The coronavirus pandemic has never offered certainty. Nonetheless, only a few weeks ago, many marketers and consultants found a sensible, step-by-step path forward for reopening the economy in McKinsey’s Path to Recovery model. It seemed to offer a clear-headed process to reassure and guide consumers through a return to normalcy.
According to the model, we were slowly moving through the stages of Resolve, Resilience, Re-Imagination, and Reform. Marketers could use these behavioral signposts to develop nimble, long-term strategies that could allow their brands and companies to emerge from the consequences of the pandemic, and meet the needs of a changed consumer in the process. But, just as we started to get a taste of a “return to normal”—and just as we dared to imagine a future we could securely predict—tragedy struck.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans at the hands of police around the country, and the explosion of public demonstrations in response, exposed systemic failings across public and private sectors and completely disintegrated any anticipation—or desire—for a “return to normal.” Instead, these events uncovered the racist structures that underpin many, if not most, of our institutions—and which have overwhelmingly affected the experiences of Black people in this country.
But instead of committing themselves to authentic changes—and addressing the inequities present in the products, services, and experiences they control—many brands chose to stick to empty messages of solidarity. Throughout the past few weeks, marketers across industries struggled in their responses.
Many did not deliver a clear and decisive message to an audience that is at their wit’s end, already semantically satiated by the so-called “in it together” ads of the pandemic. On social media, the negative feedback to a wave of “supportive” brand messages was unrelenting. Many top brands were mocked for their identical boilerplate brand messages and PR-speak.
Now, it looks as if the “Path to Recovery” has derailed and reset to stage one: Resolve. How can marketers authentically demonstrate the resolve and commitment necessary to meet consumers today? They need to work on a greater understanding of racial and social inequities, and understand that now, in the light of many marketing failures in response to COVID-19, they have a second—and maybe final—chance to get things right.
Brands need to be more decisive in their messaging, and look within to decipher what role they play in systemic social inequities. Unless their messages are accompanied by actual institutional change from within—and a sincere commitment of resources for the causes they claim to support—brands could do irreparable damage to consumer trust, and contribute to the uncertainty and mixed messages that have made these times so confusing and difficult for everyone.