Brand Communications in the new normal

Brand communications in the digital age have always been a source of insight and inspiration for consumers and marketers alike. The objective of every brand today is to build a relationship with the consumer that both enables equal participation in discussions around the brand and what it speaks about, and encourages engagement on topical matters. Given the quantum of conversations in the media and on the web, brands constantly attempt to break the clutter with humour, excitement, thrill and adventure infused in their interactions with the consumer – be it a billboard or a tweet. Some of this good-natured repartee, sobered up when it the world was faced with a pandemic of proportions this generation had never encountered before.
After the early days of great uncertainty and looking for solutions to just stay afloat, brands have been compelled to redesign their communication strategies, both for internal and external stakeholders. In this time of global crisis, consumers started looking up to brands for more than just amusement – they were now looking for reliable information, reassurance, and an empathetic voice. Brands, at their end, have been in a constant cycle of anticipating these rapidly evolving consumer and employee demands, and keeping up with them through customised services as well as communications.
One post-COVID example of transparent and empathetic communication came from Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, in early May. Like most other hospitality brands, lay-offs were inevitable at Airbnb during the pandemic too, and it had to think on its feet to modify the tone and nature of its otherwise light-hearted and aesthetic communication, that would now go out to employees and consumers. The now-famous open letter by Chesky addressed the lay-offs extremely personally and authentically, and sympathised with those being let-go, without being patronising. Despite cutting close to 25% of its employee strength, Airbnb and its CEO, were both commended for this move.
The Hyatt Hotels CEO, Mark Hoplamazian, displayed another great example of leading and communicating with empathy amidst lay-offs at the hotel chain. Hoplamazian made sure to be involved during the entire process, and oversaw the setup of a new platform where he could continue to stay in touch with those who were no longer with the company, and give them a community for interaction and support.
As evidenced by Airbnb and Hyatt Hotels, for a brand to sound humane and empathetic, it’s important that leaders occasionally step into the spotlight to lend a personal voice to the company narrative. This not only helps amplify their messaging within target consumer circles, but also lends further credibility to their initiatives and demonstrates a strong personal commitment towards their business and audience. Leveraging the reach and influence of social media influencers is another great way to personify what your brand stands for – in a way that strikes a personal chord and is more intimate for consumers than mass TVCs. In a situation as dynamic as this – being able to adapt your tone to suit your consumer’s changing requirements will be key in retaining them in the long run.
Another marker of adaptability will be the move to digital platforms. While most brands have already gone digital with their communications sometime in the past decade, some have stuck to a traditional approach for far too long. With most people choosing to stay indoors, circulation of print publications having dropped, traditionalists moving their mode of consumer service and communications to digital platforms is a transition to watch out for during this time. Given this switch in preferred platforms of communication – it also merits advancing the methods of tracking how the consumer responds to your brand, and the trajectory of your brand reputation. When you go digital to reach your consumer better, you give the consumer just enough access to reach you as well – you and the thousands of other people following your digital properties. This time is critical for brands to beef up their ORM abilities to keep a close eye on all the online chatter around the brand. While it helps improving business presence online, it mainly helps safeguard what your current and potential customers will see and read about you online.
Having said that, growing internet access, increased dependability on phones for information and over 375 million internet users in India, using this medium to reach audiences is a no-brainer. With customers looking for additional guidance, support, and customised services at this time, it is imperative to meet them where they are, when they want it.
For example, earlier this year in March, Volkswagen India decided to do their first ever digital-only launch for the T-Roc SUV in the country. In a similar vein, Sony Pictures Sports Network launched its first digital micro-property – ‘Sony Ten Pit Stop’. With no way of being able to both organise and watch any sporting events at the time, the network launched this Facebook LIVE chat back in April.
This decisive time for companies pushed many of them to rethink their communication strategies through a layer of healthcare and safety for all involved, and Empathy-Engage-Educate became the mantra for VFS Global’s communication approach as well.
Undoubtedly, in these trying times, establishing and maintaining a strong rapport with customers will be paramount. This is an opportunity for brands to remodel their communication strategies to make it more empathetic and less transactional.
The essence of it all is to continue engaging with your audience consistently and meaningfully, and never going dark on them – even, and especially, during the tough times. If anything, this year has taught brands that their consumers respond to an honest and well-delivered piece of bad news more positively than empty platitudes of positivity.
While the road to recovery has been difficult, with still a long way to go, it’s imperative for brands to listen to what the customer wants diligently, and have dynamic and adaptable plans in place, given the pace at which the landscape is currently evolving. Living through these Darwinist times will only ensure that the ones that come out the other end, are the best in the business.

Sukanya Chakraborty
Global Head – Corporate Communications & CSR
VFS Global