Brands and Covid-19

At Public Good we think of purpose-driven brands in three categories: those who were born in purpose (like Patagonia or Ben and Jerry’s), those who have achieved purpose (like Microsoft), and those who have purpose thrust upon them. This last category typically applies to brands that hadn’t previously taken a strong position on social issues but where events make a neutral position untenable (like Dick’s Sporting Goods after Parkland.) The last category may also be said to apply to brands who have done admirable work on various issues, but find they need to shift to accommodate the response to an overwhelming new incident like Covid-19.

To adapt in a crisis, brands need to take positions, develop programs, and respond very quickly. This can feel scary and counter-intuitive (much like a stock trader buying when the market is panic selling), but it can also be a test of how deeply the brand has embraced purpose: if it’s truly in their bones and they have well-formulated positions and stances, they can sometimes respond quite seamlessly. In cases where the brand has not been as purpose oriented, a strong response requires substantial buy-in from the top executive level.

While often brands are hesitant to wade into a crisis, talking about anything without at least a nod to the current situation is likely to appear tone deaf. Direct response advertising can be particularly challenging, especially for products that can’t easily be gotten at home and under quarantine such as cars or travel. These are the reasons why some are projecting a greater than $60 billion pull back in advertising. And ironically, the pull back in spend will hurt media outlets that are getting out critical news about the virus, potentially prolonging the outbreak and its financial effects.

But it’s in these crises that true leadership and purpose can shine. Brands command massive resources and distribution channels. They can make a huge difference especially when political leadership is slower to respond. We’ve seen so many cases of this already with Covid-19, such as boutique distilleries pivoting to make hand sanitizer, giant automotive manufacturers retooling to make ventilators, and big tech companies releasing stockpiles of PPE they accumulated during the California wildfires.

We’ve also seen that there is a strong desire among all people to help. Across all Public Good’s Covid-19 related programs we’re seeing as much as 250% higher participation vs what are normally our higher performing programs (like sustainability and food security.) People are looking for rallying points and trusted media and brands can provide them.

We have seen this before at smaller scales: for example, we worked with several brands on hurricane relief during some of the worst hurricane seasons. While major brands don’t generally think of hurricane relief as their purpose, those who responded and engaged with customers to help leverage their efforts saw significant upticks in their brand favorability, effects we were still able to measure after more than a year. It turned out to be a great example of doing good and doing well.

The bottom line is this: Everyone is currently thinking about the pandemic. To not address it and continue business as usual is not only unlikely to be a profitable strategy, but could easily make a brand a target of ill will. But if the message of this moment can be incorporated into a brand’s story, ideally by empowering customers to work with the brand towards any measure of hope, that effort will also be seen very positively and remembered long after the crisis is over. This is a true time of purpose.