The Art of Branding in a Pandemic

Blank Advertising Billboard, London, UK

It is probably a good thing that Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and American showman Phineas T. Barnum are not around working as brand managers today. After all, according to literary and entertainment industry lore, the former believed “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” while the latter insisted “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Neither is true, especially for brands during a pandemic.

According to the Brand Finance Global 500, the brand value of the world’s 500 biggest companies could drop by more than $1.4 trillion as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, with the aviation sector taking the biggest hit. In Canada, the collective value of brands could fall 16 per cent, from $287 billion to $242 billion.

As things stand, the marketing research firm says the most valuable brands in this country are in the banking sector, where TD took the crown away from RBC in the latest rankings. But these findings were based on consumer sentiment from a different world. And as Charles Scarlett-Smith, director of Brand Finance Canada, noted in early April, we will likely “see big shifts and changes in the hierarchy as the dust settles and we are able to take stock of the damage caused by COVID-19.”

Indeed, as isolated consumers watch the global pandemic play out in print, across digital media, and on traditional TV, it is clear that not all brand managers are following the same playbook, at least not after collectively flooding e-mail inboxes with “We are here for you” messages as the extent of the crisis started to sink in. Since then, the moves made by brand managers and their sidekicks in corporate communications have been all over the map—some good, some bad, and some just ugly.

The good moves have been made by brand managers who understand why actions can often speak louder than words.

In North America, Bauer quickly took actions that will benefit its brand after its engineers held a video conference to brainstorm on how to help out relatively early in the crisis. After settling on the idea of using the company’s hockey equipment expertise to produce medical face shields, it turned around and tested multiple prototypes in less than a week. Bauer’s research and development facilities in Blainville, Quebec—along with a Cascade/Maverik facility in the United States—started producing and shipping much-needed equipment while other manufacturers were still just talking about it.

“Our sporting communities have always been team-first, understanding the importance of working together to accomplish a goal for the greater good,” the company announced. “During this unprecedented time, our team isn’t just Bauer or Cascade/Maverik, it’s the global community. We’ve heard the needs for personal protective equipment from our medical professional and first responder friends and family members, and are determined to do our part in providing the support they need to do their jobs more safely.”

Over in the United Kingdom, the Dyson brand should also benefit from leading the corporate world’s charge to support front-line efforts. After company inventor–founder James Dyson discussed the need to prepare for the pandemic peak with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the home appliance giant best known for vacuums took just 10 days to design the CoVent, an entirely new ventilator specifically for people inflicted with COVID-19.

If all goes as planned, Dyson expects to deliver 10,000 of the devices to Britain’s National Health Service and another 5,000 to the international community by mid-April. Other manufacturers have followed Dyson’s lead, including a consortium of 14 firms with big names like Airbus and Rolls-Royce, but moving fast and first will deliver more brand dividends to Dyson.

Brands across multiple sectors are also stepping up. In fact, at this point, it seems like every alcohol brand is making hand sanitizer while every clothing brand—from fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara to Lululemon and even Prada—are making masks and gowns for healthcare professionals. The most creative of these comes from Fanatics, which typically makes uniforms for Major League Baseball teams but is producing stylish gowns and masks that look like sport uniforms.

However, while being creative can pay brand dividends, it also creates risk. The last thing you want is to look like you’re trying to exploit a crisis, so COVID-19 represents a fine line for brands to walk.

Coca-Cola did a good job being creative in the Philippines—where it ran an ad announcing that all future spending on advertising was being shifted to public service announcements linked to fighting the pandemic. This “We’ll Be Off Air for a While” ad was an innovative, low-key message of support that consumers tend to really appreciate. But WestJet’s discount brand Swoop dropped the ball when trying to sell cheap airline tickets to people being told to stay home using images of toilet paper as a play on reports of panic buying by consumers.

If you are going to be creative during a pandemic, it must be thoughtful. Budweiser’s beautiful “One Team” ad tribute (see below) to healthcare heroes, for example, hits the right note. Celebrating the bravery of first responders by linking them visually to well-known sports teams, the Budweiser ad tastefully promotes the company’s move to redirect US$5 million of its sports and entertainment marketing spend to the American Red Cross. The brewer is also working with its sports partners to make arenas and stadiums available for blood drives.

We will probably see hundreds of tribute ads over the next few months, along with multiple brand announcements about redirecting media dollars to public service messages. But here again, timing matters. As with any brand initiative, consumers tend to reward the first mover and ignore the copycats—unless they are brilliant.

Guinness benefited from a “social distancing” message that wasn’t the first to come out of the corporate world but went viral due to its sheer brilliance. In March, the 260-year-old brand found itself scrambling to replace advertising designed for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations after major cities started cancelling parades. Creatively using old footage on the fly, it created a nice “Don’t worry, we’ll march again” spot.

But ironically, this ad was upstaged by a digital poster depicting what looks like a typical pint of Guinness sitting above the words “Stay at home”—until you notice the head foam on the beer is a couch. Guinness got tons of credit for this simplicity. But as Adweek noted, the “perfect Guinness ad” was the work of Luke O’Reilly, an Irish freelance copywriter, who wasn’t working for the company. Instead, the ad was created for the One Minute Briefs, a challenge that encourages aspiring advertising talent to show their stuff by designing socially responsible advertising. In this case, the brief “was to create pub posters that, somewhat ironically, discouraged pub outings.”

A brand, of course, isn’t just influenced by how it supports the community. Indeed, how a company treats employees also has a significant impact, especially during a crisis that has lots of people being let go or being asked to take risks way outside what normally is required.

In a memo posted on Patagonia’s website, the privately held sporting goods retailer noted that it was shutting down operations to protect the community while continuing to pay its workers in the interim. Not every business can go this far, but then again, not every business that could do this is willing to do so. Over at the NBA, Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love pledged US$100,000 to aid sports arena workers out of work due to the suspension of basketball. Taking a classic leadership stance, Love said: “My hope is that others will step up.” Many of his fellow players have followed his lead, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin, and Zion Williamson.

American grocery chain Trader Joe’s generated positive headlines for moving to ensure employees who are sick stay home. “To better support each Crew Member in making community-minded decisions,” the company started providing employees with up to two weeks of additional paid sick time in early March. But Whole Foods is catching brand flak thanks to CEO John Mackey, who sent out an e-mail suggesting that employees take advantage of an old policy that enables unused paid-time-off days to be transferred between coworkers. This policy, of course, was put in place before the company was bought by Amazon, where workers are revolting over being asked to handle thousands of items touched by multiple potentially infected individuals without any protective equipment.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Tim Hortons is fighting a consumer backlash as some of its 1,500 franchisees are reportedly demanding that employees produce a doctor’s note just to qualify for unpaid sick days. This doesn’t just waste doctor time and increase the risk of community spread—it exposes the brand to being seen by consumers as an utterly awful company.

The lessons here are clear. Brands need to treat their people well if they want consumers to believe that they are run by people who care. When disaster strikes, if there is something helpful you can do, then just do it and do it quickly. If there is something helpful you can say, then say it, and feel free to say it creatively if you can do so with compassion.

And if you don’t have anything to offer or your message doesn’t come naturally, then don’t waste everybody’s time trying to attract attention.

About the Author

Graham Robertson is the author of the bestselling Beloved Brands playbook, and the founder of Beloved Brands Inc, a boutique brand consulting and marketing training firm.

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