Nov 21st, 2020, 06:20 PM

Brands on Social Media in the time of Covid

By Hania Abouelmakarem
Cinnamon Bun from Circus Bakery / Hania Abouelmakarem
How my favorite bakery broke up with me on Instagram

“Are you on social media?” is a question nobody asks these days. Social media engagement for both individuals and brands is the new norm: it is now part of our global sociocultural system. Not only has social media become the people’s new norm but joining social media networks has also become a decision made by almost all business owners. Rewinding to pre-Covid-19 times, and perceived to be the ‘digital native’ by my family, I helped more than one relative embark on their social media journey. Although small brands, their existence on social media platforms, notably Instagram, has marked a great improvement in their overall brand value. Not only did new customers become more aware of their brands but sales surged upwards. Instagram has become a marketing tool they now can’t imagine doing business without.

"70% of users look up brands on Instagram"

Fast forward to the current long unpredictable days of Covid-19, where more businesses are shifting their branding efforts into the digital sphere of social media networks in an attempt to adapt to the new business models imposed by government responses to the pandemic across the globe. Freelancers, national and international brands have all taken a digital transformation initiative which began on their previously inactive, if existent, social media accounts. With limited interaction between customers and businesses, most brands have had no other option but to knock on the doors of social media networks and invest more time and capital on ads, influencers, hashtag initiatives, live content and adjusting their overall brand’s content strategy in efforts to survive the Covid economy.

But not all brands are using social media. In July this year, I refreshed my Instagram’s news feed to learn sad news that I wasn’t prepared for; my favorite bakery was shutting down their social media accounts. The warm relationship I built with Circus Bakery first started through their Instagram account, full of sweet mouthwatering cinnamon bun images, and the bond continued to develop ever since. Not only did I regularly purchase their baked goods before and during confinement but I also occasionally contributed with content, which ultimately framed an interactive and intimate perspective of the brand in my consciousness. Their decision to shut down their social media accounts at a time where all brands were intensifying their presence on these digital networks was a shock to me. It was as though they’d broken up with me. According to them, Facebook and Instagram’s policies no longer matched their brand values, which made me pause for thought. Knowing that their social media accounts was how they initially grew and gained fame, it was challenging for me to visualize their capacity to move on and keep their brand’s legacy alive with just a website and a newsletter subscription.

"We are well aware that Instagram played a huge part in our success as a bakery and café over the past years." - Circus Bakery

But my bakery was in illustrious company. At the same time in early July, numerous brands including global names such as Unilever and Puma also took a stance against Facebook-owned platforms and boycotted their advertising plan as part of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign, which aims to confront the hate speech, propaganda and misinformation found on Facebook platforms and reform them in efforts of building a sense of community. Not only were corporations involved, but celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Demi Lovato to name a few, whose names also carry brand value, were equally engaged in a campaign known as ‘Instagram-Freeze’ arranged to stop celebrities with millions of followers from participating in their daily social-media input for raising awareness on such cause.

Reviewing their decisions, I finally understood why Circus bakery had decided to shut down their social media platforms. In fact, it was never a matter of the platforms themselves but rather the authoritarian conglomerate that owns and controls them and which had failed to introduce ethical regulations to govern the spread of disinformation. Despite the fact that different brands have taken different directions as to how they want to disassociate themselves from Facebook’s lack of responsible policies, it is clear that it was not necessarily a question of finance. Big brands like Unilever will no doubt survive in the market without their Facebook ads; in fact, it looks like they are not struggling at all since they have decided to go by their decision all year long. Similarly, Circus Bakery is unlikely to suffer financially from their decision to stay away from social media. This small brand has always grown organically through user-generated content and food bloggers recommending their yummy goods. Thus, this brings us to question of how brands will choose to deal with social media marketing in the future and how this choice reflects their core values.

Now, more than ever, brands need to evaluate their brand narrative against their social media usage and ask if it is worth investing in. A social media presence doesn’t equate with innovation. On the contrary, brands should perceive social media as a missing piece of a puzzle and not think of it as an extension that would add to their image without necessarily blending with it. Discretion can be good. Brands that manage to be successful without being exposed on social media are brands that have robust values and for whom this decision reflects their identity. Part of their brand experience is promising exclusivity and authenticity in a highly content-saturated market, where influencers abuse the transformative tool of social media.

But staying away from social media is not a solution for every brand. Although Unilever brands have paused their social media activity, it is highly likely that they will soon reappear with strong content creation and advertising because, at the end of the day, their brands are mass-produced for the mass-public and therefore perfectly aligned with the social media dynamic. On the other hand, small brands for whom authenticity is part of their messaging are less likely to go back on social media as they once were. The future of  less commercial brands lies in the use of other digital tools as part of their communication strategy. Websites, e-commerce hubs or newsletter subscriptions might be better suited to certain companies’ brand messaging. Social media or no social media, digital communications for brands is here to stay.