March 20, 2020

Storytelling in the Coronavirus Era

Hello from my couch! It’s day five of remote work. In these few days, I’ve gotten to see clients’ pets, aquariums, comfy sweaters, novelty mugs and other charming personal affects. We’re all getting used to a new climate that seems to change every day.

While it’s easy to be lighthearted about the day-to-day, I don’t want to undercut the major hardships happening. Fear of the virus itself looms high, while more people we know are coming down with it. Peers are losing their jobs and wondering how they’ll pay bills. Restaurants are closing, school seems like it may never come back and people from many industries are seeing their entire livelihoods slip away. Just last week, many people didn’t see this coming at all. My 66-year-old mom keeps pointing out that she’s never seen anything like this in her entire life.

For the companies that aren’t hitting an indefinite pause on everything, there are plenty of questions about what what next steps should be. We’ve seen a lot of clients take this unusual time to revisit their brand, making sure they’re ready to hit the ground running once the world is functioning normally again (if ever).

But we’re also seeing a desperate need for companies to acknowledge what’s happening in a meaningful way. Having to address what your business is doing in a global pandemic that has reached everyone’s doorstep feels like a new challenge. After watching people on social media make fun of brands’ obligatory “here’s what this leggings company is doing about COVID-19” emails, it’s worth thinking about what types of stories people really need right now. Here are a few thoughts based on observations so far. (We might have different things to say in a few months, as we learn more.)

1. Be Honest and Vulnerable

The easiest answer is to just show what’s actually happening. Show your staff on their couch with their cats. Address the real fears and unanswered questions you’re dealing with. Loosen the normal rules a little and leave some room for exploration and raw emotion.

This whole era is a peek under the hood at how many companies—and our country—run. If this reveals ways to improve, embrace this as a chance to make a public commitment, and use storytelling to provide transparency into how you’re making that happen.

2. Ask Hard Questions

Is the messaging you currently have in the market right for the current cultural conversation? I’ve gotten plenty of ads that feel off. Do I want a new cocktail dress right now? Am I really going to be stocking up on summer grilling essentials? Consider the emotions people are going through on the other end of the screen. Does your message make them feel heard?

3. Shape Your POV on Life After the Pandemic

This can take a lot of work, research and discourse. But we’re going to face a dramatically different reality after this. Now is a chance to become a thought leader by standing for something and building a mission that shows clearly how you help keep the world running. Who do you serve and how will you make their lives easier? How will you tell that story?

4. Bring People Together

People are already feeling alienated. It’s been encouraging to see the Google Hangouts and Zoom chats set up between friends. I set one up with my family for this weekend. But below all the novelty is a lot of heartbreak for all the weddings, parties, vacations and gatherings that people were excited about. We’re all mourning something. If you can find a way to make people connected, it’ll resonate a lot more than a typical shiny story.

5. Connect Your Story with Your Actions

What is your company going to do to help the people who are suffering? Consider a call to action or give-back program that addresses what communities need. If your company needs to focus instead on changing employee benefits to empower new ways of working, that counts, too. Or if you’re focusing your R&D on public health in a new way, tell that story. Avoid framing these efforts as one-time transactions, and dig into the nuance of who you’re helping, the roadblocks you face and the creativity found in a challenge.

Hard times have a way of revealing the human spirit, and Superhuman is all about making brands more human. That starts with peeling back some of the layers of formality, and finding something simple and authentic at the core. We wish everyone luck in the uncharted days ahead.

-Becky Lang

Artwork by Andrew Beckman

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