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Here on the West Coast, as we’re starting our fifth week of lockdown, the novelty is starting to wear off as we begin to accept a new normal.
In the early days of the quarantine, many of my industry colleagues found distraction by fiddling with ZOOM settings, re-engaging with their families and setting new routines. But as the epidemic approaches its peak in the weeks to come, the momentary diversion of new experiences is starting to fade and shifts in tone can be expected.
Reassuring and upbeat messaging will always have a place in the COVID-19 era. But if you’re like me, the constant stream of e-mails from brands still ready to serve me is starting to sour. Even the stream of well-intentioned pleas to support worthy charities is dulling the senses. Building customer relationships is important, but “it’s all just noise,” a client observed yesterday as I was fiddling with my ZOOM settings.
So, what’s a brand to do?
Ever since Simon Sinek published his pivotal business book “START WITH WHY” in 2009, companies have spent good energy and not a small sum of money to identify the very reason they exist. “Purpose-driven brands” sparked a cottage industry of consulting, books and speaking tours that coincided with the Millennial-fueled ethos of supporting brands whose values they shared.
While purpose-driven statements are still critical for aligning internal corporate culture with external culture and audiences, in these challenging times they can seem naïve and self-serving – even ripe for parody. If only HBO’S SILICON VALLEY could squeeze out one last season to riff on WEWORK’s now-infamous original mission: “To elevate the world’s consciousness.” Yeah, not so much.
Today, when people lack faith in government and other establishments, consumers increasingly depend on non-traditional and new ways to fill the voids of critical infrastructure and information. Culture now looks to brands to intervene on their behalf, by stepping up to address a higher need: one of selflessness. Today, brands need to be good citizens.
Here are four ways brands are activating their citizenship in the COVID-19 era:
Help Society: Reorient your business to address the challenge at hand, without regard to profit
Some of the first brands to recognize their civic responsibilities recognized their existing skillsets and physical infrastructures could be refitted to produce much-needed ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE). Those early responders like FORD and HANES have now inspired scores of others to reassess the deployment of their labor and physical inventories for the common good. From TITO’S converting their output from vodka to hand sanitizer (inspired by an early meme) to the NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS using their private plane to pick up N95 masks in China, every brand should ask its team: What can we do with what we have?
Direct Customers To Take Action: Suggest ways for consumers to address the crisis through the lens of your brand
NIKE, always first to jump on a social issue, urged its consumers to “Play inside, Play for the World.” This was their clever, brand-worthy spin on the #StayHome hashtag adopted by brands like YOUTUBE and IKEA, who reframed the message with the verisimilitude of a SÖDERHALM sofa-assembly sheet. For those who can’t afford to stay at home, QUICKBOOKS/INTUIT’s ads encourage viewers to support small businesses, which are most at risk.
It’s also important to elevate the needs of critical workers (healthcare providers, first responders, restaurant and grocery employees, delivery folks and drivers) who don’t have the privilege of staying home, but badly need the rest of us to. In addition to direct aid, how can your brand be a facilitator for action?
Support Employees: Demonstrate your brand’s commitment to its values by how employees are cared for
NETFLIX and GOOGLE have created massive funds to support the below-the-line workers, contractors and temp workers their businesses depend on, and who often lack affordable healthcare. STARBUCKS, recognizing the growing danger of loneliness, depression, and anxiety across every segment of society, is providing mental health support for employees. How can your business help your employees through this?
Share perspective: Provide hope and empathy from your brand’s POV
While this last category is a lighter lift, there is a vital role for brands to communicate a sense of empathy – and hope. Three days after the shutdown in California, TOYOTA started running a spot that proclaimed there are “Better Days Ahead.” And JEEP’s “With Any Patience, The Views Will Get Better” campaign included their version of self-isolation: #StayOffTheRoad.
One watch out: be wary of “virtue signaling” – a slam when your brand conspicuously expresses its values, without actually taking actions to live by those values. To avoid that, be true to the nature of your relationship with your consumer and continue to build that association. Don’t play out of your zone. But if consumers rely on your brand as a trusted source of information, provide facts and advice on staying safe (consumers say getting accurate information is their top priority, according to IPSOS.) If they rely on your brand to escape reality, continue to be that antidote, but be mindful that the world they live in is radically changing.
People are touchy now. As the pandemic progresses asymmetrically across the country – and around the world – everyone is processing change in highly individual ways.
As testing increases and the statistics grow grimmer, expect there to be a lot of mixed messaging out there over the coming weeks. Given the statistical projections, popular and playful platforms like FACEBOOK and INSTAGRAM are already starting to be infiltrated by posts of memorials and mourning. Virtual funerals are already a thing.
Here’s the trickiest part: people will be at very different stages of grief depending on their geography, income, families and other variables that make it impossible to know how your brand’s message will be received. At the same time, when brands act as citizens, society as a whole benefit. COVID-19 is a common enemy that can unite the deepest divides.
Promoting acts of selflessness now will hopefully help build brand loyalty later. More importantly, maybe it will actually help save a life. How can your brand pitch in?