Marketing Lessons in Relatability vs. Bandwagoning

The business world underwent significant learning, adapting and changing since a certain virus entered the scene last year. As a marketing professional, it’s been fascinating to watch how different companies and organizations modified their advertising content and strategies to meet (or in some cases, entirely miss) audience expectations.

Writing publications cover good COVID-inspired ads, bad ones, even a little bit of both, but COVID wasn’t the only “big thing” in the news over the last several months. Wildfires raging on the west coast brought light to environmental issues. The “Black Lives Matter” movement highlighting social injustice. This year’s presidential election brought up many concerns for individuals on both sides.

Through all of this, companies and advertisers navigated as best they could, some doing better than others. Looking back, what lessons did we learn about advertising in 2020, and how can we apply those lessons to our advertising strategies going forward?

Stay True to Your Brand

If there’s anything modern consumers hate, it’s inauthenticity. When large national or global events happen, stay authentic to your brand, or show that you’re working toward who you want to be. Consumers don’t appreciate being lied to, and they certainly aren’t afraid to call out brands on social media for being “fake.”

In short: if you’re interested in participating in trends and current events, make sure it’s for the right reasons and in the right way, not just to get “credit” with your audience. In many cases, invested consumers will know the difference and are more than happy to spread the word.

Silence Can Be Golden…

During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement’s visibility this summer we saw outcry from consumers. Many brands made generic promises about working on company diversity without any direction or drive behind it and consumers noticed. Social media provides consumers with a wide-reaching platform to bring negative attention to brands or, even worse, specifically forcing moments of failed diversity front and center.

There are plenty of brands whose core messaging calls out the company’s stance on any variety of topics (Ben & Jerry’s is one of my favorite examples), but for more neutral brands it’s more prudent to not say anything. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

…But Speak Up When it Counts

It’s difficult for brands to stay silent on every issue that hits the media stage, and sometimes silence on an issue can be what sets consumers off (I know, it’s tricky). This is an area where knowing your audience is necessary, but knowing what they expect of you is arguably more important. If something crops up that’s directly related to your company, brand, industry, core values, etc. let your customers know you’re there, you care, and you’re paying attention.

Tone & Context Are Everything

Remember early during the lockdowns when a group of celebrities shared a video of them singing “Imagine” by John Lennon? It was generally hailed to be one of the cringier moments of lockdown, especially when compared to John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” series, which genuinely raised people’s spirits.

The problem was a disconnect on several fronts: The general public certainly didn’t feel better about the lockdown after simply seeing the faces of celebrities they knew. People were frustrated about affluent celebrities “complaining” about quarantining in their grandiose homes while others were stuck in tiny houses or apartments.

I’ll be blunt: when developing an advertising strategy and the key messaging driving it, your “intention” doesn’t matter. What matters is how it’s perceived by both your audience and the general public. If you do any sort of market research (surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.), genuinely take your audience’s feedback into consideration. They’ll tell you what they want to hear if you’re willing to listen, but you have to be willing to listen.

Use Your Own Words

“Unprecedented times.” “Social distancing.” “The new normal.” These are just a few of the phrases mentioned repeatedly by Twitter users in response to a tweet by’s account asking which words, phrases or expressions people never wanted to hear again post-COVID.

It’s easy and “safe” to fall back on the accepted language that everyone else uses, but this results in two less-ideal outcomes: One, whatever you say fades into background noise with every other brand using the same language. Two, it can come across as sort of robotic or insincere, depending on tone and context. As I mentioned earlier, consumers generally don’t react well to insincerity.

Final Thoughts

So where does this leave marketers and content strategists? Really, we aren’t in a much different spot than we were before. It’s still important to stay true to our brands. It’s still vital to use language and messaging that resonates with our audiences. We still need to develop and use a distinct voice as part of our brand language.

The last year presented a great number of challenges for marketers, but with these challenges came greater understanding in many areas. It showed that while consumers continue to change in some ways, in other ways much is still the same. I hope that, as we charge forward, we don’t lose sight of old and new marketing lessons that the last 12 months brought to light. The best way to continue successfully marketing is to keep moving forward, learning, changing and growing.

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