By Paul Archer, founder and managing director of brand advocacy platform, Duel
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated businesses, big and small, across the board. And while marketers largely started the year from a place of strength with bigger budgets and confident growth strategies, 2020 has caught even the most seasoned of marketing pros, off guard.
As a result of the pandemic, advertising budgets have been slashed, sales have effectively fallen off a cliff and the fight for brand loyalty has only become more competitive. Some of the world’s biggest and best-known brands have been forced to realise that they had no community of loyal fans to fall back on because they had been relying on short-term advertising strategies to drive sales. This has resulted in the collapse (or near collapse) of big businesses. Just look at household names like Debenhams and Arcadia, as well as the many overfunded ‘hot’ VC backed startups that relied exclusively on paid acquisition to grow.
It’s safe to say marketing strategies are looking very different as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. It has forced brands to get creative, to think differently, and to focus their efforts on building a community of loyal fans who can drive organic word-of-mouth growth. But the interesting thing to note here is that the pandemic did not create this shift, it has only accelerated it.
So what does the future of marketing look like as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis?
Less advertising, more brand building
For online brands, digital advertising and performance marketing have dominated marketing strategies worldwide. And that’s largely because campaigns can be segmented, optimised and measured, making them easy to justify in budgets. But as advertising spend dropped dramatically at the beginning of the lockdown, it exposed some fundamental flaws in the system. Competition has been on the rise for clicks and impressions. Early D2C brands had both the know-how and the technological advantage to take advantage of digital advertising, but now they have countless copycats and the offline incumbents have aggressively moved online leading to skyrocketing customer acquisition costs and diminishing returns.
Today’s millennial and Gen Z consumers are also much more sceptical than their predecessors and are losing trust in many standard marketing practices including paid advertising and influencer promotions. Instead, today’s consumers are looking for more meaning and purpose from the brands they buy from – something that has only been accelerated by the global economic, social and health crisis that has stemmed from the pandemic.
Now more than ever, trust and authenticity have overtaken the need for low prices and convenience. This means long-term brand and reputation building has become more important than expensive advertising strategies when it comes to driving authentic word-of-mouth growth.
Investment in Brand Advocacy
With reduced budgets and a need to build a loyal network of fans, the Covid-19 crisis has certainly accelerated the rise of Brand Advocacy.
Brand Advocacy is essentially any behaviour that involves a customer supporting or recommending a brand they love. While brand advocates have always existed under different guises – superfans, ambassadors, enthusiasts, evangelists and so on – the concept of developing a strategy that nurtures relationships with every advocate at scale and celebrates their advocacy in order to drive company growth is a new one. And it will be those companies who can really get this right that will succeed in the long term.
Just look at some of today’s most successful brands that have grown entirely through brand advocacy. Lululemon is a great example of this. The billion-dollar global athletic apparel company was built exclusively on brand advocacy principles – its customers believe in the company’s vision, share in its purpose and are very quick to share stories, convince their friends and family to buy their products and argue in defence of the brand when required. Lululemon did this with zero advertising budget, instead trusting its customers and wider network of advocates to drive growth for them. And it has been able to successfully navigate the Covid-19 crisis as a result. In fact, the company has just released its 2020 Q3 results, achieving a 22 percent increase in total revenue over the same time last year.
Many other brands we work with have followed suit, adapting to this shift in consumer behaviour and finding ways to encourage customers to engage in the practice of brand advocacy in spite of the Covid-19 crisis. Minimeis, for example, which produces children’s carriers, adapted its messaging to promote its product for indoor use during the pandemic. While not overtly promoting or pushing the sale of its products, they have been flying off the shelf regardless. Children’s clothing company, Frugi, shared tips and tricks for keeping kids engaged during the pandemic via its loyal and vast Facebook group through its customer advocacy program and it has correspondingly seen sales grow this year. And lastly, Dynamic Discs’ expanding fan base has been passionately promoting the sport to friends and family as a way of getting outside and staying active and the brand has been growing rapidly as a result.
As you can see, brands that have been able to successfully navigate the Covid-19 crisis (and even thrive through it) are the ones who have not relied on short term marketing practices requiring big budgets, but instead focused on growing and nurturing a community of advocates who represent, promote and shout about them. This has enabled such brands to continue to grow through word-of-mouth marketing, whether their marketing budgets have been slashed or not.
The application of brand advocacy will be absolutely fundamental to a company’s growth and success in the long term and it will be those brands that are able to do it effectively that will become the most successful brands of the next decade.