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Communications in Times of Crisis

Cristina Campos, Managing Director, Brand Dialogue Spain reflects on changing communications trends during periods of crisis and uncertainty.

During times of crisis, business communications must react quickly while maintaining its values and positioning. Crises often present an opportunity to target new stakeholders and stand out from competitors without becoming an opportunist. Brand strength is the KPI par excellence to keep track of the impact that communications offers to the brand and the value of the business.

Reputation, visibility, notoriety, and familiarity are just some of the attributes that communications managers naturally measure. What not everyone knows, is that all of them contribute a certain weighting (depending on the brand and the sector) to the brand’s value and, by extension, the company’s value. Brand is a financial asset and adds value to the business.

A brand’s strength provides its negotiating power within its specific sector. We define brand strength according to three pillars:

  • Investment: activities that support the brand’s future strength

  • Equity: current insights from Brand Finance’s market research

  • Performance: brand-related business outcome measures, such as market share

In the case of Spanish brands, certain trends and patterns have emerged across sectors in recent years:

  • Continued investment in brand communications and advertising

  • Agility towards competitors

  • A more “human” way of communicating

  • Digitalisation and omnichannel communications

Bankinter is one such example, as the brand adapted its advertising in the face of COVID-19. Bankinter has always known how to take advantage of its strong brand to create a memorable campaign. The brand has also demonstrated an agility in the face of the pandemic, launching measures to alleviate the impact of the crisis.

Communications trends during periods of uncertainty

The last two years have been difficult for the vast majority of people, governments, and brands. This new landscape of uncertainty means that communications trends born of the health crisis have adapted over time, creating new consumption habits which must be taken into account in future communications strategies.

1. More “human” communications

In the context of technological change spurred by the pandemic, marketing is evolving to build human connections between customers and companies.

Once the pandemic broke out, brands began positioning themselves as allies of solidarity and aid campaigns, specifically to do with recognising the heroes of the pandemic, such as health workers, and offering support for victims. In a context where society is more vulnerable than ever, appealing to human emotions is a key part of brands' communications strategies, where it is integral take care of the tone and style of messaging.

In Spain, Puleva introduced 100% recyclable cardboard packaging, which solidified its positioning as a socially responsible brand in the domestic market. Similarly, television brands Telecinco and Antena paid significantly more attention to health-related ads.

The hotel sector has been significantly impacted by the effects of the pandemic, though slow recovery is currently underway. Subsequently, hotels had to innovate and adapt their services, for example, by offering rooms to frontline healthcare workers and becoming government-imposed quarantine facilities for international travellers.

2. Digitalisation

A clear trend to have emerged from the crisis is the significant development of digitalisation, as consumers changed the way they interact with brands. With most office workers moving to home working over the last two years, there has been a boom in management and storage systems (MyGestión), email providers (Microsoft Office 365), data storage sites (Dropbox), and videoconferencing services (Zoom).

In the case of football – an important sport in Spain – the industry has had to reinvent itself and adapt to the closing of stadiums. Within this context, LaLiga launched a digital campaign to attract fans through esports, thereby allowing the club to maintain high engagement among its fans.

3. Media consumption is reborn

Media brands, particularly those online, have skyrocketed during the pandemic, with an increase of page visits, and significant growth for social networks. Other entertainment channels, such as video games, have also experienced an unstoppable boom. The gamer community has only grown during lockdowns and marks the trend of increased consumption of video games and esports as a new space for brands.

4. Managing reputation online

The extensive use of social networks opened up an enormous opportunity for brands to establish direct communication with key stakeholders, but this relationship also involves numerous risks that could lead to an online communications crisis, seriously affecting reputation.

During periods of lockdown, social media was an excellent way to showcase a brand’s values. However, authenticity is particularly important in this situation, as – if messages are perceived as false or contradictory to a brand’s actions – it could lead to conflict and a serious dent in reputation. In this case, the best strategy is preparation and anticipation, with a solid crisis communications plan and a solid social media strategy.

5. The rise of content marketing

Lockdowns presented an opportunity for brands to offer new content adapted to users' evolved needs, ranging from recipes, to DIY tips, to sports news, and beyond. In this case, brand content becomes especially relevant to connect with consumers, with the brands that know how to offer relevant content able to achieve a higher level of brand loyalty.

Emotions are a key element that connects brands with consumers, which is why branded content is such a successful format, because it bases its strength on stories meaningful to the user. Brands that end up being relevant to consumers are those that connect over shared values.

A clear consequence of COVID-19 has been the new way of seeing the world, with some mistrust, fear, and uncertainty. Subsequently, it is now more necessary than ever for brands to adapt their messaging and enhance their credibility.

Many advertising campaigns have appealed to emotions during the pandemic. IKEA’s "Your house has something to tell you" conveys the importance of valuing our homes when restrictions forced many people around the world to remain indoors. Other notable examples include Amazon’s "Let nothing stop your dreams", and Disney’s "Stories that unite us". In Spain, Campofrío’s "Enjoy in life", Santalucía’s "Distance us to get closer", and Balay’s "More with you than ever" are all examples of impactful advertising campaigns.

6. The importance of staying connected

If one thing became clear during lockdowns, it was the role of technology in uniting and connecting society. The apps and social networks that managed to better capture consumers’ attention by responding to the need to get closer to our loved ones have undoubtedly been Zoom and TikTok. It is no coincidence that TikTok is the fastest growing brand in the Brand Finance Global 500 2022 ranking this year, with an astonishing 215% year-on-year growth.

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have also played a fundamental role in becoming one of the main means of communication and entertainment, while also allowing a large reach for both brands and consumers.

7. Need to demonstrate the value of investment in communications

Undoubtedly, marketing and communications budgets have been adjusted by the uncertainty experienced by many markets, so demonstrating the backlog of investment that has been made in communications will be more important than ever. Communications professionals have an obligation to measure and evaluate our actions and that they are aimed at achieving organisational objectives. At Brand Dialogue, we make it happen by determining the value percentage that communications actions contribute to the value of the brand, an asset that directly influences business value.

8. Importance of internal communications

Internal communications has always been key for brands, both in terms of enhancing employee engagement and employee experience. It has become more important than ever during the period of uncertainty caused by the pandemic, becoming essential in transmitting trust, informing employees about the company’s plans, and keeping staff calm and motivated in the face of the crisis. Achieving a solid internal communications strategy is one of the main challenges in adequately responding to customer demands, as well as creating an optimal work environment that will increase productivity.

9. The reinvention of influencers

Possessing a tone and style that closely resonates with their followers, influencers have increasingly become a source of information for consumers. During the pandemic, an increasing authenticity and truthfulness was highly appreciated by social media users and played an integral role in increasing connectivity.

10. Consistency to maintain reputation

Authenticity is now more important than ever, with consumers becoming increasingly invested in whether a brand’s actions match its communications.

Consistency is a strong foundation on which a brand must be built, as this plays an integral role in generating knowledge, awareness, and security. During the pandemic, opportunities to reach consumers were significantly reduced, making everything – from a brand’s colours to messaging – key in maintaining a high level of recognition from consumers.

Towards communications in a post-COVID era

Social changes caused by the pandemic have created new challenges for brands trying to anticipate and take advantage of new consumer behaviours. In particular, there are a few key areas of experience and lessons that can be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Reputation

Purpose-driven brands are those with a deep sense of understanding of why they exist and who they are best designed to serve. These brands are those that put their target audience at the centre of everything they do and make sure to keep their promises.

People positively perceive the brands that have not only helped their clients during the pandemic, but also society. However, this commitment must be sustained over time to prevent public confidence from dwindling.

The reputation of a brand is built on the fulfilment of promises. Or, to put things differently, customers’ experiences must be in line with the brand’s messaging. This involves a holistic trust strategy that goes beyond customers to include employees and wider stakeholders.

2. Agility

Consumers have moved away from brands which they believe to be serving their own best interests, while in the meantime, have moved towards those that have deepened their connections over the last two years.

Subsequently, businesses have had to be agile and adapt to a new reality, turning to digital strategies capable of meeting customer needs as they evolve. Clients remember the brands that have known how to react quickly to the pandemic, offering new and relevant offers, and adapting to their needs.

Brands are also facing the difficult task of standing out above the noise and capturing the attention and interest of their target audience. Now more than ever, it is integral for brands to communicate, make themselves seen, deliver relevant messages based on their customers' understanding, monitor trends, and deliver their messaging at the right time.

3. Participation

As digitalisation provided ample opportunities for consumers and brands to interact, it is essential for brands to foster an environment where consumers can continue participating in a similar manner. It remains necessary for brands to design a holistic participation plan that designs which points of the consumer’s journey can coincide with the most appropriate participation platform.

During lockdowns, an interesting trend emerged regarding alcohol consumption. The most popular brands saw sales increases while peripheral brands struggled to maintain their market share. This illustrates the importance of brand building.

While many people’s livelihoods remain uncertain, consumers are continuing to look for brands they can trust and are familiar with. Understanding this can help brand managers and marketing and communications managers drive brand communications to recognise this longing for comfort and security.

4. Services

We have witnessed a strategic turn in which brands have created an opportunity for customers to be served by specific products and services which meet their needs more comprehensively. It is therefore necessary for brands to continue innovating, setting themselves apart from their competition, and disrupting the industry by looking for opportunities for growth.

This often means transcending the brand’s own products and services to find new associations that provide new points of view and better meet the needs of customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

El Corte Inglés is an excellent example of a successful omnichannel communications strategy. The brand focused on promoting its Click & Collect service which specifically responded to consumers’ need for home deliveries during the pandemic.

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