The Road to Recovery
In volatile times, marry Meaningful Difference with the latest consumer intelligence
Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer
What does it mean to talk about recovery and growth in 2021? For most brand categories, the goal at hand is not necessarily a full return to normalcy by the end of the year. (Even for those product categories seeing increasing demand - for example, hand sanitizers and food delivery - one could hardly describe the current business climate as normal). The reality is that COVID-19 could cycle in and out of our lives for quite some time.
Resilience, then, is the watchword of the day - and a necessary prerequisite to future growth. Resilience is not the same thing as passivity. As Brand Z™ Global Strategy Director Graham Staplehurst and BrandZ™ Global head of Research Martin Guerrieria noted in this year’s Global Top 100 report, “Brands did not recover automatically after the  financial crisis. And they will not recover automatically from this crisis. Understandably, during a period of uncertainty and financial pressure, it is tempting to cut back on advertising and marketing investment, at least short-term. But cutting back is counterproductive.”
They continue: “It may not be possible to always be physically present, [or] to have certain products available all the time. People are becoming accustomed to shortages. Mental availability is possible, however, and it is critical. Brands that continue to advertise reduce the risk of future market share loss. If it is necessary to reduce a product range because of slackening demand, then it is best to focus on the parts of the range that best represent the core brand purpose and do not compromise core positioning and values. It is important to focus on salience, reach, search, distribution and pricing.”
The global financial crisis offered countless examples of this resilient philosophy in action. Take, for instance, the UK detergent brand Fairy (which in the Netherlands is known as Dreft). At the dawn of the Great Recession, Fairy had a 52 percent value market share in the UK, a price premium of 66 percent compared to store brands, and was already bought by 60 percent of UK households. Though Fairy’s premium positioning was normally an asset, in a difficult economy this same “premiumness” left Fairy vulnerable to “trading down” behaviors – unless consumers saw Fairy as somehow special enough to continue buying.
With recession looming, Fairy’s brand team therefore set out to identify and enhance what made the brand Meaningfully Different to its consumers. The brand’s heritage led them to the concept of “enduring care,” which became the platform for new content that reframed the brand’s longstanding association with value. Media spend did increase, to double its previous levels. Over time, perceptions of value improved, and market share and price paid per pack increased dramatically.
Going forward, brands should remember the lessons of the recent past: that Meaningfully Different brands decline less in value, and recover quicker, than brands that fail to invest in these attributes. But brands also need a deep understanding of the present.
The timeless and the timely
Kantar’s Covid Barometer - Netherlands paints a picture of consumer sentiment that’s constantly shifting alongside conditions on the ground.
For instance, the data has shown continuously evolving consumer enthusiasm for online shopping during the pandemic. During the earliest waves of the COVID-19 outbreak, in March 2020, less than one-fifth of Dutch consumers reported shopping more at online e-commerce websites versus the previous. In the months that followed, the proportion of Dutch consumers who said they had increased online their shopping climbed steadily. Then, in July 2020, a period relative COVID-19 calm led to a slight slowdown in online shopping’s momentum – but the numbers began to pick up again in August amid fears of a coronavirus resurgence.
Changing realities on the ground have also led to fluctuations in what consumers expect from brands and brand messaging. In early March 2020, for instance, some 13 percent of Dutch COVID-19 Barometer respondents said that the “main thing that brands should do at the moment” was to “Attack the crisis” and demonstrate that it can be fought – versus 34 percent who said the main thing brands should do was “Be practical and realistic” while offering everyday help to consumers.
During Wave 4 of Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer research, in late April 2020, the proportion of consumers who felt that brands should focus on “Attacking the crisis” had risen to 31 percent – while those who felt brands should focus on “Being practical and realistic” had fallen to 26 percent. By Wave 8, in late August 2020, consumer preference for an “Attack the crisis” brand stance had settled at 22 percent, while 19 percent wanted brands to focus on “Being practical and realistic.”
One constant, even in volatile times, is consumers’ continued acceptance of brand advertising. Although some brands have chosen to pull back from the market, there has been no call from consumers for brands to stop advertising during the COVID-19 outbreak. What’s more, Kantar’s testing has shown that advertising has retained its power to drive consumer sentiment. In March 2020, Kantar re-tested 10 ads with consumers using its rapid-feedback, digital Link tool - and compared the results with how those same ads had tested before the pandemic. The results showed comparable ad performance with respect to driving short-term sales and building long-term equity. Consumers haven’t stopped responding to effective brand messaging, in other words - nor do they want brands to retreat or go away. If anything, as the pandemic has persisted across the weeks and months, Dutch consumers now expect more from brands: this is a time when every element of society has been called upon to keep the Netherlands strong.
The correct approach for brands in the coming year, then, will be to combine the timeless with the timely. Meaningful Difference will always be the key ingredient for recovery and growth in times of crisis. But when deciding how to emphasize Meaningful Difference, brands will need to draw upon the latest consumer intelligence to chart their tactical path ahead. That’s where reports like the COVID-19 Barometer will prove crucial.