This pandemic is the first worldwide crisis taking place in an era of ‘viral’ content sharing and accelerated marketing landscape. Katrina Russell, Project Director at Sign Salad, explores how specific brands, from Crocs to Oatly, have adapted key visual and language cues convey the changing cultural meanings of a brand’s values and build connections with consumers in distanced times.
Covid-19 is reworking cultural and behavioural norms on a mass scale, leaving many brands and marketers unsure of how – and where – to tread strategically. The challenge is unprecedented; this is the first virus taking hold in an era of ‘viral’ content sharing, and an accelerated marketing landscape.
In order to build brand associations with emotional sensitivity, communications must be culturally relevant. Brands need to respond to cultural and behavioural changes if they want to come out stronger on the other side.
We have already seen several brands adapt rapidly to the new cultural environment created by Covid-19 and the lockdown. Marketing strategies were adapted; visual and language cues were used to effectively communicate the changing cultural meaning of brands’ values, while remaining faithful to their heritage. Here are some examples of brands that have adapted in a meaningful way, and a look at why they’ve been effective.
Oatly: staying healthy at home
Before Covid-19, Oatly used pack iconography to highlight the gentle impact oat milk production has on the planet. This emphasis on ecology framed buying Oatly as making a modest climate change pledge and gave consumers a sense of participating in a wider movement.
Responding to Covid-19, Oatly has dialled up its down-to-earth relatability, and moved its focus from the health of the planet to staying healthy at home. Oatly’s Instagram campaign resists the tendency to depict home life as a perfect sanctuary, recognising that the pretence of perfection on social media has negative consequences on mental health. Instead, Oatly’s social media posts reflect everyday reality, featuring people doing absolutely nothing in particular – no need for exercising or dazzling homecrafts. The humour in the captions is low-key and intentionally monotonous, reflecting the collective mood of life in lockdown.
While Oatly develops its focus on individuality and idiosyncrasy – relating these quirks to the realities of isolation at home – it also makes a candid admission about the difficulties of creating great creative work during social distancing. These self-deprecating posts create an empathetic link to the consumer scrolling through social media (again, because there’s nothing else to do).
Oatly’s long-held claim to be “like milk, but made for humans” has taken on a new significance during lockdown. The Instagram has moved from reminding consumers they can do ‘more’ (for the planet) to reassuring them it’s OK to do ‘less’, or indeed nothing at all – staying home and staying safe.
Crocs’ comfort strategy
Before coronavirus, Crocs had associated their clog-like shoes with creativity and self-referential wit, directly addressing the products’ visual shortcomings – epitomised in its “Come as you are” campaign. It used language focused on ‘being comfortable in your own shoes’ to align with the cultural momentum of self-expression and self-definition that has risen in recent years.
Crocs has now adeptly shifted its communications to stay relevant amidst the impact of the pandemic on home life, and on our physical and emotional wellbeing. Covid-19 has seen the brand build on its established associations with playful surrealism, and the significance of emotional and physical comfort.
The brand has done this through a social media campaign focused on the bizarre scenes of work-from-home life. GIFs featuring consumers weightlifting and draining pasta with the help of their clogs builds on Crocs’ brand equity in playfulness, while also tapping into the way bitesized internet humour provides relief in our daily lives at home.
However, and crucially, this light-footed playfulness is matched by the serious approach the brand has taken to ethical outreach. Crocs has supported healthcare workers on a mass scale by donating a free pair to any healthcare heroes who request them, largely publicised through a responsive and engaging Twitter presence and the hashtag #FreePairFriday. Taken together, the brand’s response to Covid-19 strengthens its cultural associations with “comfort” as an emotional (humour) and physical (supportive footwear) state, creating a memorable, meaningful campaign by building on where the brand has been and understanding the current moment.
The radical ‘Brewgel’
In early 2020, BrewDog, the ‘punk’ brewery, underwent a rebrand resulting in simpler packaging visuals and the launch of its new sustainability plan. This marked a brand evolution, from BrewDog as a rebellious, anarchic disruptor – known for its publicity stunts and shock tactics – toward BrewDog as a more considered, yet still radical, activist for good, promising to protect the planet.
In the wake of Covid-19, BrewDog put its activism-focused rebrand to the test by producing ‘Brewgel’ hand sanitizer. The savvy visuals accompanying the announcement revealed some subtle changes to its new Punk IPA pack design, adapted onto pump dispenser bottles. These alterations have allowed the brand to inspire its hand sanitizer initiative with culturally relevant codes, while meaningfully building on their rebranded identity in a new product category.
The hand-gel pack design lightens the Punk IPA’s usual teal-blue livery, in order to create a cooler, clinical blue, prompting pharmaceutical and medical connotations (think hospital scrubs, latex gloves, etc). This change in tone is accompanied by a complete delineation of the Punk IPA’s central shield design. Where the shield once signified a heraldic emblem on the previous beer pack, the accentuated silver-blue shield here acquires the meaning of medical protection and defence, as it evokes the blue shields used ubiquitously on flu medicine (e.g. Vicks First Defense). These design cues help to legitimise ‘Brewgel’ as clinically sterilised, at a time when building trust in product safety is increasingly vital.
The juxtaposition of medical cues usually associated with serious authority, with references to beer and “punk” on-pack, help elevate ‘Brewgel’ above the standard, functional monotony of packaging design in the antibacterial category (e.g. Purell and Cuticura). The countercultural language (e.g. “post-modern classic”, “fiercely defiant and independent”) on the gel bottles cleverly turns the need for routine cleanliness into a fun and irreverent act, making this a radical and culturally relevant brand diversification.
Finally, BrewDog’s visualisation of the bottles on an assembly-line taps into the changing cultural meaning of industrial mass-production. While factory visuals formerly suggested environmental unfriendliness and lack of artisanal authenticity, they now stand as a reminder of our new-found appreciation for national industrial production and the significance of supply chains, in the face of this global pandemic. Through this factory imagery, BrewDog can present itself as a strong and stable industrial force – a credible cog in the nation’s fight against Covid-19 – as it bravely continues to operate. BrewDog is distinctively repositioned as a ‘rebel with a cause’.
Three actionable guidelines for communications during Covid-19:
• Brands don’t need to avoid humour in difficult times, but the ‘feel-good’ factor must be anchored in practical initiatives tackling (physical or mental) health during the pandemic.
• Instead of focusing exclusively on product attributes and functionality, brands should create relevant communications by aligning themselves with the wider, evolving cultural meanings of their brand values and assets.
• Communicating authenticity is about communicating empathy. Brands can connect with consumers by addressing the daily difficulties of the ‘new reality’ head-on, however trivial – the difficulty of choosing what to wear, or over-thinking a virtual background for that video call, or finding yourself on social media, looking at the same advert once again.
By Katrina Russell