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Does Marketing Matter?

I keep think about this recent headline—“Peleton hits breaks on marketing as at-home fitness sells itself”—from MarketingDive. A friend once told me that sometimes it’s important to stop and question your most basic assumptions, to interrogate your foundations a little just to see what surprises you might find. So, with a global pandemic still spreading and confusion abounding, now seems like a good time to examine the fundamentals.

I’ve actually written about Peleton before. And I can see the logic in their choice, given the circumstances, to put a hold on campaigning in their two biggest markets. But I’m not actually overly preoccupied with Peleton. Since Covid-19 hit, I’m thinking bigger. I’m thinking hard about what it is I do—and why I do it.

Here are some things that I’m seeing Covid-19 change about marketing, and that I’m paying more attention to these days.

Covid-19’s Impact

An unexpected intimacy. Under quarantine, people are actually talking more than ever. They’re sharing information within their social networks, often information about the virus. They’re sharing ways to mitigate the isolation and boredom they feel, as well as resources and life hacks to help stay sane and safe while confined indoors. Whether or not social distancing regulations are relaxed, concern over the virus will cause many people to continue to remain home, shopping and socializing online much more frequently.

I’ve noticed this change in my own personal and work life. We’re all more willing to get together for remote meetups, casual conversations or remote dinners that reinforce social bonds. As a result, brands and businesses are (or should be) rethinking their strategies. As it turns out, just because we’re not physically in each other’s presence these days doesn’t mean something like word-of-mouth marketing is no longer relevant. WOMM was never confined solely to face-to-face. It was always asynchronous, not always in person. Asynchronous communication can be conversations over the phone, or Zoom or FaceTime or text—anything allows people to exchange ideas. And more conversations are happening electronically, so people are talking just as much as they used to, just differently.

All-star team ups. Brands and institutions are banding together in new ways to help with the crisis. For the public-private Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, it’s the CDC Foundation and Microsoft, as well as many others. In other parts of the world, business competitors are teaming up, disparate international health groups are organizing together, and rival universities are having constructive remote town halls.

Call me idealistic, but going forward I can see an economy that’s less competitive and far more collaborative. I don’t mean that competition is going to vanish, I mean that brands are realizing the benefits—socially and economically—of working together to solve public issues. This could be a new twist on marketing: finding more comprehensive ways to work together for the common good rather than constantly competing with each for market share.

Beyond authenticity. Authenticity now seems almost quaint—what people actually want now is honesty, transparency, radical compassion. In truth, the marketing discussion surrounding authenticity always seemed to me to be a little trite and try-hard. After all, everyone knows when a brand is trying to sell products, a patina of authenticity isn’t going to change much even if it’s convincing. Plus, just plain-old selling your wares is fine—no one ever said it wasn’t.

I think where brands lose people is when they ignore reality in blind pursuit of the bottom line. Recently, I got a letter from a phone company with a message on the envelope that read “Important Covid-19 Information.” I knew it was a direct mail piece but I figured that there really was important information inside—but there wasn’t. It was a sales piece trying to get me to buy higher speed internet. The only Covid-19 info inside was the usual trite stuff: “In this difficult time, we hope you and your family … etc.” I felt had.

Profits are, of course, important. But I think this crisis is revealing for everyone where the line is between economically rational decision making and the need for heart and soul. Brands that can make this switch instinctively and naturally have an edge.

Finding your core. Purpose has always been at the core of strong branding. But now we see brands who lagged behind finally coming to terms with this and being forced to spend the time to really discover who and what they are, what they stand for—or face destruction. It’s clear to us all by now that those without a real purpose quickly faded away in the economic turmoil. With the stakes so high right now, turning inward to find a way to articulate what your brand really stands for is more important than ever.

Mother Necessity. The demand for innovation in this moment has caused legacy brands to try some extremely interesting new things. Brewers and beer companies are making hand sanitizer. Brands are trying crazy things—and thats good! With the market so unpredictable lately, this seems almost counterintuitive. But in the end, being creative and trying new things to solve tough problems is the only way we discover new tools. I always think of Alexander Fleming accidentally discovering penicillin while actually trying to do something else in his lab. If he hadn’t been there, trying stuff, we wouldn’t have antibiotics. You can never know what good will emerge from experimentation in a time of crisis.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, things like market volatility and strategic brand choices just don’t matter as much as people matter. That, really, is my conclusion. That is why I do this, I think. Because branding isn’t just about appearing authentic, or diving onto the latest technology to get an edge, or selling more products than the other guy—it’s about bringing people and brands together for the common good. It’s about using messaging ingenuity to solve problems.

So, sure, Peleton might find they don’t have a need for marketing right now, since their machines are flying off the shelves. But what they might think about instead, though, is the very different world they might be inheriting once the smoke clears and things settle down. They may realize that marketing matters more than they thought.

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