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In Today’s Retail Landscape, Brand Marketing Must Toe the Line Between Aspiration and Reality

In a world ravaged by a pandemic and still licking the wounds of social unrest that opened earlier this spring, brands and retailers must be more cognizant than ever of the impact of their marketing efforts.

At Footwear News’ Virtual Summit on Wednesday, industry experts spoke to the do’s and don’ts of digital marketing in 2020, and shared lessons they’ve learned during the months of retail lockdown.

According to Aliza Licht, founder and president of brand consulting firm Leave Your Mark, “It’s best practice to stop what you’re doing and reassess” when a crisis occurs.

“When something starts happening on this scale, my first instinct is to pause campaigns,” she said, acknowledging that 2020 has presented an unprecedented minefield, between the coronavirus and widespread cultural upheaval.

“We’ve had two world crises at the same time: COVID and Black Lives Matter,” added Licht, who built Donna Karan’s Twitter following a decade ago. “Both have had immense implications on marketing as a whole.”

Sandrine Charles, who founded her eponymous consulting group in 2015, said she was tempted to continue working normally during the first month of the pandemic. “I was unaware of how long and severe things would be,” she said. “Then, things escalated.”

While many countries across the globe are emerging on the other side of the coronavirus, she added, brands “still need to tread lightly on communications.” These are troubling times, and brands must strike a delicate balance between promoting their goods and offering support.

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“You’re sending a message to your staff and your potential customers on what your standpoint is in this moment and what it will be after this passes,” she said. Returning to the status quo too soon—or ever—could alienate consumers and prompt backlash.

“Brands have to sell, but there’s a way to do it that’s mindful of the time we’re in,” agreed Licht.

She also urged companies to be mindful of jumping on the bandwagon—or making promises they can’t keep. When it comes to supporting people of color, for example, it became en vogue for brands to express their support and pledge money and action over platforms like Instagram.

“It will be interesting to see the brands that stick to their words over the next six months,” she said.

Brands looking to do better should start internally, she added. “Thinking about the consumer often starts with thinking about your employees,” she said. It’s important that companies practice what they preach within their organizations, she said. Those that don’t could face a public dragging that could permanently alter consumer perceptions.

Charles added that brands must do their due diligence to remain informed of the issues impacting the cultural landscape.

“You want to be on the right side of history, and there are so many different consumers to acknowledge,” she said. African Americans and Asian Americans have faced discrimination, she said—the latter group due to problematic associations with the spread of the coronavirus. While brands aren’t necessarily the leaders of cultural discourse, it’s important that they understand the challenges facing all shoppers, and lend support where they can.

With such a fast-moving news cycle, she added, “we pivot, and then forget” about the issues as soon as they’re replaced by the next topic of conversation. “We have to stay aware of what’s going on, and the pulse of our nation and its culture.”

When it comes to tactics, Licht said brands need to move on from generic “we’re all in this together” messaging. “I can’t unsubscribe fast enough,” she said of seeing emails land in her inbox with this type of vague, hackneyed rhetoric.

Instead, brands need to give consumers a reason to open their correspondence. “Useful content displays empathy and puts the consumer first,” she said. Exercise equipment brand Peloton, for example, is offering their workout classes for free even if consumers don’t own one of their stationary bikes, she noted.

Eyewear upstart Warby Parker pulled back on fashion marketing, pivoting instead to outreach that focuses on shoppers who require eyewear as an essential, physical need, she said. The countless brands that have joined in the creation of PPE have also answered the call to do what’s right and necessary for their consumers.

And while Licht believes most brands have made an admirable—if not seamless—transition away from tone-deaf content, they must continue to walk a fine line between aspirational and realistic, she warned. Posting glamorous influencer vacation photos of far-flung locales during a pandemic is mostly a no-go for brands, she said.

“Not everyone has those luxuries, so boasting on social is never a good look,” she said. “But we have to dream.”

“We want to stay creative and still thrive,” she added, “and it’s important to keep that alive.”