Brands must go beyond social distancing to connect

Brands must go beyond social distancing to connect

Forget about messaging surrounding social distancing, marketers should stick to what they do best; giving the customers what they need. To do that, they need to return to their best long-standing marketing theories.

It was heartening to see brands take on the role of government and produce messaging to help enforce social distancing. On the surface level, Nike’s advert indicating that I could play for the world just by staying home stirred up enough emotions in me to call it a success; I may never play for Aston Villa - though, up until the season ended, I probably would have slotted in to the back four easily enough - but I can play for, dare I say it, the bigger team and rid the world of this pandemic.

However, on a professional basis, it’s rarely something that I’d advise. Brands, especially in times of uncertainty, need to start going back to the drawing board and they need to be the voice of what the customer really wants; and that, right now, is more than just playing back government policy. Yes, it is important to do this, but there is much more they can do too.

How do they do that? By looking at the road ahead and realising that the big brands are needed more than ever. A recent survey, by Edelman, on trust in the UK showed that trust in business has grown 8% since January, further highlighting the mandate that brands are an integral part of the solution moving forward. It will, likely, not take long after the initial pandemic is over - and I don’t know how long that will be - before companies of all sizes will have very real questions around budgets and employees, of all positions, may not have the spending money they once did. In lean times, we turn to big brands more, and marketers have to get a grip on the oldest, and still most important, models of them all; namely Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the 4ps.

What are the 4ps and why is there a problem with it?

The 4ps - price, product, promotion and place - were coined by Edmund Jerome McCarthy in 1960, but it goes back a little further. Neil Borden in 1953 created the term marketing mix to mean a set of marketing tools that a firm uses to achieve its marketing target within a specific market. McCarthy simply went a little further, stating that markets themselves were controlled by the 4ps, and the relationship between them defines how well the business will do. This is seen, in marketing textbooks, as the preserve of the marketing department itself.

However, in practice, this can be a little misleading. A further theory coined by Mike Berry - and I do agree - is that marketers have lost control of most of those elements. Price is usually set elsewhere in the business. Product is usually set elsewhere in the business. Place is a moveable concept, for example if you go to the supermarket to pick up Birds Eye fish fingers, and they are out of stock, you’ll likely pick up the cheaper alternative. That means that place becomes about distribution, and that’s, once again, out of the hands of the marketing department.

Which leaves promotion, up to and including the event itself, and then, to top it off, the analysis afterwards. That’s an exhaustive process. Is it any wonder that the other three elements have been, seemingly, abandoned in favour of pleasing the one p that seems to have taken over everything?

But, if brands are going to meet customer needs right now, the marketing department needs to reclaim the other three ps. Recently, there have been some good examples where this has worked in practice.


Right now the customer need is to get information, important documents and, most importantly, food and water as safely as possible. Brands have responded by changing both their product and their process. The Post Office deliveries changing so that workmen can sign the parcels is a good example. It’s a small change but it’s a vital one. Also, any large food restaurant switching their output to takeaways have changed their product slightly, but significantly, and that’s to be applauded. Just Eat changing up their product to allow for safer delivery is an example also.


Businesses should have realised that, right now, the place where they do their usual trading is going to be a no-go area; unless you’re a supermarket right now, where your trading is booming. This has meant a greater shift to the online world. In recent times gyms, slimming clubs and theatres have moved their content online. CIM have even explored how hairdressers could keep their customers informed under lockdown. Even in the example of supermarkets, their layout has been changed to allow for social distancing.

If the pandemic lasts for a while, the key will be how they monetise this change but right now, brands need to find a place of business that suits their customers, and provide them with the information they most need. Right now, brands have to focus on accessibility, by either moving online or making their physical space safe for custom.


Of all the ps, price is the one most out of the hands of marketers, and it shouldn’t be. In times of crisis, the marketing department should be front and centre of all pricing issues. Phillip Kottler created the Nine quality-pricing strategy, arguing that the inverse relationship between price and quality means that customers will feel overcharged if you set a medium quality product at a high price, for example, but might not feel overcharged if a high quality product bears a high cost. This relationship between price and quality is, subconsciously, something we all make.

In times of pandemic, or wider crisis, this demand slightly changes. If you’re bulk buying, then cheap and cheerful suddenly holds more value. If you really need to escape a troubled point, your Uber will cost more due to surge pricing.

However, brands shouldn’t abandon that model and raise prices. Uber have rightly been criticised for not having a quick stop on their surge pricing practice in the past and, in the wider scheme of things, brands must stick to the models; in other words, don’t start overcharging.

Brands still need Maslow

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. The needs lower down the pyramid must be satisfied before you can fulfil the needs higher up which are, by definition, harder to achieve and speak more to the emotional, rather than survival element, of humankind.

Though it’s a theory that is famous in psychology, it is marketing that has put the pyramid to most use, mainly as a way to lend structure to their advertising. Most advertising is actually pitched towards ‘Esteem needs’ – ‘this will make you feel better’ – but this will need to be adjusted as the survival element continues to kick in.

Right now, brands need to realise that it’s the bottom two needs that will be dominant and shouldn’t look to promise things that are either irrelevant to their customers’ experience right now, or that they cannot deliver. 

It’s tempting to say that marketing theories are most used in the textbooks, dripping out only in various student essays and exams, but that would be misplaced. These theories have lasted solely because they remain useful and relevant to modern business.

The problem is that brands abandon these theories in favour of the latest trend whether that is a new technological change or, in this case, the emergency solutions needed to prevent a crisis. Now, more than ever, companies of all sizes need to heed the advice that marketers bring because they still represent the experience of the customer. And the experience of the customer is the only thing brands should be thinking of at this current moment in time.

To learn more marketing theories that could shape your business understanding, start one of our manageable, flexible and affordable modular awards.

Damian Low Director Freuds/Republic
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