How a pandemic changes brand perceptions

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There's no denying that the pandemic has changed consumer behaviour worldwide, forcing the whole creative industry to find new ways to adapt to a new normal.

What was perfectly reasonable and effective in a world dominated by reason and logic, such as ROI-driven strategies to increase brand awareness, have now become dated in a post-pandemic world, dominated by a shift in consumer perception and a focus on the emotional power of words and images. Storytelling is taking the centre stage, and in order to align to these changes, brands must understand exactly what is driving the shift.

We reached out to Callum Gould, Head of Insights at Saddington Baynes, to discuss the topic in more depth below.


How a pandemic changes brand perceptions

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down and inside out. “Wear a mask”, “wash your hands”, “stay at home” have become new habits for most people around the globe. A recent study conducted by YouGov across the APAC, UK and US markets shows that 86% of consumers have changed their behaviour recently because of fear of catching coronavirus. This includes keeping away from crowded places, improving personal hygiene, working from home and avoiding raw or uncooked meat. 

The pandemic has also acted as the catalyst for digital-first habits, such as online shopping and e-learning. If Digital Transformation was merely a buzzword in a pre-pandemic world, now it is clear that virtual experiences are here to stay. 

Marketers, in turn, have been responding to the recent turbulence of events in various ways, adapting to consumers’ changing needs and wants. Changes in brand perception seem inevitable, and in order to remain future-proof, brands must understand exactly what’s driving the shift in consumer behaviour. More importantly, what to do about it.

The advertising effect

Advertising is the business of instigating desire and inspiring behavioural change. Many brands are looking closely at how the pandemic has affected consumers’ daily actions so they can react accordingly. Research by Jigsaw Research shows that 84% of UK residents have changed their perception of at least one brand as a consequence of how it responded to the pandemic. And 66% changed their behaviour towards a brand, meaning they’re either buying more or less from it, because of how the brand responded to Coronavirus.

Changes in brand perception seem inevitable, and in order to remain future-proof, brands must understand exactly what’s driving the shift in consumer behaviour

The problem is, such changes in behaviour and the potential knock on effect on brand perception is extremely hard for brands and marketers to quantify and tackle. Behavioural changes will be driven by environmental and sociological impacts – but even brands who’ve adapted their communications to align with these shifts, may still fall short of connecting with their consumers. This is because actions, thoughts, and feelings are all part of a powerful psychological loop. While we change our actions and thoughts, if our nonconscious feelings aren’t aligned, we tend to suffer from what is known as cognitive dissonance. 

Feel. Think. Act. Repeat

Think about it, have you ever done something against your beliefs? Did you feel distressed afterwards? The answer is probably yes. Contradiction makes us feel uncomfortable and this internal discomfort makes us want to take action. In simpler terms, we change our actions to follow our thoughts and feelings. We can also change our feelings and thoughts to justify our actions.

And what we need to remember is decision-making heavily relies on our non-conscious and emotional brain. Therefore, adverts that use emotion rather than a rational approach are more effective at increasing desire and changing consumer behaviour. Neuroscience attributes this to two factors. First, the brain is able to process emotions below the level of consciousness, meaning advertising can work even if we’re not paying attention to it. Second, our brain is more attracted to powerful emotional stimuli, and therefore more likely to record and remember them.  

All being said, it seems obvious that brands should connect with their audience at an emotional level to increase their brand perceived value, change consumer behaviour and ultimately drive higher ROI. And yet, many brands still go down the traditional route and base their advertising on a dated view that we are usually rational decision-makers, with near-perfect memories.

The power of memory

Advertising should be about generating outstanding and memorable creative concepts that strongly associate with the brand’s values. Concepts that are brand-centric and memorable create stronger associations between products, brand and consumer desire. If advertising fails to be memorable, it won’t drive the stronger associations that drive consumer’s emotional pull and desire. So to succeed in advertising, first we need to understand how memory and attention work. 

Memory is the primary link between an advert and brand choice: a set of associations with cues that can bring a brand to mind. To change consumer behaviour, brands must make sure their adverts deepen associations by refreshing or building on memorability. This will very much depend upon the creative direction of the advert, the different stimuli derived from it, and lastly how consumers will perceive them. The process of perception occurs at three stages: exposure (or sensation), attention, and interpretation. The meaning of a stimulus is interpreted by the individual, who is in turn influenced by their unique biases, needs, and experiences –  these will differ depending on our place within society. 

Our brains tend to relate incoming sensations to other events or feelings already in our memory. When we perceive things we don’t just simply allow sights, sounds, and smells to come directly into our senses from the outside world. We’re always filtering and interpreting the information in relation to other things and experiences in our lives. 


Image credit: Saddington Baynes for Oppo

How a pandemic changes brand perception

If advertising is about changing behaviours; behaviours are influenced by feelings; feelings are attached to our memory, and our memory informs perception, then it’s no surprise the events from 2020 onwards will most definitely impact the way consumers perceive brands

In an urge to understand how lockdown impacted our social experiences and human connection, Saddington Baynes neuroscience team have led a research project to uncover the thoughts and feelings of people towards the past year. 

When explicitly asked about what was thought of 2020, 84% of respondents experienced primarily negative feelings around ‘isolation’, with 21% saying ‘lonely’ was the predominant emotion. However, using our in-house implicit testing tool Engagement Insights®, we were able to uncover the more complicated emotional effects and thoughts around the pandemic – response shifted from a feeling of loneliness to feelings of longing and nostalgia.

Brands should practice what they preach – verbally and visually

The UK in particular is sailing in rough seas with the pandemic, Brexit, and political turbulence in general. This has led to an unprecedented level of heightened moral sensitivity and consequent moral judgement amongst the Brits. More than ever, brands are under scrutiny and being held to account if they get it wrong, as people are judging with greater passion and against higher standards. Moreover, covid has further deepened our sense of collectiveness and as a result shone a light on brand authenticity, meaning consumers are more inclined to being associated with brands that stand for something more than just a commodity and actually practice what they preach. 

In that sense, brands will have to be more discerning about how they create and curate campaign imagery from now on, as it has the power to massively impact brand reputation and perception. This raises concerns, but also an opportunity for brands to rethink their core values and reassess how they are translating those into their marketing strategy. As consumers redefine the value they place on brands, it’s important that brands in turn adapt their strategies to communicate and interact with consumers in a more effective and integrated way. This is where implicit testing tools come into play. 

Implicit testing tools allow for brands to measure the visual impact of their advertising campaign throughout the production process – what colours, shapes, messages and products have a stronger emotional pull according to unbiased associations. Rather than asking respondents how they feel about the imagery (explicit testing, such as focus groups and surveys), implicit neuroscience techniques measure the nonconscious, implicit responses, unlocking how consumers actually feel about a brand’s visual language. 

By measuring the emotional effectiveness and desirability of their campaign imagery prior to launch, brands can increase their competitive advantage considerably. That’s because implicit testing allows them to make sure they are communicating with their audience in the most effective way, building trust through appropriate, consistent visual language that generates emotional decision making – not to mention the money saved from spending on media campaigns that at best don’t connect and at worst offends.    

Imagery has the power to move people through emotions. By embracing neuroscience, brands are able to reinforce their marketing imagery with visual ingredients that will trigger the right set of associations between advert, memory and brand choice.

Callum Gould is Head of Insights at Saddington Baynes. Header image: Saddington Baynes.


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