COVID Insights, Perspectives 06.15.2020

A Brand’s Role in Furthering Human Connection

In search of the human side of brands after a pandemic.

By Eileen Jones, IIDA, SEGD, AIGA, LEED AP: Principal, Branded Environments Global Practice Leader

 

As our lives continue to change during COVID-19 and we look towards a return to “normal” – whatever and whenever that may be – it’s important to remember that brand experiences and how they are designed are integral to making us feel human. Technology can connect us when in-person contact is impossible, but our innate need to be physically present with one another at work, school, and social gatherings doesn’t go away. In times of distance, brand and experiential design can work in tandem with the human spirit to move social connection forward.

When restoring these connections in a post-COVID society, brands will need lasting qualities to build trust with users, or all those who encounter and interact with a brand. Ultimately, this will determine which brands survive and what new experiences emerge.

So what’s required of a brand in a post-COVID world?  As never before, the following five qualities will drive brand success in the future:

Image courtesy of Patagonia
Above: In addition to clothing and equipment, Patagonia's food products offer users another way to engage with the brand.
Authenticity

You can’t fake it: The experience you have with a brand in any dimension, whether online or in a brick-and-mortar store, must be real and true to its values. Now more than ever, people want to know that their engagement with a brand is honest.  Patagonia, for example, has held true to its mission during the Coronavirus outbreak by growing its online presence. After closing most of their stores temporarily because of virus concerns, they have ramped up efforts to connect with their community by offering free online yoga classes, virtual tutorials on product use, and other content with which followers can engage. This initiative aims to lead Patagonia’s customers to authentic experiences with their clothing, food, and equipment, the experiences they craft, and the stories they tell. Their food products advertise they are restoring the planet’s resources, not depleting them, which can speak to their mission-driven customer base. By including these packaged food options in their merchandise mix, Patagonia provides another way for users to engage with – and buy into – the brand on multiple levels at the same time for a full Patagonia experience. With several different ways to engage, users can feel like they are part of something greater than themselves.

Personal

Brands connect with people.  They need to make their messages sing, and for users to say “That’s relevant to me.”  As a user, I need a reason to believe that I am important and my choices matter.  Frito Lay has let us know, in their “It’s About People” ad throughout the COVID-19 crisis, that people are more important than products. Amid the high volume of COVID-19 ads we’ve been seeing that open with a message of solidarity but close with promoting the company’s product, Frito Lay’s advertising (pictured at right) attempts to build emotional connections where other brands have tried to sell products.

Image courtesy of Frito Lay
Transparency

Brands should not hide behind their logo or complex language to disguise what might be going on behind the curtain.  There is nothing wrong with saying “we’re not there yet, we have more work to do, but we’re getting there”. Users today are looking for this transparency to build trust. In 2018, National Geographic published their Race Issue, in which they openly acknowledge what many critics had demanded they address: “For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.” Today, as users are more skeptical than ever of brands and their values, brands must be comfortable admitting fault in order to rebuild their connection with users, and maintain a unified sense of community among users.

Culture

We often talk about brand culture, but brand as a source of culture is a powerful builder of community.  As we return to social settings, we need to know that we are connecting with a community of culture that resonates with our own inner voice.  REI creates a community of culture through their education and field programs that engage constituents in ways that build experience, loyalty, and trust. Users can feel like they are aligned with REI when engaging with their programs, products, and messaging.

Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company and The Detroit News
Agility

There is no time like now to pivot, learn something new, and repurpose your tools to form new services and experiences.  An agile mind and an agile brand will survive and create new opportunity.  Ford Motor Company (pictured at left) did just that during the COVID-19 crisis by converting car manufacturing to PPE safety equipment manufacturing. This built new relationships with both their customers and the world by showing an ability to be flexible on a moment’s notice and use their resources to serve a need.

 

 

As society embarks on a new beginning and looks toward life after a pandemic, what we’re really talking about is a new Brand Civility.

This can be defined as creating experiences that honor those who engage with brands, who walk through the door of an office, a store, a hotel, a school, a hospital, or a museum. Brand Civility embraces our human need to connect with one another and tells users that they belong.  People connect with people, and today brands must put their human face forward to build trust and loyalty. The closeness and community we crave will return after this public health crisis, and brands and brand designers alike have a vital role in creating experiences and spaces that move human connection forward.