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Three ways COVID-19 has changed marketing and branding

Professor Jaideep Prabhu and Dr Eden Yin discuss how the events of 2020 have not only changed the world, but also the world of marketing.

A hand uses chalk to write brand, objective, advertising, marketing, identity and product on a blackboard.
Jaideep Prabhu.
Professor Jaideep Prabhu

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has, in a few months, transformed societies and businesses around the world. While we have watched the world change before our eyes, as marketing professors, we have also asked ourselves: how has COVID-19 changed marketing? What considerations must we bear in mind today that were not true in December 2019? Are there decisions we need to make differently today?

Undoubtedly, the fundamentals of what make a good brand remain the same today as they were two years ago. Like the laws of physics, the laws of marketing do not change so easily. Today as before, customers remain paramount. If anything, they are even more important now. We still need to ensure they are aware of our brand or brands, and that they have strong, positive and unique associations with what our brands stand for. Our offerings to them still have to be relevant and differentiated. For most, being relevant and differentiated has got a lot harder; though a lot easier for a lucky few.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated three big changes in how we go about branding or indeed, as is often the case, rebranding.

  1. Many businesses have had to pivot rapidly. As a brand’s customers’ priorities or needs changed during the pandemic and lockdowns, so too businesses have had to change or adjust their value proposition and brand positioning. For instance, near where I live in central Cambridge, I saw our neighbourhood pizzeria pivot overnight from being an in-dining experience to being an agile take away and delivery business.
  2. Changing the value proposition meant changing the associations that people had with the brand. Where before customers may have valued the in-restaurant experience, décor, service etc. they were now concerned with health and safety, hygiene, cleanliness and convenience. The pizzeria had to de-emphasise former associations or translate them into the latter context. And it had to emphasise or bring to the fore the latter associations.
  3. Changing the value proposition, positioning and associations in turn required changing the marketing mix and operations. For instance, the pizzeria moved the kitchen from the back of the restaurant, where it was formerly out of sight, to the front where passing customers could observe operations from the street and even smell the fresh pizza baking. Doing so created associations of hygiene and safety while increasing convenience and ease of doing business.  It also preserved some sense of human connection; you can see people making pizzas, even if you cannot sit inside that restaurant.
Eden Yin.
Dr Eden Yin

The margin between failure and success can be razor thin at the best of times. In the pandemic this has been even more true. Many businesses have gone under because they have failed to properly pivot and reposition and rebrand. The shift from pizza restaurant to pizza delivery business is hard enough, but others have had to reach much further. Many Michelin starred restaurants who build their brand on exclusivity and customer experience have become ingredient-delivery businesses; sending customers part-prepared meals to finish at home, complete with instructional videos. It will be interesting to see if some of these changes last into a post-COVID world.

Those that have been able to make the changes needed have survived. Some have even benefited from the tumultuous changes brought about by the pandemic; as anyone with shares in Zoom will testify. These lessons only help to reinforce the importance of understanding the laws of marketing and branding; however massive the changes around us.