Creativity and Innovation in the Era of COVID-19

March 27, 2020

The COVID-19 coronavirus upended daily routine as we know it. Businesses closed their doors to customers. And products we have not used in decades have become pantry staples. The impact of this shifting lifestyle is causing us to regroup and change the way we live. As businesses, we need continuity to stay economically relevant while marketing is turned upside down.

How will brands market their products and services and stay relevant during this lockdown?

At Ketchum, we see the lifecycle of this crisis in four phases: impact, regroup, rebound, and the new normal. As challenging as it might seem, there is a place for proactive communications and marketing in each of these phases when handled with sensitivity and authenticity – always putting people and their needs first.

Impact is something we are feeling keenly as we become accustomed to working from home, balancing family needs with professional demands, tracking the virus spread, and learning the implications of our newly confined life. We are grappling with pandemic’s impact on society, trying to personally stay safe and reacting to fill immediate needs – particularly to help meet the physical, financial and emotional needs of family, friends, colleagues and employees. In this time, the focus is on employee communication, and helping our communities stay safe and get what they need. In light of these challenges, we are working with retailers to shift hours, clean stores and keep workers safe. We’re working with health service clients to keep people informed of health risks, flu systems and test coverage. We’re helping businesses communicate changes in service — from being closed to new employee care programs to converting to drive-through only restaurants.

As we enter phase two, regroup, clients work to adapt to a new form of business continuity and how can they help those around them. We see a shift to purpose and community service. How will corporations, NGOs and governments take care of those whose livelihoods have gone away short term with the closing of factories, restaurants, theaters and stores? How will we address loneliness and depression for those isolated for health reasons? Fashion designers are now making masks. Brands in other lines of business are shifting their factories to produce hand sanitizer and grocery stores are rallying donations to food banks. This also is a time to assess and determine go, no-go or delay for all planned marketing activities. But it is not a time for inertia.

Some level of marketing communications is necessary to bridge to recovery. Most of our clients have been considering this phase by adjusting current plans and redirecting messaging via new channels. Canceled meetings can become virtual, influencer marketing is taking the place of one-to-one interaction, and content is being adapted with the right tone and new timing. Forward-thinking brands are open to new ideas that appropriately engage consumers as we experience this crisis together.

Phase three is rebound. Our societal practices have changed. We are preparing three meals a day with ingredients less fresh and more shelf stable. We are in search of new ways to stay fit, entertain our kids or home school. We are leaning in to telemedicine and teleconferencing. As communicators and marketers, we can help our clients define the new normal and help consumers and businesses adapt: virtual meetings with flair; speakers who know how to engage online with even better content and visuals to educate and entertain; new ways to fill the void of delayed or cancelled sporting events, conferences and concerts.

There are many voids to fill, and it’s this next phase that will separate the prepared from those who will be slower to recover. It requires forethought and a multi-level team to get it right: a response team to continue managing crisis and reactive communications; and an advance team to anticipate needs and develop plans that will help refill the pipeline and supply chain, and innovate for the new normal. By activating both teams, marketers will shorten the runway to recovery through meaningful, high-impact marketing – moving from crisis to considered action.

Whether or not marketers are prepared, we all will be faced with phase four: the new normal. Creative planning requires forethought, imagination and a clear understanding of what consumers will want and need. How will today’s pandemic create lasting change in tomorrow’s habits? Will home offices become permanent fixtures for many? Will working out become a family affair? Here we need to embrace listening and cultural intelligence-tracking data in real time and birthing new concepts faster than ever.

Our more stringent hygiene practices may mean the end of the handshake, but new social norms will arise. At Ketchum, we have lived these shifts in Asia and are working to help clients adapt. Our new tagline empathy + intelligence could not have launched at a more relevant time. New human behavior and needs will require marketers to evolve as well, with the ‘winners’ having anticipated and shifted quickly.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” In these uncertain times, it may be difficult to see beyond our immediate needs, but failing to plan for what’s next is denying your business the opportunity to optimize the future for your clients and employees.

To learn more about creative planning and cultural-intelligence tracking for the new normal, get in touch. We’re here and ready to help.

As President and CEO of Ketchum, a top-five, global communications consultancy, Barri Rafferty oversees Ketchum’s offices and affiliates in more than 70 countries.

Outside of Ketchum, she participates in a number of groups including the sustainability task-force for the World Economic Forum and is a member of Arthur W. Page Society Page Up program. Rafferty sits on the board of StepUp, an organization with the mission of empowering girls from under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound, and career focused and she is also a member of the governing body of OmniWomen, Omnicom’s Leading Women’s Network, for which she holds quarterly panel discussions featuring prominent women. She is the recipient of the Plank Center Milestones in Mentoring Award.

Barri is a graduate of Boston University (M.A) and Tulane University and enjoys watching soccer, volleyball, and dance – especially when her son and daughter are involved! Connect with her on Twitter: @barrirafferty


Tera Miller, Partner, Executive Creative Director North America

As one of the agency’s preeminent creative leaders worldwide, Tera works with Ketchum account teams and integrated agency partners to develop breakthrough, insights-based ideas for clients. Along the way, she facilitates brainstorms, conducts training and inspiration sessions, and coaches and encourages her coworkers. Tera, like the legendary American brother-sister duo Donny & Marie Osmond, is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll – splitting her time between the City of Chicago and the quiet of the country.