Marketers Should Listen Carefully
By Audra Nebolini, an Associate Creative Director in the New York office of brand strategy and design consultancy CBX. She has worked with a Who’s Who of top brands on identity, strategy, packaging, innovation, environment, retail and activation.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my initial response to sheltering in place involved losing myself in the mayhem and madness of “Tiger King” and a daily deep dive into TikTok videos. Can you blame me?
But as New York has once again become the epicenter of immense human suffering — first 9/11, then Hurricane Sandy and now Covid-19 — I’ve been compelled to connect more deeply to the city I call home.
Storytelling is a big part of my job — I’m an associate creative director at a New York-based brand agency — and so I have also connected more deeply with the city through the gritty and eminently real stories emerging from this crisis.
One immediate way to do that: Stand on your balcony at shift change and cheer for the healthcare workers as they walk out of the hospital in their masks and scrubs. It’s a ritual that New Yorkers have repeated nightly for the past several weeks. But there are other stories emerging that are less immediate and equally as moving.
Start with the daily press briefings of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a national hero virtually overnight by delivering hard facts with a major side of heart. Somehow, even Cuomo’s PowerPoint slides convey a sense of authenticity. No smooth graphics here or even aesthetically pleasing typography—only the blunt words of a man who is unafraid to speak frankly about the worries that keep him up at night, like the rest of us.
In much the same way, Convicts has outdone itself with videos such as “NY Tough” and “It’s Good in Here.” Known for its arresting use of photography, Convicts has always focused on real people’s authentic stories, everyone from director Georgia Krause to surfer Kelly Slater. But its creative response to the crisis highlights what I find so compelling about everyday New Yorkers: the relentless hustle, day in and day out, to make the lives they’ve envisioned a reality, without any compunction about being exactly who they are. A voiceover by Cuomo captures this and conveys the toughness and grace of the entire city. “New York loves everyone,” Cuomo says. “It always has, always will. That’s why I love New York.”
And finally, in recent weeks The New York Times has continued to deepen my sense of connection to fellow New Yorkers, despite our physical separation. Yes, I’ve been moved and inspired by The Times’ stellar storytelling: Its reporters and columnists have profiled first responders, taught us how to bake bread, regaled us with rooftop romances and more. However, as a designer, I’ve also deeply appreciated how The Times is using compelling editorial design to bring these stories to life visually.
In all of the examples above, storytellers have succeeded in capturing audience attention through an inspiring balance of purposeful smarts and empathic passion, which we all know is not easy to achieve.
Unintentionally, Cuomo has managed to launch a personal brand with national and international reach. Both Convicts and The Times have shown once again just how inspirational culture and media can be when the storytelling is honest and real.
Those who bring brands to life and connect them with their audiences would do well to listen. Like it or not, communicating during times of crisis will become more and more central to what marketers do in the years ahead. Covid-19 has vividly illustrated the deep interconnection of all people, places and things. It’s delusional to think companies and brands can wall themselves off. It’s simply fact that global pandemics, climate disasters, war-driven mass migration and all manner of crises are already part of the story.
Inauthentic or even deceptive responses are a part of why so many younger audiences reflexively distrust politicians, corporations and institutions. Moving forward, people are going to demand from brands precisely the kind of authenticity, transparency and vulnerability that we’re seeing in today’s stories.
None of this is to suggest gloom. Hope, optimism and inspiration are part of the human condition — just like goofing off, having fun and taking some risks. If you happen to sell junk food — call it the culinary equivalent of “Tiger King” — or the healthiest celery juice, just embrace it. Coming out of this, our forms of comfort may differ, but we’re all in this together —and we’re all tough.
New York will prevail, and so will the globe.