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Read the Room: Managing brand communication within the cultural narrative of the pandemic



Brands build loyalty and engagement by making emotional connections with their audience and customers. These connections are made when customers find an affinity with the brand and when they can identify their own values with those of the brand. This is beneficial for many reasons but the business reason is that emotional connections lead to customers spending more time and money with the brand.


During the pandemic, the emotional connection took on another dimension. It was always important to communicate about the brand’s core values but the sheer uncertainty about how our lives were changing as a result of the coronavirus meant that brands took on another role in our lives. The brands we already loved became like a beacon in the storm, a reminder of the before times, if you will.


The essence of the pivot is to reinforce brand values in its communications and in its actions.

Previously at Onwrd, we wrote about brands needing to ‘pivot to purpose’ to shore up that emotional connection during the pandemic. Now that we are about eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, what else do brands need to build those emotional connections with consumers?


The answer is to read the room.


Think of a high-energy person, let’s call him Larry, walking into a room full of people who are sombre. Larry walks around, making jokes and shaking hands with everyone he sees (just go with it, it’s a pre-pandemic wonderland). People are stone-faced and even annoyed. Everyone wants to ignore Larry. Why? Larry is thinking about what he wants to do and say without observing and adjusting his actions according to his environment. In other words, he is not reading the room.


Not Larry, but definitely could be. This is a very "Larry" statement.

Reading the room during the pandemic means understanding how to communicate authentically yet within the cultural narrative. The narrative that cultures develop during the pandemic depends on the norms of that culture and the hierarchy of their values. For example, if the culture is typically individualistic and externally focused, it is imperative for brands to know if this is still relevant during the pandemic. In a time of physical distancing and sudden change, consumers may shift to valuing a sense of community and introspection.

What’s important is that the brand understands that shift and communicates in a way that doesn’t feel fake.

For example, here are some broad cultural narratives that have shifted during the pandemic:

  • Short-term thinking, everything on-demand → Long-term thinking and caution

  • Technology for entertainment → Technology as a necessity for life and work

  • Pop culture heroes → Everyday heroes on the frontlines


Communicating and demonstrating values with which the brand and its customers are aligned help to build emotional connections and loyalty to the brand. The key is that customers feel that the brand is loyal to them as well.