The Marketplace Abhors a Vacuum, Particularly During a Pandemic

A few months ago, Sarah Walker-Hall (a fellow brand planning director) and I were discussing the proliferation of purpose-driven advertising – the good, the bad, and the ugly. After the Nike/Kaepernick needle-scratch moment, REI’s launch into protecting public lands, Gillette’s stand against toxic masculinity, and a Pride Month of myriad cringeworthy examples, this was what two planner types had to discuss. Casually. In the same room. Three feet apart. (Remember that? Being in the same room together…that was swell.)

This gave way to the quintessential, perennial brand planning question: Why? Why would these companies feel the need to shift their role in society so dramatically – taking on injustice, social issues, and even our own government? Why was this necessary? What had changed in our culture that made it so?

In part one of this thought piece, we explored the correlation of America’s eroding trust in our government, academia, and the church. We found declining American trust that our government will do the right thing most or all of the time, the fact that participation in organized religion is at an all-time low despite a slow but steady rise in personal spirituality, and rising belief (despite record-high participation) that higher education is headed in the wrong direction. We posited that these erosions left a void in the role of America’s moral leadership, causing brands to step forward and giving rise to purpose-driven marketing and leadership. Hence the title of our original piece, “The Marketplace Abhors a Vacuum” (1) – just as nature does.

Now, a global pandemic has made landfall in the United States. There is not an industry, category, or person (except maybe the members of isolated tribes) who has not been impacted in some way. As we reflect on the ideas presented in part one, we recall that many data points we reviewed – primarily for trust in government and participation in organized religion – were buoyed (even if only briefly) by moments of national crisis. Immediately after 9/11, for example, trust in government saw a 10-percentage-point bump, one of a few momentary reprieves in what had been a steady 60-year decline. Church attendance also increased for a few months after the tragedy.

While the same longitudinal studies referenced in our original piece have not yet conducted COVID-19 waves, early data from other sources (2) suggests that there may be some truth to the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Some 15 percent of those who said they seldom or never pray, and nearly a quarter of those who said they do not belong to any religion, reported praying during the outbreak. Of course, personal spirituality is not the same as participation in organized religion, but according to Gallup analysts, it may suggest some kind of “religious renaissance.”

On the other hand, public reaction to how our government, particularly our president, is doing in response to the outbreak has been thoroughly researched. As with 9/11, it’s common for presidential approval ratings to spike after a national crisis. This is often called the “rally round the flag” public response. Although President Trump saw a 10-percentage-point climb in approval ratings from March 8 to March 29 (3), it was relatively short-lived.

Unsurprisingly in today’s partisan climate, for as closely as Democrats and Republicans align on their approval ratings of how public health and state and local governments are doing at responding to the outbreak, they are far apart on their approval of how President Trump has responded (4).

Whether or not they approve of the way government is handling the situation, the American people rely on this institution for guidance that is a matter of life or death.

Alas, as discussed in our original article, people are no longer looking to only the traditional institutions for leadership. Though businesses’ stepping up during times of national crisis is well-documented in our history books, consumer expectations are different today. It’s not just an “all hands on deck” call-for-assistance type of expectation. The new (high) bar set for businesses is that they will lead and provide for the country in a way the government can’t or isn’t (even while a business endures its own unexpected financial strain). Consumers are looking to private industry to step in and do what only it uniquely can. People expect solutions.

In fact, Edelman’s global COVID-19 tracking study (5) shows that more than half (55 percent) of people surveyed believe that brands and companies are responding more quickly and efficiently to this crisis than the government. And 62 percent believe that their country will not make it through this crisis without companies playing a critical role.

However, it’s not this crisis that we have to thank for this new expectation. Consumers have been leading industries in this direction for over a decade. The output of this summer’s Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation (6) to serve all its stakeholders – eschewing shareholder primacy and elevating the interests of customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities. Giving way to what is being called stakeholder capitalism, 181 CEOs of America’s most staid corporations signed the statement.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, was a signatory. At the time (August 2019), he was quoted as saying, “Fundamental economic changes and the failure of the U.S. government to provide lasting solutions [have] forced society to look to companies for guidance on social and economic issues, such as environmental safety and gender and racial equality.” In a March 29, 2020, letter (7) to shareholders about BlackRock’s response to COVID-19, Fink describes the role the company is playing “[advising] governments around the globe to help them navigate this difficult period.” He goes on to say, “Work like this – focusing our expertise and capabilities on major public challenges – is our purpose in action.”

Within only a few weeks of our country’s first positive case of COVID-19, we began to see data (8) reflecting advertisers’ same desire to communicate their purpose. Of the advertisers surveyed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the majority (63 percent) said they were adjusting their messaging and increasing mission-based marketing (up 42 percent) and cause-related marketing (up 41 percent). However, brands need to proceed with caution when jumping into purpose communication. It’s easy for consumers to find out if you’re the real deal or not – and 71 percent agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people during this time, they will lose trust in that brand forever (Edelman [5]).

There is no shortage of advice being offered from marketing firms around the globe on how to handle communicating with consumers during this time. My two cents? In the end, it is as it always has been about humanity in action. For this one unprecedented moment, everything is amplified. Needs are amplified. Opportunities are amplified. And yes, missteps will be amplified. Organizations that see a path to helping people, to doing the right thing and not just saying what sounds right, have been given a chance to step up.

This is your chance. Make it count.

1. “The Marketplace Abhors a Vacuum”:
2. “Religion and the COVID-19 Virus in the U.S.”:
3. “Public Approval of President Trump’s Handling of the Coronavirus”:
4. “Polling Shows Signs of Public Trust in Institutions Amid the Pandemic”:
5. “Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic”:
6. “Business Roundtable Redefines the Purpose of a Corporation to Promote ‘An Economy That Serves All Americans’”:
7. “Larry Fink’s Chairman’s Letter to Investors”:
8. “Coronavirus Ad Spend Impact: Buy-side”:

Categories: 1000 ft. POV

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