OPINION30 September 2020

Refocusing on human needs: communications in Covid-19

Covid-19 Opinion Trends UK

Covid-19 has increased uncertainty and maintained this emotional state throughout the pandemic. How can brands adjust their messaging to connect with their audiences? By Cristina de Balanzo.

Crowd of people wearing anti-viral masks

Advertising has always been a reflection and representation of society. An advertiser’s opportunity for impact on culture is huge as they give meaning to people’s everyday lives and thoughts. Covid-19 is no different. We observed the mood of the nation reflected in comms during this pandemic, but also the way brands have tapped into human needs through their communications.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. Walnut Unlimited’s Understanding the nation study, which has polled 2,000 UK consumers monthly since 2018, has shown that worry spiked nationwide in April, but recently has returned to pre-lockdown measures. We also saw measures of sadness peak in early lockdown, but recently the easing of regulations has helped, with nearly a third report feeling more relaxed.

One emotional state, however, has maintained throughout lockdown: uncertainty. Levels of uncertainty are still being recorded well above pre-lockdown level. Why? In times of uncertainty and with moods changing daily, we seek others we trust or that have a voice for guidance. Brands sit strongly within this ‘others’ category and we look for empathy and understanding for our state of being from them.

We believe this empathy is necessary when uncertainty hits and it is key for engaging with people – it is the one thing that can bring together human needs and emotions. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Applied to brand communications, it is the feeling of individuals recognising themselves in a brand’s meanings. The inner understanding of empathy opens a variety of creative routes based on inner human needs, as we will see in our communication review. 

Brand communications in the age of Covid-19

1 ) The need for reassurance. Having a certain and stable environment is strongly linked to our survival instinct; we want to feel safe and secure. The psychological distress of feeling misplaced can have a great impact on our brain and overall wellbeing. Brands which have maintained delivery of this reassurance message have aided us through these uncertain times – the most effective have messaged with the correct tone, through multiple channels, showing empathy and understanding of our state of being.

Grocery retailers like Aldi were quick to execute and be at the forefront of this, with messages that reassure people they would still be able to get their goods. Personal care brands like Dettol also reassured from a different angle, that their anti-bacterial products would serve their purpose and keep you safe through reciprocity messages. This brand has also found a way to become part of people’s new routines.

2 ) The need for humour/play. Scientific research draws a parallel between humour and what storytelling does in your brain: it puts the whole brain to work, activates memory processing and brings personal relevance, an element that makes you click with your audience. Furthermore, getting the joke involves the brain’s reward system, and the way concepts are delivered generates emotional engagement and the attention the campaign aims for.

As the nation has moved away from feelings of worry and happiness has increased, coupled with our desire for fun as restrictions eased, we saw more humorous and playful advertising come to light. The truth is that Covid-19 has brought us a new reality that is sometimes also funny.

Starbucks showed the struggle of understanding people’s name when wearing facemasks. KFC changed their historical tagline. Two perfect brand asset adjustments that drive the rewards of humour.

3 )The need for authenticity. Shrinking budgets have encouraged brands to dig deeper in terms of creative messaging, with people more responsive to authentic advertising rather than polished creative. Being genuine is an important motivational ingredient for brands and helps create a strong level of emotional engagement. Realness helps brands create a sincere relationship with people. We do not know when Covid-19 is going to end or what is going to happen next, but we must make the best of this situation, together.

Nike are a great example of this. Their ads show a simple authentic message where the brand is asking people to play inside for the need of quarantine and social distancing – a very simple transition that pays off.  

 4 ) The need of connectedness. The sense of belonging is one of the most basic human needs. It is widely understood that humans feel the need to belong to a group, to feel accepted and loved by others, and to engage socially with friends and family. Humans feel this need very strongly and are sensitive to rejection and loneliness as a result. This evolutionary drive underpins more superficial human motives, including connecting with others and feeling appreciated for who we are and what we do.

Examples from technology brands have based their communication strategies on those principles showing reciprocity and being the catalyst of these human connections. Facebook communications at the beginning of lockdown reflected the overall sadness of people, and a more recent TikTok example showing the fun of being together through the social media platform.

Our advice

Having reviewed lockdown communications covering these and other human needs like simplicity, hope and compassion, we can see the impact of Covid-19 on human needs and how human needs evolve during crisis. It does not matter which human need your brand covers – whatever route you decide on, it needs to be as a result of a deep human understanding of your brand and pulsing the nation to get the right tone of voice.

From my research and brand strategy experience, I believe that the campaigns reviewed have the right emotional and motivational ingredients to drive effectiveness as they are showing strong emotional competence. Emotional competence in understanding what people need at that point in time to mirror, aid or overcome emotions such as uncertainty and vulnerability, while the true winners combined this with a positive impact on society.

Cristina de Balanzo is director of Walnut Unlimited.