Here’s how brands can push the corporate envelope during COVID-19

Stefani Forster

Stefani Forster

Stefani is a multimedia content strategist with experience at some of Canada's top agencies and publications. She worked at Touché! Media and PHD Canada on various national brand campaigns before moving to the content side, serving as an editor and content manager at The Huffington Post Canada, Hello! Canada magazine and Corus Entertainment, writing articles, producing videos, and spearheading social growth.

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“Unprecedented times” call for creative measures. We’re not going to name names, but traditional, corporate brands are often their own worst enemy when it comes to the following:

  1. Changing what they’re currently doing creatively—even if they KNOW it isn’t working anymore
  2. Being fearless to try something different, innovative and ultimately, more effective

It’s counterintuitive, and it’s a shame. In theory, “creative” teams (copywriters, designers, social media managers) and “corporate” teams (salespeople, business development managers, and leadership) should, theoretically, be perfectly aligned in an organization. After all, the best creative marketing strategies help meet corporate objectives, like increasing awareness, improving ROI, and getting more leads. 

…In theory. In practice, corporate and creative always seem to butt heads. Why? And how do we fix it? 

COVID-19 has especially brought this power struggle to the forefront. Since the global lockdown began, brands have been scrambling to pivot their existing content calendars. Some brands were agile, putting together exceptional and relevant infographics, white papers, landing pages, or free webinars. Others… not so much. Here are a few reasons why corporate and creative butt heads and how we can work together to create better marketing messages.

PROBLEM: Your brand guidelines are outdated 

Consider the following scenario. Eight years ago, some dusty old dude in the marketing division of “Company X” decided that a collection of ten pre-approved stock images—paired with a gigantic logo overlaid on top—were to be used on all promotional materials. 

Granted, these guidelines were intended initially for pamphlets and brochures. Social media or digital assets were an afterthought. Unfortunately, these became part of COMPANY X’S OFFICIAL BRAND GUIDELINES. Here, following the rules is more important than questioning the value of these rules in the first place, stifling both creative and long-term strategic thinking. This turns your organization into a glorified Five Monkeys Experiment and fosters a culture of fear when it comes to any deviation.

FIX: Create flexible brand guidelines with digital in mind

If a rule doesn’t make sense, don’t just blindly enforce it. Investigate and change it.

Don’t get me wrong. These guidelines are important. They ensure consistency, quality, and integrity of your brand. But they need to be discerningly applied and adapted for each medium. In other words, logos on pamphlets or billboards make sense. Logos on your Instagram photos seem pushy and overly branded. 

Update your corporate guidelines with a social-era specific guide book, so your marketing team can be agile, while still meeting brand guidelines. For visuals, keep the hex colors and fonts, but also offer options for sourcing images, creating memes or gifs, infographics, icons, illustrations, and mixed-media choices. Make recommendations based on established social media best practices. Slogans and empty phrases won’t cut it. Give a sense of your brand’s tone, humor, and overall personality so you can tweet in a tone that is still faithful to your brand. 

PROBLEM: You sound like a robot on social 

Back to Company X. Their social media manager or creative agency wants to speak to what’s going on, and get in on a conversation their followers are already having. They think it would benefit the brand if they share an inside joke on Twitter, or post a reaction gif to a reply from a follower or respond to a relevant thread about the current crisis. 

But corporate rears its ugly head. “That’s against our brand guidelines!” they insist. “We can’t/don’t talk about that in that way.” 

Too many corporations play it way too safe on social media, treating each tweet like a teeny-tiny press release. But social media is not a corporate platform. It should have a humanizing effect on your brand. People like speaking to real people, not robots. You want to be relatable and make your audience feel comfortable. 

Is it really better to ignore the humanity of what’s going on in favor of a bland, corporate message? Corporate is trained to “protect the brand” above all else (even common sense), which results in a watered-down message that offers little value. This is considered bad form during business as usual and is way worse during a pandemic. 

FIX: Use audience insights to determine your brand’s personality 

You can’t just tell your boss or a client, “be more relatable,” or “have a sense of humor.” You have to show them how and why. 

I’ve talked about this at length before, but insights, not ideas, drive great strategies. First, know your audience; then tailor your creative approach accordingly. Look closely at the people who follow you and the people who THEY follow. What kinds of content do they share? What makes them angry, excited, inspired? What keeps them up at night? What makes them laugh? What topics do they engage with? This is how you can reach them and make them feel seen. 

If all your audience is talking about is right now is how they’re going to get by during the pandemic, you may not want to announce the launch of a shiny, new product (unless it’s going to help). Provide value, not a sales pitch.

Once you’ve shown your boss or your corporate client your audience is currently engaging with a specific topic, trend or meme, you can craft the kinds of creative messages that will get their attention and build brand loyalty. A great example of this is Nature Valley Granola Bars. They discovered a big chunk of their audience was super into anime and created some fantastic content that showed they understood and appreciated their culture. 

Again, protecting the brand is still important. You don’t need to descend into LOLspeak or hijack every trending hashtag. But how can your audience relate to you if you don’t speak to them in their language? Based on what you know about your audience, you can create a unique brand personality (and add it to your brand guidelines!) that determines how you sound, your diction, your sense of humor, and the kinds of topics you engage with (or avoid) and what you stand for. 

PROBLEM: You’re promoting instead of listening

Brands tend to exist in a bubble, and as a result, they get a tiny bit self-obsessed. We see this all the time in posts: “We are proud to announce we’re spearheading a new initiative in collaboration with Company X to create revolutionary new technologies, which will further our mission to change the world!” 

Good for you, Mr. Corporate Robot. But changing the world, how? And more importantly, why should we, the audience, care? 

There’s a time and a place for corporate messages. If you’re a B2B company and you’re addressing board members, investors, associates, or shareholders, then certainly, striking a cool congratulatory tone may suffice. It also helps mask some of the more unpleasant nuances in your announcement—after all, that’s what corporate jargon is all about, isn’t it?

But if your goal is to connect with a wider audience, hiding your message behind this kind of self-congratulatory corporate-speak is the absolute worst way to go.  

FIX: Create content your audience already cares about (Hint: it’s not about you) 

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If nobody outside of your organization (or their mothers) would share it, you shouldn’t post it. Social media is not the place to host a giant circle-jerk for your employees and affiliated associations, giving each other claps. It’s not for promoting internal events or company announcements that an outsider wouldn’t care about. That’s what Slack, emails and bulletin boards are for. 

It’s not enough to say, “We’re excited about this thing that we’re doing!” Why should we, the audience, be excited? Again, that’s where your audience research comes in. Find out what will excite them about this particular message, and lead with that. Put everything in the context of the audience. Anything you say should be about them, first and foremost.  

The good news? Nuggets of fascinating information that your audience does care about—and would share!—are often hidden in these kinds of posts. 

“We’re proud to announce our brand is doing blah blah blah,” becomes: “Want to fly to work every day? Of course you do! We’re working with Company X to make jetpacks happen within ten years (and other crazy tech you never thought possible).” 

This is obviously fake, so don’t get excited about jetpack technology coming your way, but—you get the point. If you can choose between “we’re excited to announce” and “jetpacks,” then for the love of God, LEAD. WITH. JETPACKS. 

Corporate vs. Creative: Finding the middle ground

Corporates can be incredibly creative, and creatives can have good corporate ideas. The corporate mentality isn’t some sort of excuse to cause drama within an organization; it’s a defensive mechanism. Most creatives don’t get that. 

These two mindsets can get on the same page when it comes to understood values. Corporates are results-driven. They don’t have time for frivolous creative ideas if they won’t further their bottom line and help their company achieve its goals. 

That’s why the best creative marketing strategies—the ones that both corporates and creatives can get behind—are based on extensive audience research and insights. These insights will guide your creative direction and strategy, and help prove to a defensive client or boss that your creative approach is the right one. 

During COVID-19, I’ve seen corporate and creative powers getting on the same page, coming together to push the envelope and create exciting, dynamic content in ways they’d probably never thought possible pre-pandemic. It’s an inspiring trend I hope will continue long after this is over. 

Money. Politics. Power struggles. No, it’s not the return of House of Cards, but an ongoing battle between the marketing powers that be: “Corporate” vs. “Creative.”

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