Telling stories in quarantine: How stories can drive your marketing

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In our pre-COVID lives, there was a sense of normalcy that people across industries could more or less predict with a degree of accuracy. We knew that if we did this, this would happen. But with the rise of such a life-altering event as a pandemic, what might have made sense in the past is completely gone. In such a precarious time, brands must remember where they stand in the minds of consumers. We don’t target them anymore – they target us. The choices that they make are driven by essential needs that ultimately reflect an experience vital to their day-to-day lives. Thus, companies have to remember that marketing in the time of a pandemic must be in line with stories of a shared experience everyone connects to on a global scale.

Make your voice authentic and values driven

At the heart of every brand is the people who make it possible. When it comes to connecting to your audience, companies need to start rerouting their marketing strategies from one that sells products to one that speaks about larger issues at hand, such as San Miguel Corporations using their subsidiary’s facilities to make ethyl alcohol for hospitals when there was a need. Oftentimes, it’s this sort of marketing that can help build rapport among consumers as you’re talking to your consumers from a very human perspective. While in recent years, this has been a regular occurrence, with different brand Twitter accounts posting memes and replying humorously to tweets, COVID-19 has made different companies rethink how they sold their image online. 

According to Baylor University Professor Tyrha Linsey-Warren, storytelling in marketing is more than just going, “Once upon a time…”. Rather, it’s about creating a story that empowers people by using a “deeper emotional connection.” In exchange for hard-sells and blatant advertising, campaigns must develop a tone that is “encouraging, altruistic, and communal in nature.”

The most popular local example of this is Ligo Sardines’ recent move of redirecting all of their advertising funds towards COVID-19 relief efforts. While not a campaign in itself, the act of positioning their move as “the beginning of our bayanihan (nationhood)” is a case study of remarkable public relations work in remodeling a 34 year old brand into something new and fresh that consumers can easily hook onto. Following the popularity of this move, Ligo continued marketing themselves via simple, but witty visuals that spoke of the larger plight that many Filipinos go through. By creating a voice that was very much in tune with what so many people felt, it helped solidify the brand as something very real and contemporary. 

Empathy on everybody’s mind

Realistically speaking, many companies, particularly MSMEs and startups, are not at the capacity to give an entire marketing budget to relief efforts. However, what they can do is create a brand message that empathizes with those who have been affected by the pandemic. This doesn’t necessarily mean outlining your efforts (though this is great), but rather just taking a look into the reality of people’s situations as a result of the pandemic.  

Apple exhibits this quite well in a poignant video released about the value of creativity, which was highly endorsed by their late founder Steve Jobs, during a pandemic. This is an excellent example of how values based storytelling can successfully empathize with a very real and very common experience of creative drought when stuck indoors. 

By taking these very common experiences and relating it to your brand, companies are able to enter the worldview of a consumer much more easily. Not just from a marketing standpoint, but also from one that allows a glimpse into what consumers need in such ambiguous times. This brings brands the opportunity to take part in a fundamental human experience that can deepen their connection with their consumers.

Where we go next

In true cinematic manner, the end of this pandemic will be a turning point in the stories of many brands. It may go back to normal and the strong who do survive will go back to business as usual. But it can also be a test of who built their brands during this pandemic. Coca-Cola Philippines’s public affairs, communications, and sustainability director, Jonah de Lumen-Pernia, described it best when she tells in an interview that “Consumers will not remember if your product was present in a store or they saw your ad on Facebook. They will remember how you were present in their lives amidst panic, uncertainty, and fear.”

With brand affinity and trust being the name of the game, brands have to remember that the next steps they make are valuable, especially when consumer spending is at an all time low. What little marketing or advertising funds they might have has to be geared towards creating messages that empathize with consumers and make an empowered impact. Companies need to strive towards telling a story that is based on who they talk to and who they want to talk to that will create lasting impressions on consumers. 

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