How brands can position themselves and communicate during COVID-19

By: Laura Anne Danaraj

The past couple of weeks have been rough; our inboxes, text messages, television advertisements etc. have been flooded with news about COVID-19 and navigating through this crisis. It can all be a bit overwhelming to get your message across effectively and appropriately and on the receiving end, hardly digestible.

From a personal standpoint, I am simply turning to brands or feeds that I am most familiar with and loyal to, in show of my support. In times where talk has become cheap, authenticity is gauged by seeing whether brands are standing in solidarity with the masses, putting their customers first and taking care of the needs of their staff and partners. What this shows me: We are all in need of kindness and love. It is in a crisis where we find character- to trust and build a deep, long lasting relationship.

This week in my chat with Michael Ryan Chan, Managing Partner, Evye LLP, we discuss how brands can position themselves and communicate in the current pandemic that has thrown the world into chaos.

Firstly, why does surviving the pandemic require ‘heart’ and how can brands incorporate this into their messaging?

“The first thing most people remember is how you make them feel. With Covid-19 affecting everyone, and many in very adverse ways, it is very important to show empathy and sensitivity. More thought and care must go into everything we say.

We now have a universal thread that binds everyone around the world. I would look inwards and share genuine stories about how the people and teams behind our business are coping amidst all this. We are all in this together, and it’s okay to show a little vulnerability and sincerity that everyone can all relate to.

Finally, showing heart, hope and compassion through ACTIONS will touch more lives than any other kind of messaging. As the world digitizes, more and more consumers are becoming digitally and informationally savvy. They will call you out for insincere words or actions. Therefore, I would start by showing patience and understanding to customers/clients, or even taking on sustainable losses to retain employees. These actions will show far more sincerity and empathy than any polished press release.”

Now more than ever, it is critical to be mindful of what you say, how you say and when you say it. Understandably, your messages however well intended or tugged to the heartstrings, might still be interpreted as riding on a disaster for personal gains. With almost every individual wading into the pandemic forums and conversations, you are bound to hear multiple ideas, thoughts, solutions, and scenarios with businesses rewiring their brand messages, follow-up actions, and credentials. So, how can you avoid being labeled as an opportunist?

“Don’t jump on bandwagons simply because everyone else does. Instead, take time to re-look at your marketing strategies and develop something longer term that factors in Covid-19. Brands should stay true to their DNA, and avoid launching new campaigns or random pivots that betray who they have always been.

Tone and sincerity of messaging is also critical. It’s evident now that Covid-19 has and will change the socio-economic landscape forever. So marketing messages that accept its impact and are sensitive to the struggles of everyone else will build much stronger goodwill than those that try to dismiss it or not take it seriously.

Finally, brands should avoid engaging in too much ‘back-petting’. It’s the equivalent of sending “thoughts and prayers” with no credible action that can leave a bad taste. Brands should instead always try to deliver value and service to the community where they can. For example, they could offer helpful information via their marketing channels, or help in providing a public good. These actions, coupled with a humble and sincere tone, goes a long way in showing credibility and sensitivity.”

While it is no easy task of monkey see, monkey do, I do the applaud brands that add something meaningful to their conversations or speak louder through their actions. Brands can’t simply be weaving in self-serving or salesy angles in their messages addressing their organizations’ response to the pandemic- that would be perceived as tone deaf, insensitive or worst still dishonest. As it’s very tricky and intricate to put across messages to elicit the positive responses from the public, what are some tips for brands to rewrite their marketing playbooks amidst COVID-19?

“Empathy is key. More brands are starting to engage their customers on a personal level, and spreading messages of positivity. A very welcome shift are brands becoming of service — rather than offering service or products — to the community. It can be venture capital firms offering free advice to startups in this trying period, or ecommerce platforms hand-holding traditional businesses throughout the onboarding process.

Significantly, many brands are shifting away from seeking immediate returns on investment — it would be a fool’s errand to do so anyway, as consumers are now more cautious with their spending. So rather than trying to push products and services in this period, many brands are shifting towards brand-building. Refocus on your brand’s mission to the world, and how have your actions and campaigns are aligned with accomplishing that mission. If done correctly and consistently, it will eventually lead to business once the inevitable rebound and recovery starts.”

We can further debate if brands are playing smart or purely being opportunistic though it does not come off as exploitative. As marketers, we need to recognize that whatever the message right now, it’s happening against the backdrop of the pandemic. Some strategies we adopt could be temporary, but some might become a permanent behavior changes, moving beyond the current mode of survival. With so many changes, we are trying to learn and navigate through this journey together with confidence humility. In your opinion, what can be the right messaging amid the pandemic to set us off in the right footing?

“The right messaging will depend on the nature and status of your business. For businesses that can, it pays to be of service to the public, even if it costs you. Take that from your marketing budget, perhaps!

For many, it may be tempting to slash prices or engage in sales to drive revenue. But I would advise against it if possible because it will cheapen your brand, and it will be much more difficult to recover from that. If you must, a good tip would be to keep all promotions time-sensitive, or exclusive to the most in-need.

A good messaging strategy is more collaboration. Not just with your usual partners, but your competitors too. Combined promotions, collaborative initiatives or even multi-vertical partnerships are actions that show sincerity and understanding that the current world situation is larger than all of us.

Be very careful where your digital marketing materials end up. For example, the worst thing that can happen is for a disinfectant ad to inadvertently appear next to an article on the US President’s joke about injecting disinfectants to kill Covid-19. So regularly monitor your digital marketing targets and adjust them as current affairs change daily.

If there is just one important takeaway from all this, it would be to show heart in every action and message. Covid-19 is a blight upon this world, but if there’s one good thing to come out of it, it is its humbling force that makes us all realise the humanity in every business.”

Businesses and brands will have to think, operate and lead in new ways in such unprecedented times. Apart from honing the digital tools to get operations back to normal, spend the time to understand your customers as well. As simple as it sounds, approach a two-way communication – they do establish some sort of normalcy when so many other things around us are being disrupted. Eventually, all disasters, no matter how impactful, will end. We will all do well to remember that being human is the best approach.

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