By Chuck Kapelke
Like many consumer brands, restaurant chain KFC has evolved its marketing to respond proactively to the dramatic changes wrought by the pandemic. Since March, the company has expanded its digital delivery service and order-ahead channels, and donated a million pieces of chicken to frontline health care workers. The brand even stopped using its famous slogan “finger lickin’ good” — which didn’t have the best optics, what with a highly transmissible virus raging throughout the country — while new ads for KFC’s “Bucket Meal” emphasize convenience and relief from endless Zoom meetings.
“The pandemic isn’t over and, in many cases, has changed consumer behavior for the long haul,” says Andrea Zahumensky, CMO at KFC U.S. “As we plan for the next few months and beyond, we’ll continue to rely on real-time consumer behavior and feedback and sales data to adapt our plans. I think we’ve all learned that flexibility is key, not knowing what might be coming next.”
Preparing for what comes next will be crucial for brands, as many of the consumer behavior shifts caused by the pandemic — including a sharp increase in working at home and buying more online — could prove temporary.
Indeed, at least 16 percent of people plan to spend less time on video games, social media, streaming TV or movies, or online shopping after the pandemic subsides, according to a survey of 2,200 U.S. adults released earlier this year by Morning Consult.
The survey added that 27 percent of consumers plan to order food delivery online or via an app less frequently once the pandemic ends, while 29 percent plan to order online groceries less.
“It’s a game of staying close to the consumer enough to know their preferences and what’s behind those,” says Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence at Morning Consult. “It’s the balance of, how do you tweak your business strategy without totally hanging your future on what might not actually stick around as a [permanent] change?”
Will the not-too-distant future spur the “revenge of analog” — with a vaccine for COVID-19 releasing pent-up demand for outdoor, brick-and-mortar type activities? Or will the forecast call for renewed shelter-in-place restrictions? Either way, brands and organizations must take concrete steps to prepare for the unexpected.
Rather than try to guess the future, marketers should focus on thinking through multiple possible futures, and develop a strategic plan that is flexible enough to prepare for various scenarios. “You don’t want to be caught on your back foot,” says Kate Muhl, VP analyst at Gartner for Marketers. “Stretch your mind out to the scariest possibilities so that you’re ready to respond at the speed of consumers.”
Marketers should also develop a plan for catered messages for different audiences, as consumers have had starkly different experiences based on factors like geography and income levels.
“There are real lines across generations,” says Morning Consult’s Sakal. “Elder generations have been digging their heels into what they know and trust, while gen Z is increasingly exploratory.”
Ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky (CPB) is using “hyper-local” data to help clients like travel website Vrbo respond to the dynamics of COVID outbreaks and changes in regulation.
“We look for local pockets or activity or a potential opportunity, and we use addressable digital channels for particular markets based on triggers that we’re seeing,” says Chris Shewmake, director of communication strategy at CPB.
He adds, “We use the phrase ‘planned agility,’ asking, ‘How do we plan for what we need to have planned?’ ‘How do we think from a strategic planning perspective about what is timeless for our brand?’ and ‘What needs to be timely, based on what’s happening in a given context?’ And then, ‘How do we build timelines and briefs and scenarios and budgeting based on that?’”
Explosion in Omnichannel Marketing
There’s been a surge in activity on digital platforms, as the pandemic has prompted brands to develop new resources that will likely endure well into the future.
Luxury car maker Infiniti, for example, developed an app that lets would-be buyers take test drives from their homes. Target’s digital platform now lets the retail giant’s consumers choose among delivery, curbside pick-up, or in-store pickup; the app also shows buyers how they can minimize their time in the store based on their shopping lists.
“We are going to see an explosion in terms of omnichannel strategies, and different permutations of online and physical,” says Mauro Guillén, Zandman Professor of International Management at The Wharton School and author of 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Change the Future of Everything.
He adds, “Many stores have been forced to establish an online presence that they didn’t have before. We’ve seen big growth in e-commerce when the seller and the buyer are within 15 miles of each other. Those small stores are not going to shut down their online presence. Brands will have to adapt.”
Still, while digital may continue to dominate, brands may find surprising opportunities in traditional channels such as out-of-home and direct mail, says Brian Rafferty, global director of business analytics and insights at Siegel+Gale, a brand strategy firm.
“Digital channels are massively overloaded,” Rafferty says. “How do you cut through when everybody is doing exactly the same thing? Make sure you know what touchpoints really matter and where you should invest, and make sure your messages are effective. Now is a good moment to gather that data so that you’re ready to execute in 2021.”
Stay Close to the Core
Regardless of how the next few months unfold, brands should stay focused on their core identity and purpose. “For brands that are winning today, it’s about retention and building relationships that are more long-term,” Sakal says. “You have to anticipate a reality where, at one extreme, people will snap exactly back to what they used to do. It needs to be rooted in something substantive.”
Crocs, the Colorado-based maker of comfortable shoes, has achieved record sales during the pandemic in part because of its focus on purpose-driven marketing; the company donated 860,000 free pairs of Crocs to healthcare workers earlier this year when the pandemic started to spread, and it launched a new partnership with Feeding America.
“As a result of simply doing what we knew was the right thing, our fan base grew 16 percent, and collectively we saw our posts shared or saved over 50,000 times for nearly 20 million impressions,” says Heidi Cooley, head of global marketing at Crocs. “We’ve learned how to listen, grow, and evolve with our customer, and we believe our biggest competitive advantage is our ability to be extremely agile and responsive during the moments that matter most to our fans.”
KFC’s Zahumensky agrees that companies need to stay focused on brand purpose and authenticity, and demonstrate that they are in touch with their audiences.
“Customers care about brands that care about them, whether that’s the health and safety of customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic or diverse representation among employees, and in our marketing and advertising,” Zahumensky says. “So, I don’t think there is a ‘return’ to normal, but instead a new normal, where brands are expected to lead change and show up authentically.”