Opinion: What U.S. agencies can learn from their Chinese counterparts as they recover from COVID-19
The COVID-19 outbreak in China appears to be stabilizing as the country slowly emerges from months of isolation. After nearly 50 days of quarantine, the Forsman & Bodenfors Shanghai office is surveying the new landscape and evaluating the lessons learned.
It’s an uplifting reminder to brands and marketers that this public health crisis will eventually come to an end. When it does, we’ll find that some industries might bounce back to business as usual. But we suspect that much of the marketing landscape will be transformed as consumers form new relationships with brands and adjust their expectations of advertising.
While it’s not clear how long the U.S. outbreak will last (and there’s no way of knowing whether it will follow the same trajectory as other countries), now is the time for U.S. agencies to react to and apply the insights from our counterparts on the other side of the globe.
Business will pick up again
It took less than one week for our Shanghai team to return to the office after the end of the quarantine in China. And they weren’t the only ones that were able to bounce back. Thanks to the strength of e-commerce, they report that businesses are gradually reemerging. Even brick-and-mortar stores are reopening. There will be some obvious exceptions to this recovery. Certain segments of the market, such as international travel, for example, will see a slower return to normal.
U.S. agencies should expect to be busy as soon as the outbreak subsides. Clients will be eager to get their businesses up and running again. And their customers will hopefully be ready to get back to daily life.
Luxury might see a bump
Although only anecdotal at this point, our Shanghai office has noticed a bump in consumers’ luxury purchases. As the local situation improves, it’s as if consumers have collectively let out a sigh of relief and decided to indulge in the moment with a luxury item, such as a watch or piece of jewelry.
Once this is all over, consumers may want to treat themselves or their loved ones to something special—to celebrate a return to normalcy. This is good news for luxury brands and their agencies in the U.S.
Advertising imagery has to change
While China’s retail market is returning to normal, its advertising is not. This experience has been undeniably traumatic for millions of consumers. With the effects of COVID-19 still playing out on the global stage, heightened awareness of best practices like isolation, social distancing and handwashing remain fresh in the minds of consumers.
Prepare to put all of your new and existing work through the lens of this crisis and make sure advertising reflects the appropriate tone. That means a pivot from social gathering imagery—no more party or crowd scenes. Marketing content will need to highlight smaller, one-on-one interactions. Consumers are going to want to see a focus on emotions and togetherness in advertising, as opposed to an obvious, hard sell.
Some brands will see newfound loyalty
During this global crisis, brands have a unique opportunity to strengthen relationships with their customers. The Chinese brands that were able to be there in the midst of the outbreak, providing products or services that their customers truly needed, are coming out on the other side with a new kind of brand loyalty. This new brand loyalty is not simply based on the repeated use of a product. It’s based on a newfound trust in brands that were a source of consistency and comfort for customers.
The other side of this phenomenon that should serve as a warning for U.S. brands is that those companies that fail to be supportive of their customers at this time could seriously damage any brand loyalty accrued prior to the crisis.
The bottom line
This time can feel understandably bleak for U.S. agencies, but China’s experience should be encouraging. Our Shanghai office’s insights provide a needed reminder to U.S. agencies: Life will go on after COVID-19.
Some areas of the consumer and marketing landscape may return to their pre-crisis state while others will need to adjust. But the important takeaway for all agencies is to remain closely attuned to consumers. Especially as consumer attitudes and needs are evolving on a weekly, if not daily, basis, there has never been a better time for brands and agencies to stay connected to their customer base.