At the heart of engagement is understanding, says Ritson

25 May 2020

The COVID-19 lockdown in early March recast not only what consumers truly valued — toilet paper, pasta, and lashings of hand sanitiser apparently — but it also changed how they bought, with ecommerce growing dramatically.

For marketers who had obsessed over customer experience and engagement for the last few years that meant recalibrating the relationship they have with consumers. The results were not always pretty.

According to Mark Ritson, virtual marketing professor who in partnership with ADMA is running the Working from Home Masterclass, “At the heart of engagement is understanding. Too often companies do not look at the world through the eyes of the customer.”

He says the starkest lesson on consumer engagement is that what a company cares about is rarely what a customer cares about. “So putting down those preconceptions and learning to listen to customers and see things from their point of view is the cornerstone of marketing and engagement.”

Ritson believes that too many brands overstated their importance to consumers and ran generic, overly indulgent emotional ads in which they are ‘there for you in these unprecedented times’.

“In reality, we have clear data that campaigns that were devised pre-Covid19 are working just as well during the crisis as before it,”

“I would highlight Budget Direct who continued their successful sarge ad campaign in the middle of the crisis with an entirely COVID free message as a brand that worked out that they should be promoting their insurance and continuing with an existing approach as a brand that got it right.”

Interestingly Ritson is of the view that one common mistake brands are making is to shy away from marketing.

“The big danger is that many are pulling back on their ad spending. It’s tough for businesses in sectors where trade has disappeared completely, but we know from a century of data that smart brands will maintain their ad spending during a crisis and into the subsequent recession and gain market share as others pull back.”

Importantly, he says, those share gains are maintained even after the crisis when the recession ends.

“Keep the brand light shining is the key message because it's very hard to get it back on to the same degree of illumination if you turn it completely off. I'd point to P&G who has a track record of building share during difficult times as a company that will not only avoid the damage but emerge stronger at the end of all this.”

Reaping what they sow

The perception of brands is also affected by how they behave, not just what they say or formally communicate.

Riston, for instance, identifies the dissonance created by brands who have engaged in high profile offshoring programs to lower costs or mitigate taxes now trying to plunder the public purse through bailouts as business conditions worsened.

He contrasts the approaches Virgin Airlines with that of the big brand grocery chains.

“Sir Richard Branson has done nothing wrong in becoming a self-described "tax exile" but he has to stay in exile when the handouts from taxpayers are calculated.  In contrast, I think both Coles and Woolies have done their best to serve the community in recent weeks. The community boxes providing a week's worth of staples was a brilliant way to supply those most in need.”


Unlike some commentators, Ritson does not expect any behaviors to change fundamentally.
“There are too many morons writing unsubstantiated articles about how "X" has now changed forever because of COVID19. That makes for great headlines but its plainly not true,” he says.

Ritson acknowledges that there are structural impositions from the virus-like long haul flying that will force changes to the market for several years. But consumer behavior is not as fallible as many would have you believe, he argues.

‘The lines of people waiting to get their first burger when a restaurant opened or the enormous surge of people looking into booking on a cruise line speak volumes about the solid nature of consumer behavior. Things are always changing. But consumers can and will snap back if they eventually can.’

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