Friends enjoying a summer Bacardi cocktail.

Relearning ‘how to human’

How should brands tackle a return to socialisation?

The yearning for human connection is real, rich and enduring. During the past year, however, we’ve all lost the opportunity to commiserate over a drink, or celebrate moments that matter with those we care about.

Loneliness and the loss of social connection are serious problems. In 2018 — a year that now seems laughably quaint in retrospect — the UK appointed a minister of loneliness to deal with this issue, then considered among the most pressing health crises.

Now, in 2021, we are still reeling from a global pandemic, one which demanded we stay apart to stay safe. Lack of socialisation has had a profound effect.

But, in some parts of the world at least, we are beginning to see a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, on the whole, everything is beginning to look a little brighter, albeit with a few notable exceptions, such as India where many states have gone back into lockdown.

Brands’ role in encouraging a return to socialisation

Brands are rarely effective at launching trends themselves. They are however great amplifiers — not instigators — of culture. Companies are very good at cranking up the volume on an existing melody, but rarely at singing new songs.

This doesn’t mean that brands are unimportant. Rather, we marketers all have an obligation to serve consumers well — and part of that duty includes encouraging more of the right stuff.

So: what is the right stuff, right now?

Looking at the global picture, it’s still too early to predict when it will be safe to socialise again. But in the U.S., many States are open for business. In the U.K. and Israel, two countries with robust vaccination programmes, things are increasingly open with each passing week.

We seem to be moving in the right direction; there’s reason to hope that this year, we will all meet again.

When we do, we’ll have 18 months worth of pent-up social needs. According to our research, some of us are excited for this reunion, some feel more apprehensive, but there seem to be some universal realities.

It’s going to be awkward…

Crowds make us nervous. And chance encounters tend to reveal our social skills are a bit rusty. While the precise level of awkwardness — from air hugs to elbow taps — will vary depending on national character, we will all struggle to a degree.

And we should prepare for that fact because socialising isn’t merely trivial. It’s important for our health. A lack of social connections can alter our hormones. It can literally shrink our brain. (The amygdala, one of the parts of the cerebral infrastructure chiefly responsible for processing emotions, is well known to be smaller in individuals with less elaborated social lives.)

As I’ve written previously, humans are fundamentally social animals. So now, as we’re tasked with sharpening our social graces, we’ve got to relearn how to human.

For marketers, this begs the question: when consumer sentiment leans towards wanting to rub (rather than bump) elbows again, how can brands help ease us back into it?

A minefield of social norms

Some brands lead cultural movements, articulating a vision for the future in perfect step with society. Most of the time, this happens as a kind of happy accident, though sometimes it is the product of years of hard work.

Determining a brand or company’s relevance tends to be the product of reflecting on social norms. But, in the current environment, it can be easy to get it wrong.

Brands are walking into a minefield of social norms. Social justice concerns are being raised at the same time as we’re grappling with the biggest public health crisis in a century. If you’re not careful, you can easily fall into a hackneyed sense of what these shifting social norms actually are. Or, even if you track this moving target perfectly, you can still find yourself at odds with emerging attitudes by the time your campaign airs.

But there are some things I think we, as marketers, can safely expect. For example, our research suggests that people are more willing than ever to demonstrate kindness to others. It also found that, as people are at home more often, they feel more invested in their local community.

Brands can help us feel grateful for coming through this thing. Doing so will change the mood. And this shift in sentiment will, in turn, change the type of brands people look for when they seek to express their identity, values and beliefs.

Make moments matter

Drinking culture, whether it’s a coffee or a cocktail, is a fabric of different rituals that you weave into your life. And capturing this patchwork of moments is important in today’s age. But so far this year, and for most of last year, a lot of these squares were left blank. Going to your favorite restaurant, cafe or favorite bar, or discovering new places, has been off the table.

I expect we won’t ditch all our new lockdown habits. When you invite people to your home, instead of opening a bottle of wine, you may well open up a cocktail shaker and mix a beverage, perhaps one that you’ve learnt to make really well.

This, I think, will be a new way of being generous to our friends. Many of us will strive to give the people we care about something a bit more extraordinary.

Making a well-crafted drink is a way of showing that you care. You want to sit down, spend some time and savour the moment. Really make that moment matter.

At Bacardi, bringing people together is baked into our DNA. And we’ll be finding exciting ways to do that soon, when we meet again.

Helping foster togetherness — that’s how we’re looking to evolve now, to ensure all our delicious brands adjust well to whatever ‘new normal’ we arrive at. To get there, we’ve had to ask ourselves three key questions, which I wanted to share:

1. There’s ample evidence that not everyone will share the same feelings as social contact resumes. Some are excited, while others are apprehensive. How is your brand going to serve both sides of this split?

2. Different regions of the world are loosening restrictions at different paces. Are you ready to create messages that resonate regionally?

3. How can we reassure people that gathering together again is safe (when it is)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and know which questions you’re asking, too.

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CMO & President of Bacardi Global Brands — including @BACARDI rum, @BombaySapphire gin, @Dewars & @Martini_Global | #MarTech geek | food-and-drink storyteller.

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John Burke

John Burke

CMO & President of Bacardi Global Brands — including @BACARDI rum, @BombaySapphire gin, @Dewars & @Martini_Global | #MarTech geek | food-and-drink storyteller.

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