Consumers Crave Leadership and Expertise, and Marketers Need to Adapt

Populism had buyers wary of consumerism, but Covid-19 drove them back to prior preferences

a woman walking through a red door with viruses on the walls and a blue sky and clouds outside
For many buyers, their default comfort stance seems to be wanting a brand that will step up as a leader. akinbostanci/Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Clunie

Up until a few weeks ago, the 2020 election was going to be all about populism and its widespread influence on consumers’ attitudes and behaviors, from the ballot box to the supermarket.

Then, of course, Covid-19 swept across the world.

Before the crisis, it seemed as if the days of ruling from up high were all but over. Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we no longer revered the powerful music label executive, the omnipotent trend-setting fashion editor or the unimpeachable big news network anchor.

Covid-19 suddenly called into question some of the fundamental beliefs underpinning the populist movement that seemed to have taken hold. Namely, the rejection of leadership and expertise, two qualities we now find ourselves in dire need of.

Many brands and agencies have been harnessing the power of the populist movement to shape and build their growth plans—that is, until Covid-19 arrived.

It’s too soon to gauge whether this crisis will end the populism movement that was years in the making. But one thing is clear: The shifting landscape has enormous implications for us all, both personally and professionally.

How populism changed marketing

We’ve heard about populism in the context of politics in the news for years now. Populist rhetoric has surged worldwide. Google searches for populism have also seen a boom, in part due to the rise of social media platforms, which have made it easier for consumers to organize at the grassroots level, accelerating a bottom-up view of social causes and consumerism. This trend has certainly influenced brands and changed the formula for successful marketing with a retreat from the top-down model.

Rihanna, for example, listened to her fan base and saw a need for more inclusive cosmetics. She created Fenty Beauty in 2017, followed by the launch of her intimates line Savage x Fenty. Both brands have been incredibly successful by actively reacting to consumers’ wants and needs, from foundations for hard-to-match skin tones to size-inclusive lingerie.

Many brands and agencies have been harnessing the power of the populist movement to shape and build their growth plans—that is, until Covid-19 arrived.

The shifting role of brands

With anxiety, hardship and uncertainty taking hold across the globe, many people now crave the leadership and expertise they rebuffed only a few months ago. People like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have emerged as gravitational forces in the midst of this crisis, providing valuable information and near daily reassurance to millions.

And brands are also answering the call for clear and decisive leadership.

Ford and 3M partnered to build respirators for healthcare professionals and ventilators for patients. Johnson & Johnson donated medical supplies and $50 million to front-line workers. Companies like Panera, PepsiCo and Visa led “The Great American Takeout,” a campaign to encourage consumers to support the restaurant industry with takeout orders. CVS hired more than 50,000 new employees as Target instituted a temporary $2 per hour wage increase through May 30 for its employees. And several hotel chains are opening their properties to displaced healthcare workers.

Beyond simply reacting to consumer needs and attitudes, brands are taking the lead in spearheading response efforts. Going forward, brands taking a leadership role are more likely to be the expectation than the exception.

The role of agencies in this evolving landscape

With decades of experience in monitoring and reacting to changing consumer attitudes and shifting markets, now is the time for advertising agencies to lean into their expertise when brands inevitably look to them to answer what happens next.

There is no way of knowing yet how long Covid-19 will last and what the final outcome will be on the consumer landscape, but agencies should be listening and watching closely every step. When we ultimately emerge from this crisis, brands will need their agencies to take the lead in assessing how consumers and the marketing environment, in general, has shifted.

Agencies must channel their inner-Fauci and draw on a combination of data, expertise, facts, experience and instincts. Those that do so will be best positioned to gauge and strike the artful balance between reacting to consumers’ needs and behaviors and providing informed leadership and direction to brands post-Covid-19.

We’re talking about charting an entirely new path to navigate an uncertain future, and that can be scary, but we can’t forget the many lessons learned and insights we’ve picked up along the way.

This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@lisakclunie Lisa Clunie is co-founder and CEO of advertising agency Joan Creative.
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