point in the pandemic, those “new” behaviours are set in stone for a lot of people. This is now normal, and it’s what will be “normal” for quite a while.

Why aren’t we in a rush to get back to what we were doing before? The media certainly would tell us not too! The long and short of this is that people aren’t sure what’s safe and what’s not. So, while some are trying to get back to “normal,” others have settled into more cautious behaviour. That means:

·         People continue to shop less. Instead of hitting a store two or three times a week, they’re going once or twice a month.

·         People are still going out less in general. That means fewer opportunities to reach them, whether by radio, billboards, or advertising in a store.

·         People are still buying in bulk. They go to the store once, buy enough to last them for a few weeks, and then don’t go to the store again for fear the government will change their position on a dime and they will be caught without toilet tissue. 

The net result of this pattern of behaviour is people are still in many cases only doing what they deem necessary. They go and get what they need from the store, buying in bulk to keep them going for a few weeks. While they’re at the store, it’s an in-and-out operation; they buy what they know they need.

The Intersection of Necessity and Trust

Since many people are stuck in this “bare necessities” mentality, they’re buying what they know. If you’re buying in bulk and not planning to go back to the store for another few weeks, you don’t want to take a risk.

That means that people are wary to try new things, especially from a new brand they do not know and trust. This is a tough climate to be trying to introduce innovation and new brands.

We can see a few reasons for that. One is the bulk-buying pattern: you buy what you know and trust because you’re buying enough to last. You don’t want to buy a new drink or snack only to discover you hate it. That might mean you need to take another trip to the store—or you’ll be stuck without snacks for a week or two. No thanks! You’ll stick with something you know you like.

In general, people are generally risk-averse right now too. The whole pandemic climate makes us less inclined to take risks. How clean are the stores? What protocols are used? Do you know where this food came from? How is the company treating its workers? There's a general sense that “new” is “risky,” and risky is bad.

Finally, there may also be concerns about budget. As much as we hear a lot of business owners saying there are a ton of jobs and a shortage of workers, combined with job loss now mandated by the government, a lot of people have seen their income take a hit over the last 18 months. That may have been temporary, but even a short interruption put a lot of Canadians behind on payments. Many people have had to tighten their purse strings. That can make people even more risk-averse.

Even Brands That Are Selling Lots Might Be Sick

We can see how brands that weren’t well-established before the pandemic would have taken a huge hit here, and that is assuming they were even able to get a listing in this climate. It’s hard to get traction for a new product or brand in this climate. People are too risk-averse, too willing to stick with what they know.

So, what about the brands that people do know and trust? They must be super healthy right now, right?

You’d like to think that! After all, people know and trust these brands, so they’re flocking to them. Sales might even be up as people buy their favourite products and brands in bulk.

That doesn’t translate to brand health though! Strong sales means health, right? Wrong. Strong sales on the items that hurt overall brand equity can mean a harsher reality as things continue to loosen up. For some brands, they have been living in a bubble. And signs of health risks might not be obvious without digging in deeper and seeing where and how the growth is being generated. 

People might be buying lots of one brand or sku within a brand, but it is because it may be a bigger size, stay fresher longer, brand name they are familiar with…. all the reasons that do not build a strong loyal relationship but just meet basic needs. When decision making changes and there is more freedom to try and buy new…. these brands may have boxed themselves in….to a very small need state, price perception or occasion that may be very difficult to overcome moving forward. 

So, brands that are selling lots right now might think they’re doing okay, but do they know why people are buying? Do they know why those skus are selling? Do you know if those skus build or tear down overall brand value which is critical to hold onto for the sustainability of a brand and business? 

More freedom to choose what feels “more right” could mean consumers do not like how the brand has acted during the pandemic, but they also can’t get away from the brand right now. They’re not ready to take a risk now, and choose  something that works vs. something that feels really good. When they’re ready to take risks again, though, they’ll drop the brand.

How Can You Make Sure Your Brand Is Healthy?

The first step here is to realize high sales may not mean your brand is healthy. Yes, it means your product is selling off shelves. It means people see your brand, know your brand, and buy your brand. It might even mean they trust your brand to some extent.

But it doesn’t mean they love your brand. And that’s where your brand may not be as healthy as you think it is. Your blockbuster sales figures might be the result of a “good enough for now” mentality. That’s not going to help you create a sustainable brand that keeps growing in the years to come.

Give Your Brand a Health Check

The best thing anyone can do right now is check in with their customers. Why are they buying your brand over any other brand on the shelf? How happy are they with your brand? Are they set to navigate away when the pandemic finally ends?

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily want to keep all these customers either! Some of them aren’t your core audience—they’re buying out of necessity. Changing your brand too to meet all needs, means you will end up meeting no one’s needs including your most valued customers. 

The key here is to identify your brand fanatics, the people who love your brand. These are your most loyal and enthusiastic customers. They’re likely to stick with you through thick and thin. They buy you for reasons you likely do not yet understand. A raw, unique and ownable benefit that is only yours. That is how you convert other prospect customers and turn them into brand fanatics. Your blueprint for sales exists right inside your business but businesses don’t seem to want to listen to “why their best customers buy” They keep listening and changing to attract “fairweather fans.” And they’re likely to navigate away, no matter what you do.

So, talk to your brand fanatics and get their temperature. What are they still loving about your brand, and what are they not feeling about it right now? Ask them what they see on the horizon. Listen to them and anticipate their needs in this changing environment. While “trust and stability” may have been the order of the day during the pandemic, your customers’ views of what they need are already changing.

So, talk to them! Get those deep insights about why they’re with you now and why they’ll stick with you in the future. Go beyond the surface level of “how do we sell more” and ask that bigger question: why are people buying from us? Why will they keep buying from us in the future?

When we ask that question, we get a clearer picture of just how healthy our brand is—and how we can help it recover.

Like always, then—remember to start with the why!


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