It’s been a trying year for most, but a certain two-word phrase has enjoyed a boom in 2020. Seemingly, everything is experiencing a ‘new normal’. Retail, school, pubs, cinemas, home improvements, pets… You name it, someone will have written about how the ‘new normal’ affects it.
Change is indeed happening everywhere, but ‘new normal’ has become a phrase used unthinkingly. For one thing, we tend to ignore its inherent contradiction: normal things can’t really be new, and new things can’t really be normal.
So as marketers, when we try to ascertain the state of the ‘new normal’ for our clients and target audiences, are we simply trying to extract meaning from an empty phrase? Getting some real insight into consumer habits today means we have to look beyond the hype.
THE ‘NEW NORMAL’ ISN’T ALL THAT NEW
Discussion about what constitutes the ‘new normal of marketing’ is already rife. To illustrate just how rife, consider this: While doing my research, I found myself reading an article covering the key pillars of marketing’s new normal, such as digitalisation, experience over product, direct relationships with end users, and brand advocacy. Then I realised that the article was published in January 2017 – three years before most of us had even heard of Coronavirus.
It highlights a common trap we fall into when talking about the ‘new normal’. We frame it as a single, permanent shift – but it’s not. Change was afoot already, though it was certainly accelerated by lockdown. We once called it the future; now we call it the new normal.
Perceiving 2020 as a single moment of change, and ‘pivoting’ marketing activities based on that, is a short-sighted view. The long-term necessitates a nimble approach – continuously assessing customer preferences as they evolve.
PURPOSE IS THE NEW KING
The most-repeated point about marketing’s ‘new normal’ is that it is far more audience-oriented than previous incarnations. Rather than focusing on businesses and brands, marketing strategies today put customers’ needs first. It’s been expressed as ‘serve versus sell’, with the former now the hands-down winner.
In a global time of need, more brands are communicating their positive contribution to the world – which leads to a wider focus on corporate sustainability and responsibility. As consumers, we are rethinking our buying priorities – we no longer want cheap or available, we want ethical and environmental, and are willing to pay more to get it. Thus, brands need to broadcast their overall purpose, not just their products or features.
There are plenty of examples, from brands doing good work (Lacoste used its production lines to make facemasks; Brewdog made hand sanitiser) to the addition of useful or cost-saving features, or just small things that make a difference (Pizza Express published a variety of activities and games online to keep kids occupied).
It’s good to see, and it works. But marketers may worry about where they go next if they can no longer position their brand so prominently. If this is the ‘new normal’, will we ever be able to run a brand-based or product-based campaign again?
LISTENING BECOMES A CORE MARKETING ACTIVITY
Think of it this way: Constraint creates opportunity. Firstly, an opportunity for brands to engage directly with end users. In a marketing economy driven more by listening than talking, reaching out to individuals is accepted and expected.
‘Humanisation’ in B2C marketing is in evidence through brands such as Uber, who ran a campaign naming and thanking several of their drivers who continued working throughout the pandemic. Individual-oriented communication not only gives insight – it can also turn disengaged consumers into brand champions.
In the B2B world, it’s even more critical. The core of B2B marketing has long been listening to, understanding and convincing individuals within complicated decision-making processes and structures. Now is absolutely the time for businesses to demonstrate that they are attuned to each other’s needs and ready to put co-operation first.
BRANDS DON’T HAVE LESS FREEDOM. THEY HAVE MORE
Secondly, it’s an opportunity to throw away the rulebook: to try what you were afraid to try before, to do the unthinkable, the impossible. Marketing that doesn’t even mention a brand by name has become more common. During lockdown, Zara shot its new catalogue not in a studio, but in the models’ living rooms. Porsche ran a series of adverts urging people not to drive its cars.
In a way, we now have more freedom: it’s OK to go slightly off-message, to do things that once wouldn’t have been done. Businesses are reviewing their brand and purpose, and altering or even completely reversing them.
In lockdown, Volvo overturned its long-standing safety message to tell drivers: “A Volvo is not the safest place to be right now. Stay at home.” More recently, Aldi used its reputation for copying other brands to form a partnership with Brewdog, turning potential negative PR into an advantage.
Again, it’s the same in B2B marketing. Every business has its own reputation, its long-standing set of norms and conventions. Now, when they communicate with each other, businesses are pushing, defying or even poking fun at the conventions. Done right, it’s no longer seen as off-message; it’s seen as human.
If anything is the ‘new normal’, perhaps it’s this: marketing without a clear set of rules but guided by the principles of listening, engaging, and treating your audience as individuals. At Palmer Hargreaves, we’ve been working this way for years.
We can help your business plan successful long-term campaigns that respond authentically to audience needs, using social listening to discover what your audiences and saying and tailor your messaging accordingly. Call +44 7799 848074 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to speak to our team.