As COVID-19 first pushed swaths of consumers indoors a year ago, marketers shifted focus to the concept of digital community building. Brands, following years of trying to establish themselves as purveyors of lifestyles as much as products, saw an opportunity to serve as the virtual connective tissue between people feeling the impact of prolonged isolation. But what happens when the emotive bonds that make up a community sour?
The latest quarterly report by the Kearney Consumer Institute, an internal think tank at the management consultancy Kearney, suggests that while attempts to tap into community through marketing can pay off, the downsides of a year cooped up at home — including intensified political divisions and the broader echo chamber effect of social media — make wading into tight-knit groups a thornier prospect than it once was. Marketers that do take the plunge need to consider that many consumers have made a firm decision on the issues they care about and expect brands to speak to those subjects. Those that fail to make the "right" choice in aligning with consumer values risk losing business and trust as the community turns against them.
"Unfortunately, we're not getting that diversity of thought anymore. We're not engaging with people and remembering that people are more than just their screen names," Katie Thomas, head of the Kearney Consumer Institute, said. "It's then a real challenge to try and transcend that."
Some of the most deleterious effects of isolation will diminish as vaccines grow more widespread and typical community-building venues — sporting events, parties and broader cultural occasions — open back up. But marketers must also reassess their tactical toolkit as pandemic-driven strategies, such as the boom in livestreaming, evolve to become more important pillars of community for the long haul.
"There's a lot of thought around brands wanting to build [their own] communities," Thomas said. "We think there's a real opportunity for brands to meet consumers where they are and engage in those communities that consumers have already formed for themselves."
Brands have grown accustomed to grappling with social media furor as real-world politics bleed into consumer-facing marketing. Examples highlighted by Kearney Consumer Institute include pushback against Nike for signing the activist Colin Kaepernick, a vocal proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, as an ambassador in 2018 and outcry over Chick-fil-A's past donations to groups that oppose LGBT rights.
The pandemic has amplified such frustrations with companies as people spend more time online and have fewer outlets to vent their problems. Individual frustrations can leak into larger groups and gain a louder megaphone, resulting in actions like boycotts. Negative aspects of community have also manifested in more shocking displays of real-world violence like the Capitol insurrection in January.
"Really, it's this isolation that has made this boil over," Thomas said of the impact on brands. "[It's] because of the isolation we're in and because of the lack of engagement we're getting with folks that are outside of our pod or inner circle."
That said, wide-scale brand boycotts are often ineffective. Take Facebook, which weathered a freeze from both users and troves of advertisers last summer as its policies around hate speech were called into question. The #StopHateforProfit campaign made virtually no impact on Facebook's business, which has performed particularly well with more people glued to social media amid the pandemic. Nike was similarly unfazed from a sales perspective in the wake of the Kaerpnick controversy.
As these pushes fizzle, consumers might be coming around to the idea that grab-your-pitchfork tactics do not always produce the desired results. In the U.S. at least, there is a growing sense of "boycott fatigue," Thomas said. That sentiment is possibly tied to activist pressure failing to play out in meaningful ways on the bottom line, but also could be reflective of how outrage culture has generally overwhelmed the discourse. Kearney Consumer Institute asked consumers this year and last whether they would be open to boycotting a brand, with fewer respondents — just 33% in the U.S.— reporting that they would in 2021 compared to 2020.
"We were certain it would go up. It shows that there's a little bit of exhaustion with all this stuff feeling so intertwined," Thomas said. "I feel like that's already a good sign for brands."
Brands at the same time should note that consumers express some leniency when it comes to missteps. Sixty-one percent of U.S. respondents to the Kearney Consumer Institute said they would be willing to forgive a brand if it made an apology and took some action to correct the perceived offense.
Marketers shouldn't think of these trends as an excuse to step back from the conversation or play it safe, however. Previous Kearney research identified challenges posed to mid-tier brands that don't adopt a meaningful position on social issues, an enduring problem as society remains divided and people increasingly look to corporations for leadership.
"They're trying to be everything to everyone and they're not really standing for anything. For a while that worked when we were in a 'good, better, best' model, but now we've broken free of that," Thomas said.
"You've seen some of other big-name brands — Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia — who are willing to 'risk' some of their business in order to take a stand for what they believe in, but a lot of times that can make people who are already with you double down," Thomas added. "Really, it's almost more of a risk to do that middle-of-the-road thing that brands do ... these public statements that don't really say much."
Brands that manage to build up credibility with their target consumers do have the chance to strengthen their bonds through community. Kearney Consumer Institute pointed to a partnership between Nike and Foot Locker where the retailer has integrated Nike's proprietary technology into its Power store concept. Power stores focus on hiring locally and feature local artwork and merchandise, as well as some exclusive Nike products. The pact's spotlight on collaboration is a theme other brands should gravitate toward in their community-building efforts, per Thomas.