Q&A on Covid-19: Brands Who Got It Right and Brands Who Got It Disastrously Wrong

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In early 2020 brands found themselves having to make difficult decisions in their response to the pandemic taking hold around the world. Do they stop what they are doing and help? Continue business as usual? Different messaging without specific action?

Nearly any idea can sound great in the (virtual) conference room. But when the idea takes form in the outside world, it can go wrong. In some cases, terribly wrong.

Whether the fault lies in the concept or the execution, bad responses were met with far harsher criticism than usual. Ingenuity’s CEO Chris Kemp shared some thoughts on brand reactions during the last few months, who have responded well, and some ideas around strategies you can use for yourself.

AW360: What have been the most interesting brand reactions to Covid-19?

The brands that have been able to act with authenticity, whilst providing a response that is effective. The ones that have made a meaningful difference to consumers’ lives.

Pret-A-Manger is an example of a brand that has led the way, extending support to front-line NHS workers by offering them free drinks and a 50% discount on other items. They have also been helping other customers through lockdown with recipe releases to help them recreate much-loved treats at home.

In terms of specific examples:

Nike’s ‘play for the world’ campaign (Wieden + Kennedy) is also a brilliant example of how to strike the balance of promoting your brand whilst recognising the uniquely challenging context that we find ourselves in. The lives of both elite athletes and humble amateurs have been affected and this was cleverly represented in their messaging: ‘If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”

BrewDog – the independent Scottish brewer – has also responded in an interesting and meaningful way throughout the crisis. In particular, their speed in pivoting to make hand sanitizer (and give it away to local charities and communities) is illustrative of a company that has raised brand equity through adding value in a difficult time. Alongside this, the brand also launched limited edition 12 packs of its Punk IPA, with all profits donated to the Help NHS Heroes campaign.

AW360: What have been some of the worst reactions, and what has this period taught us about the role brands have to play in our everyday lives?

Sports Direct springs to mind! Mike Ashley’s public spat with the government over non-essential business closures has done little to boost brand health. A direct tweet from the Sports Direct account to Boris Johnson on 24th March asking if they should reopen stores in the morning was clearly misjudged. Wetherspoon’s had a similar reaction when founder Tim Martin said he would not pay his 43,000 staff for five weeks while his pubs were shut at the start of lockdown.

“Customers have been put off by emails from brands ‘checking in’ with them without offering tangible value.”

I think the recent period has taught us that consumers value authentic brands that stay true to their positioning but can adapt to offer value in both prosperous and challenging circumstances. Customers have been put off by emails from brands ‘checking in’ with them without offering tangible value.

AW360: What are some elements of consumer behaviour you believe will stick after all this is said and done?

Consumers are taking back control, and they’re now openly more bothered about what a brand is doing from a societal point of view, as well as preferring one that shares its values upfront. This shift in behaviour will affect how brands create and change their businesses moving forward.

Consumers’ shopping behaviour will likely be here to stay for the foreseeable too. People are shopping less, but with bigger baskets when they do shop. Consumers are also heavily investing in the booming D2C (direct-to-consumer) industry, with it quickly becoming the norm for individuals to have at least one D2C subscription.

We’ve also witnessed a bigger reliance on digital as people have adopted interacting in a different way. Whilst it won’t completely remove the need for human and physical interaction, it will change businesses’ approach to interaction as a whole. For example, less face-to-face meetings where we could just have video calls or dialing in team members onto a screen if they are working from home.

Another example is sustainability. It’s the word on everyone’s lips at the moment – and consumers are becoming more aware of their surroundings and what they can do to help the environment, alongside engaging with more brands that are doing their bit too.

AW360: As a founder/business owner, what has this period been like from a client management perspective, as well as juggling a business and employees?

Our clients have been great, and we’ve navigated (still are navigating!) this challenging time together – offering our support at all times.

I’ve been impressed by how many of the businesses we work with and agencies we’re in close contact with have quickly changed direction to keep their business moving. However, I’ve also seen some businesses fall into trouble, as they’ve not had enough contingency in their business plan or didn’t move quickly enough when it was obvious that we had to change. Although on the other side of the coin, I’ve seen others really pull together and as a result, they’re looking stronger than ever! It’s really about addressing all the moving parts involved in guiding a business through challenging times. I have found that having had control of a business from the start helps make it a little easier to control the direction.

We’re also super mindful of our team, their wellbeing and ensuring they have the right support during this period. This has meant introducing new mental health initiatives, such as engaging with House of Wellbeing, a platform offering audios to help clear the mind and increase productivity in both lockdown and normal life. The whole team also has access to Sporting Edge content, a tool with an in-depth array of content to motivate and inspire directly from global world leaders, sporting greats and business CEOs.

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