“Kindness” in communications and advertising has been a prevailing trend since the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, but marketers must do more to ensure they are serving all their stakeholders effectively – or lose out.
That was one of the takeouts of a roundtable hosted by New Digital Age and digital neighbourhood hub Nextdoor involving senior marketers and media executives. They believe that COVID-19 has given brands a purpose-driven shot in the arm at a time when consumers were starting to tire of the concept for fear of its being inauthentic or unmeaning.
However, being kind alone is not enough for brands to be of use to consumers, and for the sake of their employees must not ignore their commercial responsibilities. Our executives also fear that “COVID burnout” is beginning to take effect.
The roundtable was chaired by NDA editor Justin Pearse and saw contributions from Fleur Stoppani, Chief Client Officer, Mindshare; Liam Brennan, Global Director of Innovation, Mediacom; Paps Shaikh, Commercial Director, EMEA, Nextdoor; Dan Plant, Executive Head of Strategy, Starcom; Nick Vale, Global Head of Creative Strategy, Wavemaker; Sakshi Anand, Senior Director and Country Manager UK&I, GoDaddy; Eva Grimmett, Group Chief Strategy Officer, Havas Media Group; Suzy Ryder, Managing Partner, Digital, Data Technology & Analytics, OMD UK; Tom Lakeman, Senior Manager, Local Marketing & Engagement, Co-op, and Camilla Benitz, Director, Local Heroes.
Nick Vale, Wavemaker’s global head of creative strategy, warns that “purpose” in marketing – a buzzword for the last few years of the last decade – had lost its sheen pre-Covid, with consumers wary of brands pretending to care more than they actually did.
“We were seeing a lot of brands doing ‘purpose’ but it didn’t seem credible,” he says. Kindness in communications took hold in early March and took many different forms. For instance, some brands supported the frontline with discounts and free products, others repurposed their production lines including BrewDog and LVMH for sanitisers and personal protective equipment.
There were then the brands that aided the vulnerable, and other brands who chose to amplify the advice given out by governments and bodies such as the World Health Organisation.
Is kindness doing us a favour, or not?
The needle has now moved, he suggests, with brands looking to “maximise moments of happiness”, citing the fast-food brand Chipotle’s celebrity Zoom calls. “For me, the interesting question is more about whether all this kindness stuff is really doing us a favour because the wheels of business need to keep turning and those wheels are best greased by effective marketing,” Vale continues.
“As we move to look towards retaining jobs and keeping things going there is a question over whether kindness has run its course and now is the time to get back to harsh commercialism.”
Camilla Benitz, director of Local Heroes, an online on-demand end-to-end trade service, agrees. “This kindness streak has been amazing and a real catalyst for change but it needs to be infused with a commercial agenda in order to be sustained.” She believes that the time is ripe for innovation to take hold and that in a locked-down or socially distanced world local contacts matter more than ever.
Liam Brennan, Mediacom global director of innovation, also has sympathy with Vale’s view but he believes that a lot of people are now suffering from Covid burnout. “People want to return to reality now,” he says, adding that the “big litmus test” will be the John Lewis Christmas advert.
“Kindness needs to shift away with less negativity in advertising. We’re burnt out from general comms from all the news. Not just COVID, but the US elections, Brexit and so on. Brands are going to have to understand not just the mental health burnout moving forwards but the financial burnout as redundancies take hold.”
Beyond the CSR agenda
For Eva Grimmett, Havas Media Group’s group chief strategy officer, the devil is in the detail. “People think of kindness as being worthy, but that’s not it. Being kind is about recognising what someone needs,” she says. For her, Budweiser re-airing classic ads cheered her more than the heavily user-generated COVID communications that brands were pushing out. “People are very wary of the bandwagon and sick of brands ‘showing they understand.” She advises that companies consider kindness in its broadest sense. “It doesn’t have to be worthy, but useful or helpful.”
Is “kindness” the latest iteration of CSR, asks OMD UK’s managing partner of digital, data, technology and analytics Suzy Ryder.
“Companies are doing a lot but the cynic in me maybe thinks that it is elevated in terms of communications. A word I like is empathy. Are brands showing kindness or empathy with a person’s situation? If a brand can demonstrate authentic empathy then it can help facilitate creating communities,” she adds.
Ryder urges brands to leverage platforms to make communications relevant at a local, community level.
It is something that Tom Lakeman, senior manager of local marketing and engagement at the Co-op understands. He says that their staff are their frontline and their biggest concern.
“When it comes to kindness, as well as ensuring brands are behaving that way for customers, there has been a spotlight on businesses this year and an expectation to do the right thing by their employees, and in a kind way. Our frontline colleagues come first in terms of safety and being supported to do their jobs and serve our communities”.
“When it comes to platforms, we are using and testing platforms that we as marketers and our colleagues can use to connect with people on a community-by-community basis, helping us build relationships. Our colleagues are our brand advocates, they are micro-influencers so introducing and using technology to help us maximise this at scale is super important right now”
Table-stakes – and beyond
Fleur Stoppani, Mindshare’s chief client officer, says: “In some ways, kindness is now just table stakes. It has to come down to what people are actually doing and the brands with a physical presence in a community have the best opportunities to deliver. Playing on emotion alone is not enough. People need practical advice.”
Kindness and commerce needn’t be strangers, according to Dan Plant, Starcom’s executive head of strategy. “It’s just good business,” he says. “Empathy is good marketing because you have to understand the needs of your customers, identify them and respond. But if you’re tied up in a brand and business bubble then you’ll always seem connected. It’s why we need to move on from simply talking about nice things.”
He continues: “It’s really important that all of the things you do are connected. We’re ‘purposed’ out. [Many brands had to] invent purpose, but your actions need to reflect what you do for people with your product – how do you fit into their lives?
“Suddenly our lives are very local and it is hard to get very local. For a lot of big blue-chip companies, their modus operandi is about big posters and great TV ads that talk to millions of people at once. They talk about leadership, which is important, but nobody’s seeing these ads. We’re talking now to our clients about how they can get local, cultural connections.”
It’s a strategy that domain name and websites brand GoDaddy already had in place. Although a global corporation its users are overwhelmingly local businesses and GoDaddy utilises these small firms to support and promote them as a way of inviting new business.
UK and Ireland country manager Sakshi Anand says this approach has paid dividends for their customers since COVID with online businesses seizing the benefits of a digital presence for growth. Beyond the communications, the brand has compiled a number of webinars, events and local business mentors to help “champion local businesses in our communities”. “Local businesses have welcomed the visbility they get and it helps drive GoDaddy’s presence in the community”, she adds.
There is clearly a commercial agenda for a local, community-based communications strategy – something now more apparent than ever. But, as Paps Shaikh, Nextdoor’s EMEA commercial director concludes: “I have been overwhelmed in such a positive way by the power of local. Most of all I have seen businesses big and small want to be practical and genuinely want to help.”