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How to tell stories in your marketing during adversity

2020 was a tough year not just for businesses, but for everyone around the world. COVID-19 was an unprecedented global disaster that locked down countries, threatened public safety, and created a heightened demand and awareness for hygiene. It brought a lot of uncertainty and fear and people stopped enjoying stories the way they used to as more narratives of loss and grief flooded news sites, social media and even their personal lives.

Many brands were criticised for trying to ignore or make light of the pandemic when they failed to read the room and offended consumers. People were no longer satisfied with businesses simply talking about themselves and what they could offer, but how they could be a part of positive change in light of the pandemic. Customers expected action and support and turned their backs on brands that didn’t offer these. Times were (and, in some parts of the world, still are) dire and very few people had little appetite to listen to a catchy new jingle when they were anticipating the worst.

But this doesn’t mean that businesses should stop telling stories in a crisis. In fact, a lot of consumers are looking towards them not just to tell stories but to make significant changes and contribute to alleviating the difficulties brought about by current global events and issues. There just needs to be a drastic change in approach, one that’s mindful and sensitive to the plights of others, in order to market your business successfully. 

By being more attentive to the difficulties the world (and more specifically, your customers) is facing, you can still tell a powerful story about your brand while lending a helping hand. 

What makes storytelling different in difficult times?

While under crisis, marketing a business can be tricky. People are more cognisant of the state of the world and are more likely to closely scrutinise your business and its message. What you choose to say is just as important as what you choose to stay silent on, and audiences are paying close attention.

Silence can be just as shackling as supporting oppressive, dangerous, and irresponsible behaviour. Romanian-American writer and activist, Elie Wiesel, said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Brands that ultimately take no sides, no matter how “unrelated” they are to the crises, are seen by audiences as cowardly and unwilling to take action, making them untrustworthy. 

In a statement made by Lush Australia when the Black Lives Matter movement was expanding globally from the United States, they stated that “staying silent is not an option.” After acknowledging what racism looked like in Australia and the country’s long-standing systemic biases against indigenous Australians, they expressed solidarity with organisations that looked to dismantle white supremacy and continued to work with them to raise awareness and funds. 

Aside from calling out disruptive and unethical structures and actions, there’s also a necessity to abstain from capitalising on difficult times by continuing to sell your product without any care for consumers. In a survey conducted during the height of COVID-19, 71% of the respondents said that brands that put their profit above helping people would permanently lose their trust. Brands that did end up doing this looked greedy, tone-deaf, and insincere.

Brands can be trustworthy during troubling times by making genuine efforts to better the situation, take care of their people, and take a stand when necessary. 

Brands that survived adversity

Businesses don’t exist in a vacuum. No matter how unaffected your business is when it comes to adversity, the people looking to purchase from you may be someone struggling to get by. Telling powerful stories to a troubled audience is not impossible, but it has to be done with a great deal of sensitivity and compassion for everyone involved, and with context front of mind.

During the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008, Family Fresh, a fruit-packing business, found itself in trouble after making a huge investment in a fruit processing facility. As soon as the GFC hit, supply orders were no longer coming in. 

Instead of giving up, however, the couple behind the company looked into gaps in the market that they could fill and found that people were looking for dairy-free cheeses. They responded to this need and began production and have grown their business tenfold

In 2020, during the pandemic, Bolt Bikes and Order Up! banded together to create an online ordering system that allowed Australian restaurants and cafes to sell through their platform and connect delivery drivers to transport the food. Order Up! allowed brands to use their service to take online orders, handle payment, and coordinate delivery. Bolt Bikes, a mobility start-up, provided these restaurants’ current teams with jobs as riders to help out totally commission-free. By making everything free to use, they gained a lot of praise online for lending a hand in a time of need. They earned the trust and commendation of customers.

3 things to keep in mind when telling stories in troubling times

It can be difficult to find the balance in terms of content when the world is going through multiple crises at a time. So by employing these three things, you can better navigate your brand’s storytelling in times of adversity. 

1. Be extra sensitive

It doesn’t hurt to exercise a little more caution with how you market your brand. It goes without saying that with troubling times, people grow troubled as well. And trying to make light of a difficult situation, no matter how witty, can definitely set people off—even if that wasn’t your intent. 

Mosaic Brands, parent company to Rockmans, Katies, Millers, Noni B, Autograph, and Crossroads, came under fire for their marketing statements that encouraged panic buying during COVID-19. They were accused of “exploiting anxiety” over the global pandemic and took to tactics that were less than palatable, pushing their consumers to “stock up before it’s too late!” Dr. Callaghan, marketing and management lecturer and researcher at Deakin Business School, said, “Consumers tend to have long memories… bad behaviour won’t simply be forgotten.”

Practicing empathy is a necessity—even in regular circumstances. But it’s especially necessary during crisis situations when people are going through economic, personal, or even emotional turmoil. 

2. Don’t resort to virtue signaling

Actions speak infinitely louder than words, or so the saying goes. You said that your brand stands for something is one thing, but putting it into action is another. Decrying human rights abuses while refusing to change policies that infringe on human rights within your company is just empty virtue signaling, a way of looking like you’re responding with relevant messages but still not taking the necessary steps to change from within. 

During the bush fires in 2020, Coca-Cola Amatil was criticised online when they announced that they would send 250,000 water bottles to those fighting the fires. Social media users were quick to point out that their intentions weighed heavily on advertising their product and making a performative show of compassion more than helping out.

Many brands and social media giants turned to sanctimonious grandstanding just to seem like they were on the moral high ground when it came to the Black Lives Matter movement. People took to social media to point out that, if these brands really wanted to decry systemic racism, they should first look into their own corporate structures and pinpoint where they’ve failed people of colour. In short, they demanded that companies practice what they preached. 

3. Reassure your customers

Loyal customers will need reassurance from your brand, especially when they’re unsure if you’re still operating. Being visible, being aware, and being considerate can definitely ease their worry and let them know you care about them and their well-being. 

By reaching out to them via email or connecting with them through social media, you can sincerely show you’re proactive and want to know how they’re doing. Feeling seen and heard, particularly during difficult times, can bring comfort and relief. With so much uncertainty in the world, your brand shouldn’t contribute to it. 

Give your customers the avenue to reach out if necessary. By optimising accessibility to your brand, you can become a channel for concerns and pinpoint the best ways to help people who need assistance. 

Telling compelling, positive stories about your brand is still possible, even amidst adversity. It just has to be crafted with caution, great care for context, and a genuine desire for justice, safety, and heightened responsibility. Powerful stories are responsive and thought-provoking, they challenge their audience to rethink their own narratives and draw a connection between themselves and the story being told. If you can tell an influential story during difficult times and inspire others to empathise and help others, you’re on the right track.

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