In 1918, a pandemic ravaged the world and governments faced the challenge of educating the public about a virus that was as mysterious as it was deadly.
Like today, some businesses suffered great losses while others saw the demand for their products shoot upwards.
Also like today, brands had to quickly adapt to the crisis and find ways to add value in order to remain relevant. To find out how brands a century ago adapted, stick until the end.
For now, let’s jump back to the present.
What we’re dealing with today isn’t the influenza virus, but the coronavirus. Comparisons aside, the outbreak is leaving individuals and businesses stranded and unsure of what to do next.
In light of this, brands are trying to navigate the situation to avoid being overwhelmed by the crisis, whilst, at the same time, contributing their skills to the cause in one way or another.
With that in mind, not every brand should deal with the situation in the same way.
As with most branding and marketing activities, it all comes down to your business context and customers.
However, looking at what other brands are doing can at least provide us with some guidance…
⚠️ A word of warning
Brands must be wary not to capitalise on the situation. It should be an opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of the human race.
Free help may raise suspicions of deceit – is it altruism or opportunism?
At the same time, some forms of commercial activity may be perceived as outright profiteering.
Take the owner of an Italian TV channel La7, who decided to post a motivational video to tell his fellow advertisers that “business is booming right now” for TV networks and sales, and to reassure them that “today is the day of great opportunity. Because whoever I call, I get what I want.”
No. That’s not what this moment is supposed to be about.
That’s why a marketer is balancing on a very thin line:
- Talk about it too little and you might not appear relevant
- Talk about it too much and you may seem a bit too keen on leveraging the circumstance
What’s more, this isn’t the moment for great expectations.
A brand isn’t just a company without a soul, there are real people behind the brand – each with their own individual ways of handling a crisis situation.
Stress affects everyone, and leaders should know not to expect great waves of creativity in these times.
However, there are ways to adapt to the situation.
🔁 How to realign your strategy and adapt
👣 Take a step back and evaluate the situation
Everyday worries have been amplified by the outbreak, and it’s important to identify them.
Right now, some of the following thoughts are bouncing off the walls of people’s minds:
- Physical and mental health
- Well-being of older family members
- Having enough food
- Shutting down businesses, getting fired or having hours cut back
- Not having enough money
- Not being able to repay loans
- Being stranded in another country
- Having children at home all day
- Having to explain the situation
- Reassuring them
- Entertaining them
- Finding accurate information
These are just some of the commonly-shared concerns.
👉 Now ask yourself if your original value proposition can help with any of these.
If it can, maybe it’s time to get creative and step up your game! Amplify the side of your business that you believe will bring the most value to people, and dampen the irrelevant parts.
If it can’t, you still have options. You can either understand what skills you bring to the table and try to adapt them to the situation, or you can take a step back. This may mean turning off your marketing and brand activity for a while and doing some work behind the scenes – but this is not a sign of failure!
The important thing is to not tread where you’re not supposed to tread.
Because while taking a step back won’t cause any permanent damage, encroaching on unfamiliar territory could have a long-lasting, negative impact on your reputation.
🗣️ Crisis Communication
Before you do anything, you need to understand how to communicate – internally and externally.
💬 Internal Comms
What you do internally will reflect externally.
Don’t go into panic mode and jump straight to your customers, remember to think about employees too as they are still the face of your brand. To this end, you need to get your internal house in order first!
Before you start, have a look at this helpful pandemic glossary for businesses and learn what the correct terms are.
Knowing the right words will simplify communication and make it easier for everyone.
- Create a cross-functional pandemic response team
The virus response team’s purpose is to monitor the situation in order to manage the internal crisis.
This includes ensuring sufficient liquidity, monitoring the supply chain, identifying potential risks, and taking care of employee health and welfare. They’re the ones your organisation should turn to to receive reliable and summarised information.
In other words, the virus response team should have all the tools necessary to navigate the company through the situation in order to come out (relatively) unscathed.
- Adopt remote working technologies
The internet is littered with remote working tips for employees who have the opportunity to work from home. And while they have to do their best to become ‘WFH masters’, you have to set the scene for them by having a solid remote working system in place.
A balance of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools will ensure a smooth transition to a remote working environment.
And guess what, just as you’re doing your bit to help out – they are too!
Google is rolling out free access to advanced Hangouts Meet features to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally for a limited time.
And Microsoft is going all out with Teams, offering a free six-month trial globally for a premium tier.
- Let employees know you’re there
These tools don’t just allow for effective collaboration, but also provide a virtual place to keep your team up to date and engaged.
The people behind your brand look up to their employer to receive crisis news and information that’s relevant to your company.
For example, companies could open a Slack channel for COVID-19 updates, and another channel where employees share how they feel, how they’re coping, and what their coping mechanisms are.
Lastly, but most importantly, protect the physical health of your employees.
Keep yourself up to date on your employees’ health and, if they do have symptoms, try to not let them jump to conclusions too quickly. Instead, support them and give them sound advice.
For general inspiration, you may want to compare your plan with other crisis response plans. Coinbase, for example, have made their COVID-19 response plan available to the public.
And don’t worry if you have to change your approach along the way (like the UK government!). Just explain why and that the situation is changing.
🌐 External Comms
What about outside of your team? How do you communicate with customers and shareholders?
The first few months of 2020 are dripping with uncertainty, so it’s imperative that you address the key concerns of your shareholders, and proactively.
Reassure them by demonstrating your ability to handle the situation. Update them through press releases or by organising online meetings to keep them in the loop and, overall, be transparent about your approach.
Being cooped up between four walls with an ongoing pandemic might weather down mental health. People may be feeling anxious, depressed, and vulnerable – and you don’t want to add to that.
Of course, you’re in uncharted territory too, so it’s important to think hard about what to say, when to say it and how to say it.
Businesses are shutting down or changing their opening hours, and customers should be kept in the loop. It’s imperative to notify customers of these changes and keep them abreast of things as they happen.
That said, remember to not overdo it unless your product or service is critical at the moment. Customers don’t want to be swamped by unnecessary information.
Google released some tips on how to keep your business up to date on google and ensure that your customers have the latest info.
Other important information to include in your communications is what precautions you’re taking to battle this infectious disease. Are you implementing stronger sanitary measures? Providing masks and other protective equipment to employees who might be handling products.
You might also want to share accurate information pertaining to your particular product.
Rent The Runway is a great example. The subscription fashion service sent an email to its customers where it cited a Harvard Health study that shared that there “is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted from soft surfaces like fabric or carpet to humans.”
Note the word currently.
Having a new virus in circulation means that experts still don’t know a lot of things. That means that whatever information you share, even if it comes from a reliable source, could change from one moment to another.
A single word can greatly affect your credibility as a brand.
The retailer then went on to explain the techniques they use to clean their items in order to reassure their customers that they were on top of the situation.
And reassurance is the main theme here.
People want to be reassured and want to hear – or read – words of empathy.
So, be understanding and helpful, even more than usual, because that’s what they need right now.
Let them know that you’re there for them and try to match your tone with the one the whole world is using.
We’re mourning, we’re comforting, we are fighting.
Having said that, it’s okay to include a pinch of humour as long as it speaks the truth and doesn’t trigger excessive negative emotions.
Consider that a Kantar survey found that 40% of consumers think that brands should avoid a humorous tone. And yet, it’s normal to turn to humour during difficult times and it’s impossible to put everyone in the same basket.
So again, this may depend on your audience and business context, but strive to find a good balance of being helpful, comforting, and uplifting.
These principles of communication are the foundation for what you need to do next.
🔢 Reliable Information and Rigorous Fact-Checking
As we already mentioned above, this is the time for reliable and up-to-date information.
We’ve been seeing an increase in fake news over the years. Social media networks are hotbeds for fake news stories and, unfortunately, the coronavirus hasn’t changed that.
The pandemic came to the party hand-in-hand with an infodemic, and they don’t seem to be letting each other go anytime soon.
Contrasting information spewed out of what are usually considered reliable sources, creating COVID sceptics and a whole bundle of conspiracy theories.
Although the world is now (more or less) on the same page, we’re still living an info-pandemic.
In fact, if you have WhatsApp or Facebook, chances are you’ve received some kind of message claiming that drinking water every 15 minutes will send the virus to your stomach acid where it will promptly be dissolved.
Even what might seem like a reliable source – say, a Florida politician – might suggest that you hold a blow dryer in front of your face to destroy the virus with hot air.
Please double-check every piece of information that you find. You do NOT want to be adding to the flood of fake news and fraudulent ads that are scattered across the web. And if you’re unsure about whether it’s correct or not, the best thing is to omit it.
But wherever can you find reliable sources of information?
👉 Government websites are updated regularly and give real insight into what’s going on. For the UK, for example, the government is usefully revealing how the outbreak is affecting education, travel, employment, and business as well as sharing statistics, risk level, and recent government action.
If you don’t usually follow medical and scientific experts, a good place to start would be:
- The World Health Organisation’s pandemic page (or the quick links on the main page)
- The John Hopkins Global Cases Map for the real numbers
- Pro-Science source LiveScience’s live updates
- Harvard Health’s COVID-19 Basics
Remember that the information on these websites are subject to change as new discoveries surface. But they are the ones who know the most at this time.
And your customers want to receive the highest quality information, which leads on to the important point of content…
Due to self-isolation and lockdowns, content has become a light at the end of the tunnel.
The consumption of online content has sky-rocketed around the world, from increased interest in online news articles to a sudden spike in viewership for online streaming services like Netflix and Youtube.
Even some more controversial streaming services are contributing and seeing an increase in usage.
So, is it time to increase content production to keep those viewers and readers informed and entertained?
We already have a post that explains how to raise the bar on content marketing.
Within the current climate, that important triad of valuable, relevant and consistent are even more critical.
People want to know what’s going on and how to deal with the situation. Get the reliable information you gathered with the section above, and condense it into digestible pieces of content.
Content that you may have planned to publish might not be of great relevance anymore. Revise it and determine if it‘s pertinent.
You’d be surprised at what could become relevant with a little creativity.
‘Never stop’ is one of the rules. But, as we mentioned before, depending on your situation, you might have to turn your marketing off for a while.
However, forward-thinkers might be able to look ahead and use this time to plan the message they want to get across with their post-pandemic content.
💻 Virtual Conferences and Webinars
No more concerts, no more tech conferences – no more in-person events.
Our faces fell for every cancelled event, but it was a crucial move based on empirical evidence.
In 1918, the city of Philadelphia threw a massive parade despite the influenza warnings.
Instead, St. Louis closed schools, cancelled events and adopted social distancing measures. The results paint a clear picture of why we’re taking these precautions today.
Luckily, in 2020, we’re actually pretty well-equipped for this!
We’ve already been edging towards online events with pre-coronavirus predictions claiming that they would be big in 2020.
But now, necessity has accelerated the process.
Thanks to the great technological minds of our time, these events are becoming even more realistic. For example, Teooh provides the perfect setting for virtual events and lets you create your own avatars.
You can do it too. Use these services to provide a virtual location where people can gather, network, and learn.
Which brings us to our next point.
Quarantined socialising would have been harder a decade ago. Now, you can organise realistic birthday parties, brunches and group games in the virtual world.
Moving away from the recreational, virtual reality might even be changing tourism and education.
VR education has already proved to increase engagement and, with teachers scrambling to upload courses for their students, this technology might improve the learning experience while in lockdown.
And that’s also what it’s about now – rushing to improve experiences.
📞 Customer Service and Customer Experience
Some sectors have suffered a direct blow by this coronavirus, such as the travel and hospitality industry.
It’s also made for a LOT of phone time, which inevitably leads to hour-long phone queues that rip customer experience to shreds, if you let it!
I recently experienced this first-hand as I had two flights cancelled. But the customer service rep’s empathy calmed me down and reassured me that the airline cared. They did everything in their power to reroute my flight with the least stress possible, going as far as calling me back in the evening to tell me they had found a better flight than the one I had chosen!
Of course, customer service reps are in a pickle too. Their voices are tired and hoarse and their minds are filled with all the complaints and despair of callers.
So, empathise with your customers, but also with your customer service team and let them know you appreciate their work.
In fact, if you want the chance to lighten some of their burden, why not turn to chatbots?
Chatbots can answer basic queries and, with the right AI skills, could even accept documentation for refunds! They could free the lines and give your customers an interactive and smooth experience.
📱 Social Media
There has certainly been an increase in social media use in general as people move all interactions to the digital world.
Twitter in particular has always been an excellent crisis management network, with some studies even praising the channel for its instant updates and dialogue creation abilities.
You might even use it as the main vehicle to communicate updates.
However, depending on the nature of your brand, you may want to dial it down on social channels and, in case you don’t, prepare for backlash that could arise and lay down clear guidelines to handle it.
The beer brand that unfortunately shares the same name as the virus, Corona, is leading by example. Despite being in an uncomfortable yet perfect position, they have not turned to social media with irony and jokes to market their product.
Their silence is actually doing the marketing for them.
On the other end, we have Nike doing their bit to encourage self-isolation on their Twitter channel . It can be comforting to see a brand whom you know and trust give you advice, letting you know that you’re sharing the same boat with billions of others around the world.
Twitter has also posted some examples of good social media communication for brands.
🙆 Lead by example
This article wouldn’t be complete without this section.
Sure, sending emails and posting updates is a great way to support your fellow humans. But what about physical, concrete help?
There’s a band of fintech companies offering their technology for free and other tech companies slashing costs for businesses. But what about manufacturers? Can they help in any way?
Brewdog – the guys with the virtual drinking havens – have found another use for their distilleries. They’re creating their own hand sanitiser and delivering it for free to charities that are supporting families in need.
Ralph Lauren is starting the production of a quarter of a million masks and 25,000 isolation gowns.
Just like Nomad, Christian Siriano, around 8 manufacturers in the Sicilian island of Italy… and the list goes on.
If you can contribute and have the tools, do it.
🆘 Accept Help
This may not be directly connected with the face of your brand, but it will keep your brand afloat. Accept the help that various organisations are offering to small businesses.
Governments have already delivered some packages to aid small businesses, but they aren’t the only ones sending help.
Stay informed and accept all the help you can get. Then use that help to implement the measures we’ve mentioned above to ensure that you adapt to this crisis in the right way.
📜 Brands adapting to past crises
In his work The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, R. Davis reveals that infodemics and crisis exploitation are nothing new.
“Further muddying the waters were the numerous advertisements for different remedies, which blurred the line between medical science and other discourses.”
Not too different from the ads and “cures” we see today on social media!
A. Rowden King (editor of Printer’s Ink) believed that “tasteful advertising had the capacity to both educate the public and sell the product.”
He displayed a strong aversion to the act of profiteering from the influenza epidemic, and instead highlighted certain adverts that put the information before the brand.
Colgate, for example, provided basic prophylactic information instead of “prominently displaying the product name or maker.”
The ad starts with some important facts on how to prevent the spread, then moves on to outlining the 12 rules to avoid respiratory diseases, and finally ends with “The Three C’s – Clean Mouths, Clean Skins, Clean Clothes.”
The toothpaste brand is clearly relevant in a context where hygiene is a priority, but it doesn’t seem to blatantly advertise itself.
In fact, the brand name is at the bottom of the page.
This is what brands should be doing. Not advertising their wonderful brand, but advertising the helpful information that their brand can provide.
🤔 Concluding thoughts
What kind of opinion do you want the public to have of your brand right now? And how do you want it to be remembered by future writers and historians?
Will this opinion be long-lasting or will it last for the duration of the pandemic? It will be fascinating to see which behavioural changes will stay with us and which will disappear.
And who knows, maybe this strategy realignment might take you in a direction that you would have never expected… and you might like it!
From Emma at immerj