Do tough times reveal the true character of a brand? Facing the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and subsequent disruption in nearly all industry sectors, how might a brand’s choices reveal its nature or true personality, strengthen or damage or perhaps transform its relationship with stakeholders?
Brand actions during critical moments such as this can prompt a consumer to “reassess and manipulate memories of past events, such as converting positive memories into negative ones or vice versa,” according to research from marketing professors Colleen Harmeling, Robert Palmatier, Mark Houston and other colleagues. A single event can “disrupt gradual relationship development and serve as a defining moment in a relationship’s history, driving transformational emotions and cognitions and causing a dramatic change in the relationship’s velocity.”
During these times of crises, choosing the right form of brand behavior and executing it at the right time can infuse more meaning to consumers’ relationships with your brand.
As Covid-19 spreads across the world, consumers’ needs and behaviors rapidly change. Experiential marketing and sensory marketing activities may need to evolve and find new channels. As brands proactively adapt to the pressure and changes caused by the pandemic, those seen as genuinely caring and committed to the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet will emerge from the trial even stronger. Those perceived as using overt gestures to cover up a sole focus on profit may lose trust and customers altogether.
Three types of brand behavior stand out:
The action a brand takes needs to be a genuine, true expression of the company’s beliefs. A March 12 tweet from U-Haul shows the company’s concern and sense of responsibility:
As another example, EO Essential Oils partnered with Lyft to deliver 200,000 bottles of hand sanitizer spray to driver hubs and service centers in 10 major cities as an expression of its brand belief.
While many companies chose not to react to the crisis, at least initially, to avoid the risk of getting it wrong, some that do react with speed and agility stand out in the eyes of the consumer. A frequent business traveler source shared that, out of the four airlines she regularly flies with, Southwest Airlines was the first that emailed an update about the airline’s increased efforts to keep their aircraft clean and germ-free, long before other airlines initiated any communication. Although all her business travels are suspended, Southwest has broken from the pack and moved closer to their vision of being a beloved airline in the heart and mind of this consumer.
Smart brands learn and quickly adapt from past experience in challenging situations. A March 12 email from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to its customers specifically noted, “We have also prepared our stores to respond quickly to any emerging situation, leveraging the considerable insights we’ve gained from our experience in China, where we continue to see encouraging signs of recovery with over 90% of stores reopened.” When the virus travels and spreads around the globe, so should knowledge.
A recent Harvard Business Review article investigates how some hard-hit Chinese businesses went through the turmoil with creative new strategies. For example, many restaurants, hotels and cinemas actively reallocated labor to new activities, such as recovery planning or even loaned employees to online to offline companies that saw a sudden increase in sales.
As marketers enter uncharted territory and ponder what are the right actions to take to navigate the turbulent waters, they can find the sweet spot in the intersection of three things: the firm’s field of competence, which is what a brand does the best and its unique know-how; the brand identity, which is the voice and DNA that sets the brand apart; and the dynamic needs of the community during the crisis, which include current customers.
For example, at a time when knowing the facts is the single most powerful tool to stem the fear and the spread of the pandemic, Google’s initiative to be the curator of the latest and most accurate information regarding Covid-19 is an example that checks all the boxes.
World Vision is another that’s being its authentic self, doing what it does best to serve the most pressing needs during the crisis. World Vision is a humanitarian aid agency that has been responding to the outbreak on the ground in China and in its own backyard of Seattle. At the initial stage when the Covid-19 outbreak was not well understood outside China, World Vision communicated with donors through the unique perspective of their staffers living under lockdown in China. To educate and change behavior of at-risk communities, World Vision identified community influencers such as trusted frontline healthcare providers. It is an approach that’s proven effective by a 2016 Johns Hopkins study of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. There were no deaths among the 58,000 World Vision-supported children and their families.
Actions like these that are rooted in a brand’s field of competence and identity lends legitimacy and sincerity and will, in turn, strengthen its functional imageries and emotional affinities long after the crisis is gone.
At times like this, when customers are highly sensitive and responsive to the moves of brands, corporate social responsibility is a strategic investment for the firm. As management professor Abagail McWilliams, co-editor of the 2019 Oxford Handbook of Corporate Social Responsibility: Psychological and Organizational Perspectives shared, “A pandemic creates an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to invest in their reputation because their authentic socially responsible actions can pay off exponentially in social good created, as well as generating wide-spread favorable media attention that enhances reputation.”
As Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard University, wrote in his March 13 letter to members of the community, “No one knows what we will face in the weeks ahead, but everyone knows enough to understand that Covid-19 will test our capacities to be kind and generous and to see beyond ourselves and our own interests.”
Our three-circle Venn diagram above was meant for brand behaviors, but we take the liberty to interpret Bacow’s letter as a call for all human beings to do the same. Together, we’ve got this.