In the Midst of a Crisis – What Role Must a Brand Play?

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Much of what we’re facing right now with COVID-19 is unprecedented. Hold-your-breath market volatility. Broadway shuttered. The NBA season canceled. Olympics canceled. Wimbledon postponed until 2021. And following the lead of Italy, many countries are simply closing up shop as we all learn the term “shelter in place” and wonder when it will be required of our city or town.

COVID-19 is showing us firsthand how global matters become local matters, impacting everything from financial markets to local choices on how people do their jobs or how they pack their pantries, and how to live in a community while maintaining social distance from each other.

We have all received the perfunctory COVID-19 policy communications from the companies and brands we interact within our daily lives. In many cases, the email blasts have been surface-level communication of basic policies. However, many brands are rising above the bare minimum to express a desire to be more purposeful and show how they can help. Companies, through their brands, are showing how they can play a meaningful role in the navigation of this difficult moment.

Marketing playbooks are being written and re-written in real-time. But now more than ever is a moment for companies to lean into a sense of purpose.  So, what lessons can be gleaned from what we have seen thus far? How can brands show up?

Be a credible resource

Fake news abounds. Some of its spread is malicious, and some of its spread simply comes from the popularity of a few poorly informed tweets. Brands have a responsibility to leverage their communication platforms to spread factual information from official sources such as the CDC or local departments of health. These efforts can further cement your status as a resource to your core audiences and community.

Be proactive, and have a plan (and even more contingency plans)

Brands should outwardly demonstrate that they’re thinking through how current events will impact their customers and employees. For example, the NBA initially planned to have teams play in empty stadiums, but after the issue progressed and basketball players on a couple of teams tested positive for COVID-19, the league canceled the duration of the season to protect the safety of players and fans alike.

And as new information surfaces, brands will need to continuously adapt, shape and reshape contingency plans—going from plan A to plan B to plan J… demonstrating agility is a function of living in a crisis moment.

Own your lane and offer help where you reasonably can

L’Oréal is swiftly shifting its manufacturing capacity to produce hand sanitizer and hydro-alcoholic gel to equip hospitals, nursing homes, and pharmacies. They’re also equipping facilities to create their own sanitizer with bottles. In a statement to WWD, L’Oréal pledged to freeze all “receivables owed,” to relieve some of the enormous pressure on small businesses. In a similar fashion, car manufacturer Ford is offering payment relief to customers who financed vehicles through Ford Credit. Both are examples of global companies pivoting their daily operations and policies to offer critical help to customers and employees.

And hospitality brands are stepping up to take the anxiety out of the moment, even as their industry absorbs tremendous losses. Delta Airlines, Hilton and Hyatt Hotels represent examples of brands generously supporting customers that decide to cancel their travel plans by lifting normal cancellation policies and fees.

While we tend to think of corporate brands, entertainment brands are standing out. After ending its season, The Metropolitan Opera is now live streaming encore presentations from its website for the duration of the closure. Coldplay and John Legend both offered impromptu performances via social media to uplift their global fans during this troubling time. DJ D-Nice convened over 100,000 partygoers for his virtual #ClubQuarantine, a home school social distancing dance party.

Be transparent

Consumers want acknowledgment of what’s happening and actionable plans to mitigate risk. Brands have an opportunity to connect with customers at critical points along their respective consumer journeys and demonstrate empathy by communicating how these moments are impacted. Institutions like Columbia University are posting FAQ’s on their website and refreshing their approach based on the state of the crisis and knowledge of the situation.

Whether a traditional consumer brand or a higher education institution, the solutions may not be easy but opening the door for communication leads to more honest, innovative, and future-forward conversations that will benefit all parties.

Remember to speak human and be human

This is a moment where corporate-speak should be kept to a minimum, and brands should speak like human beings, not robots. We cannot counter consumer fear with policy and formality. And the same goes for how employees are treated. The shift to remote working is not easy for those that never do it—having a desk or home workstation is not always the norm. Shopify is giving employees a $1,000 stipend to purchase needed office supplies to ease the work-from-home transition.

What stands out in a crisis are the moments where humanness prevails. When brands talk honestly and authentically—people to people. When policy may be reconsidered because it does not fit with the circumstance. It’s okay to acknowledge the fear. It’s okay to not have all of the answers. This is a moment when brands can be purposeful—showing up and demonstrating who they are and what they believe in.


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