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APRIL 16, 2020 //     

Brands, Your People Need You: Now Is the Time for Social Innovation

By Paul Sears

In a COVID-19 world, brands face a big question – should we launch that new product now, or wait it out?  Uncertainty abounds as marketers must reevaluate the economics and the optics. 

A well-conceived launch can help the bottom line and boost brand reputation, but it must legitimately help. Most importantly, the company must protect the dedicated workers throughout the value chain. During the immediate calamity and the extended recovery that follows, brands have a strategic opportunity to create powerful social innovations to meet new consumer needs in unexpected ways while providing comfort and relief to a world in crisis. 

Consumer behaviors have changed dramatically in the last few weeks. Instead of movies and restaurant meals, millions of families eat together and play board games at home. Instead of commutes with a stop at Starbucks, professionals make their best efforts to remain productive while home-schooling their children. Many others have been displaced and need support just to meet basic needs.

As the landscape changes rapidly, it will be key for brands to scale up their listening efforts.  Not just to better tailor their marketing messages, but to identify new customer needs that can foster rapid innovation. We help our clients in this key area, combining AI and human analytics that extract signal from millions of digital conversations, allowing them to understand how hearts and minds react to an uncertain world.

Rapidly turning insights into solutions is the next step. Peloton quickly created all-new workouts for families. Craft breweries rapidly stood-up digital storefronts and pivoted taproom-focused business models to delivery and pickup. Alamo Drafthouse now offers ticketed screenings of cult classics on Vimeo. Marketers will have to seize strategic opportunities with the digital infrastructure they already have or use new resources they can quickly add.

Brands will also need to assess if they have credibility to deliver helpful new offerings. For example, Netflix doesn’t have much history in the respiratory mask business. But what if it partnered with Hasbro to deliver virtual board games within the Watch Party environment? Marketing leaders must step back and reassess their product roadmaps to evaluate whether 10-degree shifts, digital extensions or new partnerships can create an unexpected innovation to benefit both society and the business.

A few key questions can prove helpful:

  • Will a new product meet socially-oriented definitions of value in a COVID-19 world?
  • Is the supply chain stable – will consumers have sustainable access?
  • Can you, suppliers and partners protect workers’ health and safety?
  • Can the product be launched authentically, with care and goodwill?

In the midst of a global crisis, it’s easy to overreact and put everything on hold. Yet studies of prior crises and downturns have found the companies that double down on innovation significantly outperform those that make drastic cutbacks. Leaders must assess their portfolios and make immediate pivots. They must ramp up listening to deeply understand changing consumer needs and identify new ways to socially innovate. It’s more important than ever that brands make bold, socially conscious moves to help build a better, stronger and more resilient world.  

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Paul Sears is Executive Vice President, Integrated Marketing.  With nearly 20 years in advertising, social media, content and brand strategy, Paul spends most of his time helping clients sharpen their strategic focus – at the brand level or for individual products and campaigns.    

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