Welcome to the new (old) normal

—The pandemic has delivered an important reminder: real brand affinity can come from treating customers like neighbours, says Matt Litzinger—

I should say right off the top that I am attempting to avoid the phrase “unprecedented times” in this piece. We’ll see how that goes. Hand-sanitized fingers are crossed.

Like many people, over the past several months, I have tried to make sense of the many chaotic shifts we’ve seen happening around us—both professionally and personally. We are definitely finding out how much we are all in this together, whether we like it or not.

One of the more interesting shifts that has emerged is the growing call to think locally: to support our local businesses and be there for our neighbourhoods/communities. We’ve all started to think and behave small.

And while we’ve all been thinking and acting small, we’ve seen the rather large ripple effect that thinking locally can have.

Brands that have focused their thinking, acting and executing around a local insight and approach, have resonated with customers. We’ve seen these efforts, ranging from big brands like Molson and Harvey’s to upstarts like Vessi

When a large or small company turns its focus to a very localized issue, movement or marketing campaign, the consumers who experience it firsthand are often left with such a high level of affinity for the brand (assuming the strategy/creative/delivery is on point) that they instantly become brand ambassadors.

And when others outside of that local market see this, it resonates with them as well. The specifics become less relevant—it’s the approach and focus that matters to the broader audience. Why? Because we’re all locals somewhere. People like to see brands being part of the community, even if it isn’t their community.

But what happens when we finally get through the worst of the pandemic? Will this “new normal” or thinking local remain? Or, will companies and brands default to what is considered the established way of doing things: through universal insights and “human truths”?

I believe a new perspective has been born, one that allows for the understanding that our differences are what unites us. And through an appreciation of, respect for, and curiosity about those differences, we find our similarities. We feel our relatability. And it is this new (old) approach that I believe resonates the strongest.

It’s such an amazing feeling when we see a person or business capture the attention of a broader audience by focusing on one that’s much smaller. Our client partners love this approach, and it’s so much fun combing through the communities to find those uncovered, local insights that have been overlooked. At least, we think so.

By focusing on a very local approach but activating against it in a manner that feels relevant to a broader audience—because the spirit of the act is meaningful to that broader audience—magic can happen.

It’s not something new. In fact it’s always been one of the best forms of marketing and advertising—done before data shifted from being the validator of something to the determinant of messaging and delivery. Data only tells the results with accuracy, not the assumptions. When data is used to predict a behaviour, it is consistently inconsistent.

I’ve always been fond of the famous Henry Ford line: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Well, perhaps that’s what’s happening now.

Maybe we are all realizing that the true key to building a brand, having a business that resonates with your consumers and creates an affinity deep in their hearts and minds, is treating your customers like they’re locals. Like you may see them in your neighbourhood.

Not with a generic message or anthem that all of us relate to equally because it’s based on an insight that we all share. But through really uncovering something that is very personal or neighbourly… an insight that feels local.

Universal insights are not going away, nor should they, because they work. But now it would appear there is also another approach to uncovering insights that resonate powerfully, by digging into locally based ones.

Because people have always wanted a sense of community, of belonging, of feeling like a local somewhere, anywhere—it’s just too bad it’s taken these unprecedented times to make this happen.

Wait… damn, I said it.

Matt Litzinger is the president and chief creative officer of Toronto agency The Local Collective.