Covid-19: Eight pandemic content themes and what they tell us about future direction

Distinct content styles have emerged throughout the pandemic as companies continue to react and adapt to a world in flux

The coronavirus pandemic dramatically upended lives and livelihoods in a matter of weeks as it tore across the world – and continues to shape how we are able to live, work and play.

When more than 3.9 billion people, half the world’s population, went into lockdown, this had huge societal, health and economic impacts. But this new state of living and working presented specific problems for companies, who needed to stay relevant to their audiences in a world where the ground had completely shifted.

In the very earliest days of the pandemic, businesses struggled to figure out how to be useful, but strong and defined content themes started to emerge once they became more confident. Here, we explore eight of the most prominent and what they signal about the future of brand communication as we move through this crisis.

1. The GDPR playbook. This first phase of communication was very familiar to anyone who remembers the time around May 2018 when the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect. With significant changes to personal data ownership and what companies could do with details they held, the result then was a blizzard of messages from anyone who had ever been given your email address asking for consent to continue, well, emailing you. The early days of Covid-19 were straight out of this playbook – company after company getting in touch to say we’re still around, still working and still here for you – but very little else. While well intentioned, many used such boilerplate text that they ended up blending into one another. This was moment-in-time content, good for one use only, and was quickly left behind.

2. Those who can, do. Corporate attention soon switched to philanthropy and social awareness, with content to match, as an unprecedented global health emergency united society and business. Luxury-goods giant LVMH, for example, switched from making perfume to producing hand sanitiser, while manufacturers including car maker Ford, tyre specialist Michelin and luxury fashion house Burberry were among those that retooled to make ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks. Collaboration and togetherness, such as seven UK-based Formula One teams coming together to build ventilators as part of Project Pitlane, were also a focus at this point, with many companies going on to tell the stories of what they were doing and why.

3. A word from the wise. As countries across the world slowly settled into lockdown life, companies began to recognise the opportunity to demonstrate leadership through content. Professional services companies, for example, focused on topics such as how to lead during a crisis, with Egon Zehnder extolling the benefits of collaborative leadership, KPMG explaining that to answer ‘what now?’, companies have to ask ‘what next?’ and Deloitte setting out how leaders can create a new and better normal. Strategic tools created to assist companies and individuals in gauging the pandemic’s impact and preparing to respond – such as PwC’s Covid-19 Navigator and Deloitte’s Covid-19 Government Response Portal – were very useful, too.

Many finance companies, meanwhile, offered strategy and tactics advice gleaned from reading data, or experience of previous crises. Global asset manager Franklin Templeton published nine steps for investors to take now, for example, while T. Rowe Price explored the five rules for investing during the coronavirus outbreak. Another feature of this theme – which is likely to endure and adapt as new data emerges – was advice on critical lessons to learn. This centred around increased resilience in key business areas such as supply chains, with the aim of building back stronger to weather future shocks.

4. As one at home. Hand-in-hand with practical advice was another theme that briefly emerged during the early days of lockdown. This was a rise in at-home activities and entertainment content published by brands, a deliberate and collective nod to the shared challenge of working from home with children around. Content on this at-home entertainment theme ranged from Porsche’s good-natured #DreamsAreMadeAtHome brand collaboration on Instagram to TripAdvisor and Airbnb taking travel virtual; from Formula One pitstop listicles – and any amount of nostalgia pieces – to colouring sheets for children being offered by the likes of Mercedes-Benz. Another moment-in-time theme, this too faded quickly after the initial novelty passed.

5. The move to remote working. Meanwhile, a story in itself was workers the world over adapting to a new reality with very little warning. The significant technical heft and mind shift needed for corporate success here led to opportunities for those who felt they had managed this sea-change well – such as investment bank Goldman Sachs, which explained what it had learnt from its pivot to remote, and American multinational General Electric’s Q&A exploring this new normal – to share their insights. Remote working, and a parallel acceleration of existing trends such as video conferencing, was also an area where platforms themselves became the story. This was most obvious in the stratospheric rise of Zoom, which saw the number of daily users rise from 10m in December to over 200m in April. Forced to scale fast, the company made some missteps, mostly around privacy, but it seems likely that Zooming will be a business norm for the foreseeable future.

6. Tech trends redefining business. In the same vein, brands have been forced to get creative in how they could amplify their view and new products without glossy, in-person launches and associated coverage. Footwear manufacturer Asics, for example, turned a physical launch for three new trainer models into a virtual reality (VR) one, sending VR headsets to journalists in 19 countries which featured an innovation lab and games exploring each shoe’s features. Meanwhile consumer goods giant P&G turned to the TikTok social media platform to try and get the message across about social distancing, generating billions of views. Other more structural companies, such as IBM, noticed and explained the opportunity to influence the world around them in this area, by helping clients drive change and transform. Like future gazing, innovating for success – and telling the world as you do so – is another theme that will continue to unfurl, and is likely to be a staple of more forward-looking company communications strategies for some time yet.

7. Those who transform, survive. As the world starts to exit lockdown and a global recession looms, it is abundantly clear that there is no business as normal. Thought-leadership themes, therefore, have turned to what a post-Covid world looks like and how it might be built. We have seen a strong growth in content focused on how to survive in a world remade, such as management consultants Alvarez & Marsal’s guide on how to pivot to recovery and thrive in the new normal. There is also a hefty dose of content stressing the need to rebuild not just better but greener, as well as a strong theme of purpose that’s no longer just about profit. Research from investment managers Fidelity, for example, on survival and sustainability shows that those companies that had invested more in sustainability generally outperformed their peers during the Covid-induced market meltdown, heralding a strong seam of content that will have longevity as well as growing in importance.

8. Digital as an all-encompassing future. Last but very much not least in our study of pandemic content themes is the increasing importance of digital connections in a world where we remain apart, predominantly working, shopping and finding our entertainment online. In content terms, this manifests as a laser focus on the acceleration of digital innovation, exemplified by professional services company Accenture’s Tech Vision 2020, the key message of which is the need to redefine the overlap between people and technology. The theme also incorporates the urgency of digitisation amid an ongoing shift to e-commerce – such as this article from T. Rowe Price exploring the opportunities rather than just the challenges posed by companies which provide the architecture and services necessary for an enhanced online economy. A major theme for companies, and their content, will be continuing to explore how best to capitalise on this wholesale shift to online that is likely to persist long after the virus fades.

We are seeing some properly deep thinking and great writing being put together inside companies now: how to reconstitute our worlds of work, from offices to supply chains; what will customers want and how can they best be served? How can we be more equitable and secure in our societies? Is this the reshaping we have needed all along – and how should we fund it, invest in it?

As companies seize the opportunity to put their voice properly into a debate previously carried out mostly only by the media, politicians and regulators, the content that results, and its potential to inform and inspire, will be even more prized than usual.