Marketing in a post-pandemic world

Michael Solomon, Professor of Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, delves deep into the future of digital marketing and what companies need to be ready for post COVID-19.

'World is closed' sign

Post-pandemic, do you think that consumer behaviour is going to last? Now every consumer is driven to stock up and be extremely prepared, how do you think that’s going to play out after the pandemic is over?

I think there are these two conflicting impulses; one is to stay in lockdown mode and the other is to go crazy! So we have to find that middle ground and that’s why I was talking about, for example, splurging on affordable luxuries.

People are still going to buy things, but the reasons that they’re going to buy them and the types of things that they are going to buy – at least in the short term – are going to change.

So a great example is when we think about the recession that happened about 10 years ago, which also had a huge economic impact. A great example of how people coped with that is a lot of people suddenly woke up one day and didn’t have a job, didn’t have income or much lower income. One thing that went up was sales of ice cream.

But not just any ice cream. Premium ice cream. Higher priced brands. Why was that?

Well, again, that’s an affordable luxury, so it’s an example of a way people are very resourceful. We find a way to still buy something that makes us feel good, but as a compromise, we’re not necessarily going to go out and buy a new car, but we might splurge on these affordable luxuries. So I think we’re going to see some big shift in value, some of these we were seeing already beforehand.

During these disruptive times, it’s really important for brands to stay connected and engage with their audience. Do you have any tips to share on how to stay connected and engaged with the audience?

Basically, if you talk the talk, you have to be prepared to walk the walk. And I think a big mistake a lot of companies have made is to say “oh we get you, we have your back, we’re doing this and that”, but they’re not convincing people. People are very sceptical about these big corporations actually having their interests in mind.

There’s some data that I’ve seen: people don’t trust anything these days. They certainly don’t trust government. They don’t trust big brands. But they tend to trust brands more than they do the government and they rely on brands to actually be more proactive about improving conditions; for workers, for our health in general, for the environment etc. So the companies that do that – again, not just talk about it, but really show people how they’re doing that – are the ones that people give their loyalty too.

I think one way to do that is not just to have a bunch of cute slogans out there, but to recognise that marketing messaging is really a form of storytelling. People want to hear a story, and the stories they want to hear are about individuals and how they have specifically taken steps to make things better.

So rather than being this bland corporate face, you want to focus on identifying employees or customers who have been specifically faced with certain challenges, and perhaps the company has helped them to overcome them in some way.

The more concrete you can be in your messaging, and obviously the more sincere, the more effective you’ll be.

If AI does become the new normal with consumer interaction, what do you think individuals will have to do unique new jobs?

One of the pushbacks with automation and with Ai is that some traditional jobs are going to go away.

Every time we have innovations like this, we see these kinds of apprehensions that people raise. If you look at during the Industrial Revolution back in the 1800s, many people were convinced that because factories were starting to be made more efficient, there would be no working class, and yet that never happened.

So as AI becomes more accepted and becomes more sophisticated – and it will be – first of all it requires a more cohesive government policy, because the government has to be very proactive in retraining people. AI will open up new jobs that didn’t exist before, and essentially what it does is free people up to do more creative things.

A basic example in supermarkets is that a lot of supermarkets now are using robots to take inventory, which is something that used to be very labour intensive. Now they can just zoom down the aisle, take pictures of what’s on the shelves and do that very quickly.

That doesn’t mean they fire the person who used to take the inventory. But what it does mean is that that person is now available to actually help shoppers find what they’re looking for or even make suggestions or do cooking demonstrations or whatever they might do. The key is not to replace people. It’s to up-train people so that they can anticipate these things.

If you’re a long haul truck driver, you may not have that job in five years, but you probably have some mechanical skills that can be used to do something else. So it’s not a time for panic. It’s really a time to embrace the change but understand that, yes, people will be hurt in the process and those are the people that governments and corporations have to look out for. After all, they’re your consumers too and, if you put them out of a job, no one’s going to buy your products, even if they’re made by AI.

Do you think that the Gen Z category are more or less attracted to big brand names and what do you think that means for the large brands and their future successes?

There’s this kind of hysterical reaction, especially as Gen Zs started to come of age. A lot of marketers started to freak out and say “we don’t know anything about them!” and “they’re not going to be loyal to brands because their older brothers and sisters aren’t that loyal to brands” and “they don’t like brands”.

Based on what I’ve seen –  of course, I’m years away from being Gen Z – but I think young people like brands. They like the brands on their own terms, though. In other words, they use the brands a lot more proactively than older people used to. It used to be that the brands dictated to people “if you use our brand, this is the kind of person you’ll be”, whether it’s a fashion label or a car or whatever.

What we see today is that consumers are saying to the companies “I want to be this kind of person and if your brand fits into that story, I’m there for you. But, if not, forget it”. What they’re doing is creating what we call a pastiche or a collection of brands that define who they are.

If you need proof of that, there’s something called Instagram. If you look at what people post on Instagram, – by the way, a great source of marketing research that a lot of companies don’t think about – they’re creating a reflection of themselves. Basically, they’re writing their autobiography, but they’re doing it in terms of brands. Now I’m using the term broadly, as those brands might be celebrities for example, or musical artists that they like, but they’re brands as well. So when you look at people’s Instagram pages or Pinterest boards and so on, you can start to see very vividly how these young people are taking the brands that really resonate with them and they’re plastering them on there.

My basic mantra is “people don’t buy things because of what they do; they buy things because of what they mean”.

This pandemic may have changed consumer behaviours forever. Going forward, do you think brands will pay less attention to offline marketing campaigns or events versus online campaigns?

I think it’s kind of like fashion. Fashion is like a pendulum that swings back and forth. In the short term, yes, we may not have any all-physical events anymore. But this was happening before the pandemic. Even if you look at retail, the successful retailers are the ones who understand that they need to integrate more virtual activities into their physical stores as well.

My answer to your question is that it is not a black or white thing. The question of “how much physical?” and “how much digital?” should be involved in every event, every retail environment, every meeting.

We’re seeing a lot are learning how to use Zoom for the first time and saying “this is actually pretty good. Maybe I don’t have to go to my office five days a week”. Maybe they’re going to go three days a week. The only thing that we can say definitively is that we can’t say anything definitively and that means that it’s not a question of this or that. It’s not a question of “are we digital or are we physical?” It should be “how much of each?” and that proportion is going to shift over time.

I don’t think we’re ever going to come back to a totally non-digital environment, but we’ll always have a mixture of the two.

  • Michael Solmon was talking at the Marketers Content Playbook, a virtual summit hosted by Hollywood Branded.

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