Illustrations of cellphones with depictions of classical art adapted to fit the pandemic such as mask wearing and social distancing
Illustration by: Suz Boretz

Picture-perfect branding

A masked Medusa turns the coronavirus into stone while rapper Cardi B yells, “Coronavirus!” A 16th-century Florentine duchess is transformed with the TikTok “party” filter and paired with Doja Cat’s “Boss Bitch” track. Nude Greco-Roman male sculptures are set to Todrick Hall’s “I Like Boys” — just in time for Pride festivities in June.

All of these TikTok posts came from the real-world institution that houses these timeless works of art: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. With travel and tourism drastically reduced by the pandemic, the gallery digitally reimagined its mission of art education by becoming a TikTok sensation, building a following on a platform where almost half of users outside of China are under 24 years of age and 80% are Gen Z or Millennials.

The past year forced communication professionals at legacy brands to adapt to the reality that audiences’ content consumption habits had changed: They were — of necessity — spending less time outside their homes and more time on social media. And one of the best ways to engage with audiences on social media is through humor.

According to the Global Web Index consumer insights, digital media consumers spend an average of two hours per day on social media; 42% of global consumers and 54% of Generation Z spend even more time on social media since the quarantine began. Social media has evolved from a way to interact with peers to an entertainment platform. The Index added that entertainment is the third-highest trend, and the reason for this is “funny or entertaining content.” This is particularly true for 16- to 24-year-old audiences.

Institutions and brands should think about their presence on these platforms in this framework. “Innovate or die” is not a maxim reserved for business operations; it applies to communications, too. Social media offers a way to engage with quarantined audiences, but doing so requires adapting to the cultural context and zeitgeist while still representing the brand.

In the world of fine art, the Uffizi wasn’t the only famous institution to embrace the power of social media as entertainment. Holland’s Rijksmuseum repurposed masterpieces for content: Staff and followers recreated Vermeer’s milkmaids and Rembrandt’s Dutchman to songs like Snoop Dogg’s and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free.” Others referenced a viral meme with a video of a Dutchwoman’s ornate attire captioned, “It’s called fashion. Look it up, sweetie” and set it to Tove Lo’s “Cool Girl.”

By updating their traditional approach to communication, these bastions of culture have made centuries-old art relevant to younger audiences who prefer bold brands and trendy content.

This interaction with social media also offers an opportunity to transition from interruptive to invitational marketing. The Rijksmuseum content, for instance, not only entertained its audience, it sold them masks from its online store.

Commercial brands are also taking advantage of these trends. Alaska Airlines staff gained notoriety for their TikTok dance videos replicating their daily work of checking in travelers and operating flights, set to “I’m Essential” by KENMOR.

The pandemic provides an impetus and an opening for reluctant legacy brands to create content that reflects the culture of these digital spaces. These changes in audience interaction will persist: Three-quarters of U.S. online video audiences consume content at unprecedented rates during the worldwide shelter-in-place rulings.

COVID-19 accelerated changes that made humor more relevant. Brands now have the freedom, even the demand, to be daring in their approach to creative content on social media.

Melvin Dilanchain is working toward a master’s degree in public relations and advertising. This essay was originally published in the USC Center for Public Relations’ 2021 Relevance Report. The edition addressed the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests will have on the future of the PR profession.