Brand-building is more than possible, argues Darren Coleman, but the best attempts have been characterised by understated communications along with genuine moves across the business to show how the brand is playing its part in the effort.

No matter who you are, where you are or what you do, Coronavirus will be affecting you ways that were unimaginable only a few days ago. Coronavirus is ripping through countries and communities with frightening force. Unforgiving. Unrelenting.

Truly, we are living in extraordinary and upsetting times.

Recent YouGov data shows brands are starting to feel the bite or benefit because of their Coronvirus response (Figure 1). JD Weatherspoon’s brand metrics have nosedived after the owner, Tim Martin, suggested pubs should be allowed to remain open during the lock down and that staff would not be paid until the government stepped in to pay them on furlough. This contrasts with the rise of BrewDog’s brand sentiment scores after the company’s founders sacrificed their salaries and the brand turned its hand to making sanitiser.

Figure 1: YouGov Brand Index April 2020.

According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, what brands do now has the potential define their growth trajectories when they emerge from this pandemic (Figure 2).

Figure 2: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands and the Coronavirus.

“Our findings point towards the new environment, in which companies will be judged on the way they treat people; their staff, their customers and society as a whole. In this context, and in the one that will follow Covid-19, the approach of valuing profit over people just won’t cut it. People have long memories and we will not forget the way in which companies treat their staff throughout the next few months.”

Jane Ostler,Global head of media, insights division, Kantar

So now is the time for brands to stand up and be counted. Actions speak louder than words.

It’s been well documented how a number of brands are doing their bit to help out. 

But are these well-intentioned efforts running the risk of snowballing into humble brags masquerading as opportunistic PR?

Even at the best of times cause-related marketing is a difficult balance to strike. You’re buggered if you do and you’re buggered if you don't. But it would be naïve not to expect brands to want to get some commercial upside from their efforts. That’s a commercial reality of life.

Smart brands will take a different and more nuanced approach. They will understand the issues driving the Coronavirus crisis then take action via support and solutions that deliver meaningful help, albeit in unassuming and understated ways.

Table 1 shares some ideas and illustrative examples to help you get going.



Frontline medical staff face Personal Protective Equipment shortages.

Utilise spare transport or logistics capacity to deliver personal protective equipment to front line medical staff working in hospitals, care homes or other situations that expose them to infection risk.

Food banks and other charities cannot meet the scale of demand.

Get your communications team to contact local charities to see if they can help with local outreach and support. Copywriting to raise awareness and cold calling to raise funds would be good places to start. If you have some spare media space, why not offer it to a charity in need?

Government messages about social distancing are taking too long to get through.

Challenge your creative teams to craft visuals that support government requests to stay home and social distance. US-based illustrator, Jennifer Baer, created a suite of retro travel posters encouraging people to stay home during these troubled times. You could also reach out to your brand ambassadors and ask them to amplify key government and local community messages via their social channels. VISA’s recent “Do Your Part like an Olympian” highlights best practices amid COVID-19 outbreak – after showcasing their skills whilst indoors – provides a relevant example. Another option entails offering some or all of your content, across multiple platforms, for free. The likes of HBO’s #StayHomeBoxOffice are leading the way by offering some of its content for free with no subscription in a bid to encourage folks to stay home.

Businesses are in commercial meltdown and are looking down the barrel of a recession

Call on your expertise to create instructional, educational articles that help business get through these terrible times and plan, as best possible, for a recession. WARC’s marketing in the COVID-19 crisis provides marketers with practical advice on how best to cope with marketing challenges they will be facing right now and in months to come. You could also support organisations in your ecosystem. Van’s “Foot the Bill” has enabled 80 businesses to utilise Vans Customs platform to design 500 pairs of custom shoes. The net profits go directly to that small business. Uber Eats is waiving delivery and activations fees in the UK to support restaurants hit by decreasing demand during the coronavirus crisis.

The financial, emotional and psychological wellbeing of people is being adversely affected.

Create events e.g. webinars that bring your brand community together with the aim of supporting their financial, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Spotify recently launched Covid 19 Music Relief as a way to support musicians and other artists whose bookings have recently been cancelled. You could also create a call roster where employees take turns to call those that are vulnerable, self-isolating or live alone – in a bit to support their emotional and psychological wellbeing.

The list goes on. But I think you get the point. Important actions can be delivered in a modest manner. There’s no need to shout about it. Just get on with it if you can.

The importance of employees shouldn’t be overlooked during these turbulent times. Your primary concern should be safeguarding your employees. Period. But it’s also important to recognise your employees can become powerful brand advocates if your external intentions and internal actions align.

For some brands this penny hasn’t quite dropped. “Chipotle Together” is a virtual lunch hangout the food chain is hosting to support social distancing and self-isolation. Admirable until you learn that Chipotle staff staged a walkout due to the company’s sick leave policy. EasyJet’s pilots and cabin crew were required to take three months’ unpaid leave and accept a pay freeze – just after dishing out a £174m dividend pay out to shareholders with £60m of which going to EasyJet’s founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. The lack of sincerity leaves a bad taste in your mouth and will hardly leave employees wanting to reach for the sky when they return to work – assuming they do.

Over the coming months wise brands will focus their efforts on doing something to fight Coronavirus – not shouting about how wonderful they are for doing it. It’s not about you. It’s not about your brand. It’s about your brand doing something that genuinely helps people who are in dire straits. Let your actions - which should be characterised by empathetic acts of kindness - do the talking.

If your actions deliver relevant value then your brand community, employees, ecosystem partners will take your brand building into their own hands. They’ll share the support you provide in authentic way via raw and genuine stories that chime with the global sensitivities of today. History will then repay you for the good you have done in the months and years to come.