Brands Under Lockdown: Communication Strategies in Times of Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is putting economies to test. Current crisis is demanding that businesses reassess their priorities and brands are under pressure to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances. All of a sudden we woke up to a world where stock market crashes, mass bankruptcies and layoffs, deficit and quarantine have become household names. Communication agencies were among the first to experience the hurdles in the forms of ad budget reductions and postponed project launches. Meanwhile, as the social distancing grows strong, communications are as crucial as never before.
Brands at Crises
Today brands have an opportunity to invest strategically in long term solutions and relationships. Although the context is different we can clearly see the parallels with the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and its effects. Then we saw that brands that had invested in communications most were also the fastest to recover.
No wonder it is in 2008 that Walmart launched its renewed brand that has since become iconic. A prompt look is enough to grasp the meaning of the changes. The company that always made low prices its unique value proposition, managed to show a brighter side of life to people during the crisis, and the result was telling: its brand moved in a BrandFinance top 100 ranking from the fourth place in 2007–2008 to the first in 2009 and 2010. As of today the company not only has outlived most of its competitors but also has sustained its position of a global leader by revenue.
The current crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus infection has also been called the first ‘infodemic’ in history with relation to the effect it had on the global media — social media as well as headlines of the major outlets. Of course, brands couldn’t stand out of it too.
“In times of crisis consumers become especially sensitive
and perceptive towards brand communications.”
Global business leaders, such as Coca-Cola, Nike or Mcdonald’s, used this occasion to appeal to universal human values like family, friendship and love that help survive the difficult times. Their virus themed campaigns have shaken the world and become an example for many marketeers. The way Nike re-interpreted the team play in the context of social isolation and entered the esports field may well become a step to larger shifts in its positioning.
But what would you do if you don’t represent a transnational corporation that produces goods and services for the whole world? If you don’t have dozens of creators, producers and PR executives at your disposal and your ad spend doesn’t allow you to flood TV and social media with your branded content?
4E — Empower, Encourage, Ease, Engage
While consulting clients from various industries during the pandemic we have elaborated a simple model of brand communication tools relevant for the crisis situation that we called 4E — Empower, Encourage, Ease, Engage. Although we kept the current coronavirus pandemic situation in mind when we described this model it will still be correct for other situations like this, both global and local. Sadly, we may expect other events like … to happen in the future, so we are working on a comprehensive report that we will publish for everybody to study and put to use.
In this model we separate the businesses into 4 groups by two parameters based on our empirical perception of various communication strategies currently in use: B2C/B2c and Online/Offline. The four groups have been affected by the crisis in different ways but in any case there are opportunities to strengthen their brands. Whether it is essential goods or entertainment services, every company can find an opportunity to help or lighten the modd.
B2C/Online (Digital Vanguard) — various forms of new media, social networks, streaming services, video gaming, online education and delivery. These types of businesses have been major beneficiaries of the current situation — under lockdown people have been finding new ways to spend time at home, to interact and study online.
B2C/Online (Future Builders) — IT services engaged in a wide spectrum of industries and providers of the traditional B2B services via online. Demand for their services soared when companies started to quarantine their staff. These companies have profited from the digitalization trend and now their role has become yet more significant as everybody is home officing.
B2C/Offline (Timeless Values Creators) — tourism, f&b, offline retail, out of home entertainment, offline education, consumer goods in general. These companies (with certain notable exceptions, of course) have temporarily lost connection to a larger part of their consumer base but the demand for their services and their meaning never ceased in a significant way. This is the time for them to reconsider and strengthen their relationships with the consumers.
B2B/Offline (Legacy Business) — large companies that depend on b&m assets (real estate, heavy industries etc.) and MICE industry. Some of them have a safety bag of cash and liquid physical assets that enables them to survive but in general these companies have long been under pressure to adapt to the changing technological landscape. Others, especially in the event industry where the margins have been squeezing in the past years, are hit the most by the situation that puts them in a state of existential crisis. What is lying on the table for them is sustain and develop their brand out of the conventional boundaries of their industries.
Having looked at the best practices there are right now we devised the most successful strategies that will allow brands from each of the groups to build up their brands and solidify their presence in the media.
Another topic for discussion is HR-communications that are now crucial for both large and small companies that have to be especially cautious about their employer branding. We are currently collecting material for a separate piece on that matter.
Best Practices Within the 4E Model
A Digital Vanguard company, world renowned video games developer and publisher Rockstar Games vowed to transfer 5% of net bookings to an array of organizations in need. The strategy was also adopted by other companies in the industry, such as 2K Games, Social Point and Private Division who joined their colleagues flattening the curve.
Future Builders Microsoft and Google have temporarily given free access to their B2B products related to video conferencing. Likewise, Russian IT behemoth Mail.ru gave away 1bn roubles (Rus) (13.7M USD) worth of its various business services to support the companies within its ecosystem.
We now see that many restaurants and bars around us who were forced to close at the beginning of the quarantine started to deliver their food and drinks (Rus) to their local communities on their own with hosts, directors and owners serving as couriers themselves. These Timeless Values Creators will benefit by establishing closer relationships with their local customer base and will come out of the crisis with a strengthened brand.
ExCeL London, an exhibition and international convention centre that we classify as a Legacy Business, have decided to provide its space to the NHS to deploy a field hospital for 4,000 beds free of charge. The National Health Service has also enlisted cabin crew from both Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet (these are not sheer B2B companies yet they share some of the characteristics) to assist staff at this temporary Hospital. These are two very vivid cases of how you could increase brand equity while totally unable to provide your services.
Undoubtedly, there is no universal recipe of a successful communications recipe in a time like this. The situation is escalating too quickly and every industry has its special traits, while each brand is unique and demands coherence.
Any company today, though, has a capacity to contribute to the fight against pandemic with its resources. For instance, Novo Nordisk fund now gives grants to scientific, social and biomedical projects and Unilever provides soap and antiseptic products to those communities in need free of charge.
At the same time, however, rapid changes that happen to other brands may confuse or even irritate people. That’s, for instance, what happened to the beverages giant BrewDog, known for its craft beer as well as for its provocative marketing campaigns. Like many, the company decided to produce antiseptic products under its brand but didn’t meet understanding among the consumers. The situation was aggravated by the news that one of the Scottish hospitals refused to take the shipping of this product as a gift due to its insufficient level of ethanol (68% instead of 90% that comply with the medical institutions regulation).
“In search of answers to the crisis a brand shouldn’t copy other’s solutions. This is the time to think about its own unique role and its own ways to create more value.”
If you don’t have the resources to help others, you can always express your support with messaging. In order to do that you have to choose the right narrative with the focus on your audiences’ needs.Whichever is the strategy you employ, however, it should not contradict a mission and values of your brand.
If your company happens to be in possession of the resources in demand, you’d better not try and instantly benefit from that situation. Sometimes we also see brands starting a dogfight for the consumers with aggressive marketing and discounts. This kind of scurry may bring some benefits in the short term but may be detrimental for the brand equity and when the crisis ends the brand will struggle with the reputational damage. Patience and partnership — two important factors that are valued today. Think twice before launching a situational marketing campaign.
Every crisis is followed by growth. Save your breath and think of ideas for people who have just shrugged off a heavy psychological burden. The world is at the brink of grand changes and if you help to adapt, your customers will be grateful.
5 Things for Brands to Remember
The pandemic changed the world and no-one can stay out of these changes. However, in the rush for change there are simple rules of communication in crisis to remember for any business.
- Take care of the brand’s image
People will remember your brand’s reaction to the extreme situation. Don’t try to profit ruthlessly from the circumstances. If you can’t bring anything positive to the table it can be better to just stay aside for a while.
2. Be responsive to the customers’ needs
Their needs will have changed during the quarantine. And your content should too. It is time you revised your communication plan and decided which activities should stay and which should be left out.
3. Minimize your customers’ inconveniences
Your clients will have doubts and questions. Be prepared to address all of them. Moreover, if you understand that due to the crisis your service will not be provided in full or with proper quality — make sure the returns policy is client-oriented and intuitively simple.
4. Sustain trust
We all know the formula that states: “raise awareness, make it appealing, don’t let down” and how it helps to grow your business. The last part is especially important in times of epidemic. Cherish your customers’ loyalty you’ve been building over time and effort. Present your brands as stable and reliable even in the most difficult times.
5. Don’t overdo
You must have already got a lot of those yourself: letters from brands you hadn’t heard for a long time. While it is important to inform your clients about a change in conditions or express your solidarity, you should remember that their information field is already glutted. Try to communicate in a practical and positive way.
Hard times are there to bring out our best qualities. Let’s not forget that there hasn’t been a crisis that markets wouldn’t recover from. This one is no exception!