JvM Green Papers #3
The age of the screen
The value of the telecom brands in social distancing crisis
Related Expertise:Telecommunication, Online, Digital
If you google “global economic crisis,” the current year, 2020, is one of the top autocomplete suggestions, alongside 1929 (the year of the Great Depression) and 2008 (the year of the global financial crisis). Almost no industry has not been directly or indirectly affected. Two exceptions are food retail and telecoms, where consumption has more or less continued as before. Both these sectors are crucial during life in isolation: people need to eat and communicate. That’s the new basis of our hierarchy of needs.
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Telecoms creates social value by allowing people of all ages to remain in touch digitally despite social distancing, to host wine tasting sessions and games evenings via video chat, and to work remotely from their home office.
The vision long promoted in telecom ads is suddenly a reality. Welcome to the age of the screen.
LIFE IN DIGITAL GERMANY
Paul: Our whole lives have migrated onto screens – are we now living in digital Germany?
Robert: We’re living in a state of social distancing, which is both physical and mental in nature. The sudden digitalization of our lives is a side effect of lockdown. We can see our own four walls, but not the echo chamber of our filter bubble.
Paul: What role do filter bubbles play in this situation?
Robert: They are emblematic of the conflicts in our society. Now that we’re communicating solely in the digital realm and have a greater need for information, they’re becoming even more apparent than before.
Paul: I find it especially ironic how perspectives are shifting. Just a few weeks ago, it was the liberal younger generations who were urging the gas-guzzling boomers to think of the future. A few tweets later, these same boomers are now asking why their grandkids have stopped listening to the scientific advice they used to swear by, and are having corona parties without any care for other people.
Robert: In the USA, the generational conflict is the other way round. Kids are trying to persuade their parents, who get their information from Fox News, that COVID-19 isn’t a left-wing hoax and that they ought to cancel their Florida vacation. Breaking out of your own filter bubble remains virtually impossible.
Paul: Isn’t that an opportunity for telecom brands to position themselves as experience providers? Now that so many things have been temporarily taken away, people are asking what they’re really missing. So isn’t it time to finally start really delivering on value promises?
TELECOM BRANDS AS EXPERIENCE PROVIDERS
Robert: Telecom brands can’t really differentiate themselves by providing experiences. What these brands are doing is connecting people with their loved ones, teams with their colleagues, curious people with content. But the value promise they make to all these groups is based on the benefit for individuals. That’s not a new positioning. And if brands dare to show a little more social responsibility, they’ll quickly run up against the limits of their own echo chambers. Even if a feminist campaign video is praised by a brand’s Facebook followers, it’ll still attract hordes of trolls in the comments on YouTube.
Paul: But that shows that communication alone isn’t enough. Awareness campaigns are only part of a brand experience. Any discrepancy between performance and value promises creates an experience gap, which weakens brands, especially in sectors like telecoms that are operating at full capacity and facing intense scrutiny.
Robert: The stress test is driving these brands to make a communicative shift too, from consumer brands to corporate brands. The question is, “What can we do in these times to create stability?” And they’re living up to this responsibility.
Paul: Yes and no. At the height of crisis communication, that may be true. But the post-corona world is now being renegotiated. Social distancing is increasing the number of missing connections between people. And that’s relevant not just to video calling technology, but also to brands’ values, especially those whose bread and butter is connecting people.
BRANDS AND THEIR VALUES IN THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD
Robert: And yet we’re talking about businesses, not NGOs. Brands are a mirror of society, which is what makes them relevant. Their goal is to understand consumers and satisfy their needs. And we’re currently also seeing some very positive changes, such as the big comeback of facts and figures.
Paul: Yes, that is a positive development. Today’s younger generations aren’t just interested in escapism, like nerd culture entertainment or TikTok, but also in equal rights and science. The climate movement has laid down the foundation on which the corona crisis can now build. Both involve an interplay of rational and emotional values.
Robert: You might conclude that the populists have temporarily lost momentum in the algorithm-based media world. Instead, advocates of complex truths, like the virologist Christian Drosten, have become media stars of nonsnackable content. The value of knowledge is enjoying a renaissance, and Germany has seen a record number of Google searches for virology courses.
Paul: Can’t that also be seen as evidence of a growing appetite for truthfulness and transparency, as a sign that advertisers should avoid hyperbole? Wouldn’t consumers, say, rather know the average speed of their broadband connection, not just the temporary peaks?
Robert: I’m certain that this crisis will permanently change the consumer world. The impact of good content, digital literacy, and long-term brand experiences will continue to grow. But this will only indirectly affect the nature of advertising.
Paul: We agree on the topic of experiences. I believe that this lockdown and the fact that we’re now so focused on our personal situation and our families will mean that in the future we’ll start being more mindful of the things we buy again.
You can see evidence of this in Amazon’s search rankings. Before the lockdown, AirPods and other Bluetooth headphones were in first place. Now the charts are topped by toilet paper and 1,000-piece jigsaws.
But let’s get specific. What would be our five recommendations for the telecom brands of this world?
FIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE TELECOM INDUSTRY
Robert: The best protection against commoditization is to create stronger brand experiences in communities. Security of supply has never been so sexy. The formula is simple: telecom brands add value by creating new connections.
Paul: Brands need to get much better at actually delivering on their value promises. That means finally getting older people online, even those who’ve never used a computer. Chinese pensioners who use their smartphones to make payments show that it can be done.
Robert: If you listen actively today, you'll have the right answers tomorrow. At the moment, when we’re seeing record levels of internet use and demand for information, it’s all about data. We need to move away from briefings that treat generations, whether Gen Z or millennials, as monolithic blocs. There are already initial signs of new questions and issues emerging. Anyone who finds the resources to explore data despite the current crisis will give themselves a real edge in terms of insight.
Paul: It's time to close the experience gap. Breaking down the divide between communication and service could create some truly integrated ways of working. If the two sides operate separately, there will always be a gap. Robert: Start-ups need to be pulled back from the cliff edge. Not long ago, venture capital was readily available, which meant even weaker start-ups could get off the ground. Now some of the most promising are staring into the abyss. This is another chance for telecom players’ innovation hubs to create some new connections, and they shouldn’t pass up on the opportunity.