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October 2020

Marketing communications in the real world

With constrained budgets, a complex offer, an array of channels to choose from and five generations to communicate with, marcomms has never been more challenging. And that was before Covid. Now, such challenges are magnified tenfold, and the decisions facing marketing and comms teams are even more perplexing. So, in such an environment, how do you get more for less?


How do you make complex messages simple and engaging?How do you make the most of out the reduced channels available and create cut through? Can you make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and make it land with everyone? And actually, which messages can land when everyone is in ‘survival mode’?

Here we look at marketing communications in the real world from six different perspectives, giving our thoughts on how to make the best out of what you’ve got and how to get it right.

1. Dig down the back of the sofa

We don’t mean loose change or a sticky Werther’s Original, but take a look down the back of your metaphorical marketing sofa and you’ll find there’s more there than you thought. We see all too often that companies don’t make the most of what they already have and are too quick to create something new.

Get more mileage from existing content by reusing and wrapping it in new ways, always keeping in mind what the campaign hook should be. If you publish long reports, take another look and see if they could be reworked into a series of shorter communications online and offline. You can still link back to the longer report as well, so the reader can easily take another look if they wish. Shorter white papers can be made even shorter and punchier – think 5-minute reads – so they’re more engaging as bitesize pieces that can appeal to a broader audience. Even films can be rewrapped. Could you group existing film into themes, perhaps around events in your business calendar (while you’re at it, view invitations to these events as opportunities for brief thought leadership pieces as part of the invite)? Or split films up with simple intros and outros to get several smaller ones?

Don’t assume this needs to break the bank. We’ve worked closely with clients’ in-house creative teams, coming up with initial ideas and then working in partnership with them to give maximum bang for their buck. It works, it ensures a campaign that’s as strategic as it is creative, it saves our clients’ money, and we all enjoy the collaboration. Everyone’s a winner!

2. You can run but you can’t hide

having a clear purpose will ensure you can translate words into actions

In the current crisis, we’ve all seen examples where companies have been exposed for their behaviour – good and bad. When the going gets tough, what do you stand for? This is about making sure what you say sounds credible, that you articulate what it means in the context of your organisation and that what you do matches what you say.

Say something – saying nothing can be as damaging as saying the wrong thing. Brands doing this well are those that have a strong sense of self and a good track record of speaking out (and taking action), even before the crisis. Aside from COVID, a major issue that has dominated the last few months has been Black Lives Matter. It feels like a turning point and many companies have come out in support. At the same time, some have been accused of virtue signalling, and those who’ve come out best recognise it’s not just about words but about actions and have a clearly articulated commitment. What are we doing now – and what have we already been doing – that shows our stance is real? Black Lives Matter is a great example as there are many brands supporting the movement whose employee make-up is notably lacking people of colour. But the principles ring true for any campaign, whether it’s social issues such as gender inequality and poverty, or more commercially-focused issues such as support for SMEs during the pandemic.

Having a clear purpose will ensure you can translate words into actions – find what you truly believe in and this will ensure your stance is authentic and more than just gestures.

having a clear purpose will ensure you can translate words into actions

3. Making the most of it without capitalising on it

We’re experiencing something bigger than all of us, that’s out of our control. ‘We’re in it together’ and contributing to the greater good but in commercial terms, for many businesses, it’s about survival. How do you leverage the situation to keep your business moving, without being seen as mercenary?

We’ve seen both sides. The slew of unsolicited emails that feel wholly inappropriate. There was the company selling data under the guise of Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’ – even after reading the email we couldn’t make the connection. Others are keen to offer support, which is great, but this can be taken too far. We’ve seen websites which are wall-to-wall COVID – how they can help if you engage them, the challenges you might be experiencing as a business, and so on. The sentiment is right, but it can’t help but feel mercenary and, frankly, depressing.

There’s a happy medium. Keep messaging upbeat, like the professional services firm recommending their five priorities to help reopen and / or reinvent your business. It’s positive, the advice is free and  practical, and it’s not overwhelming. Others have used digital to engage audiences – virtual tours through closed leisure attractions, for instance. And finally, there are lovely examples of companies tweaking their brand temporarily to convey messages for the greater good – the reversal of the NHS logo (SHN = Stay Home Now), or the global fast food chain separating its famous arches to highlight the importance of social distancing. It shows that it’s often the subtle and thought-through things, rather than the knee-jerk deluge, that wins the engagement.

4. When you can’t be in the room, be in the room

Any communication is a substitute for someone being in the room and talking your audience through the message. Given this isn’t an option now, how do you bring that human interaction to your communications so your audience doesn’t feel so far away?

The BBC has always had fun with idents and they’ve created user-generated versions – sports celebrities training at home and people meeting virtually for cups of tea. This taps into the current ‘stay home’ message and shows that none of us are immune to lockdown’s challenges. A high street bank has produced a montage of employees answering various customer questions virtually, addressing us in the home-working vernacular, with topics relevant for thousands, if not millions, right now. We’ve been doing something similar at Frank, Bright & Abel, producing our ‘Frank Thoughts in Challenging Times’ where we speak for a minute on something that has struck us in the current times, just using the camera on our laptops (and no editing!). Podcasts done well can be really engaging too. Consider Q&A with an expert in your sector. It doesn’t have to be COVID-related – perhaps better if it isn’t – but it’s talking your audience through your ideas and bringing them closer.

Authentic, relatable content and compelling delivery is really quite powerful. Don’t worry about polishing – this is about one take. If home video isn’t quite your thing, we’ve seen ingenious work-arounds from video partners – guided user-generated content. You get a kit with instructions, you shoot your video (or provide still photography), send it via Wi-Fi and they edit it, so you’re left with a professional-level film for a fraction of the price. Clever and value for money – we like it!

5. Keep it real

user generated content can do more for your brand than professional photography

We’ve talked about film, but what if you only have still photography and making videos isn’t an option? Don’t panic! You can still deliver a really compelling message. Creating photography safely has been a big issue for photographers during the pandemic, and guidelines have been produced make it possible. Photographers are finding  ways to do shoots remotely. The Association of Photographers has created an online image library where photographers donate old images not currently in use so businesses can still access professional imagery. One photographer we work with has set up a mobile studio. He can go to clients, you can come in whilst distancing and it has enabled him to create brilliant – and safe – work.

Companies have used user-generated photography to advertise products. A home furniture brand created a social media campaign where users uploaded their pictures of the products in their homes. The result is authentic, real-life images, showing products actually being used for the purpose they’re intended. It cost little and has been a success. This isn’t just a lockdown solution – an ubiquitous tech company did the same when launching their latest phone which boasted their best camera yet – users were encouraged to take photos and upload the images. The results spoke for themselves on the quality of the camera and its ease of use. So, as with film, user generated content can do more for your brand than professional photography. Having a mix is often necessary, but the current situation shows there are clever ways to create and use content that needn’t cost much or stray too far from home.

user generated content can do more for your brand than professional photography

6. Be human and digital

We’ve talked about how we’re craving human interaction at the moment, and how that human side can come across in communications. What about digital? Our communications at the moment must, by necessity, be pretty much entirely digital, but how can digital bring the physical contact we all need?

Going digital doesn’t mean losing the humanity. By making a virtue out of digital we can create a more human experience. Your digital brochure – think about how people interact with it, zooming in and out, embedding links they can press on their touchscreens, and so on. Remember to optimise for smartphones, as that’s where many people consume their information. In graduate recruitment, a handful of companies have produced virtual careers fairs, uploading videos of employees answering the FAQs they get asked. It’s not quite the same, but it’s engaging in the absence of the real thing.

Social media is another way to let humanity shine through – this is something told clients long before COVID! We’ve seen great examples of companies handing over the reins to their employees, letting them create videos for IGTV or using Instagram Stories to deliver timely information. Snapchat can been used to good effect for the right content too. One brand has used it to deliver brief snippets about their ongoing community work, posting short videos and imagery that show the human side of their social impact work. The transient nature of Snapchat is an advantage here – rather than coming across as sanctimonious the work comes across as real and true, since the posts are very much of the moment.

To sum up, marcomms in the real world has become more challenging than ever. Yet there are simple ways to navigate the issues the current situation has thrust on us. ‘We’re all in it together’ really does ring true – you don’t need to apologise for user-generated content or less than perfect films or digital communications. We all get it. Make the most of what you have, stand up for what you believe, find practical ways to lend your support, keep film and photography authentic, and when thinking about digital think human. Remember these, and you’ll emerge on the other side with more engaged audiences and a stronger sense of self.


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