“Now all them things that seemed so important… they vanished right into the air.”
Yes, you’re right, that’s Bruce Springsteen’s, The River. Music often provides great succor in straitened times and no little wisdom too. Language can resonate and give focus to our thoughts and feelings. We are living in a COVID-19 world right now and that’s challenging for businesses and individuals alike. It is just a line from a song but some things have indeed vanished right into the air, there’s been an upheaval in conventional thinking, and from a brand and business perspective the role that people expect them to play has been transformed. So, what exactly is expected from brands in a coronavirus defined environment?
Joe Carmody, Managing Director, and Feargal Purcell, Head of Public Affairs, are two members of the Edelman Dublin team who , from the outset of the current crisis, have been advising on how best brands and businesses can operate in an unprecedented, unpredictable and ever-evolving environment .
While there is no crisis playbook or manual that can be taken off a shelf, in fact there is a new freedom in how we can act and think. The scale of the challenge demands it. Basic pillars of behaviour still apply but many of the old restrictions have fallen away.
See below 4 key tips for brands on how to communicate at this time, based on our experience of how we are seeing organisations respond to this crisis. This has also been informed by new Trust research we have undertaken in 12 markets on the critical role brands are expected to play during the coronavirus pandemic. You can view the latest results of our Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic here
People want brands to Solve rather than sell
People want brands to offer solutions to help address the societal challenges posed by COVID-19.Our Trust research shows that brands are being asked to shift to producing products that help consumers meet the challenges of today (89%), to offer free or lower-priced products to health workers, people at high risk, and those whose jobs have been affected (89%).
One of the key findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report is that 7 in 10 people stated that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand permanently.
We have seen many brands step up to respond to the needs that people and organisations have at this time; Dove and Irish Distillers are making hand sanitiser soap; RTE has brought the school room into sitting rooms; O’Neills have shifted from GAA equipment to personal protection equipment.
To sustain trust through this crisis, brands must help solve the most urgent problems that people face. It must be about solving rather than selling.
Brands Must Sacrifice Self-interest, for Community Interest
Our COVID-19 Trust Report shows that there is unanimity on this point; over 90% of people globally want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means incurring losses until the pandemic ends.
In an Irish context, again many businesses are responding well in this regard, providing bonuses to employees for the sacrifices and efforts they are making, investing in protection equipment in their workplaces and suppliers are being provided with fairer terms.
Brands that are looking after themselves first are out of step and will suffer. Some brands drew significant fire with communications that focused on business continuity first and worker and customer safety second. This is a damaging place for a brand to find themselves in at this time, being forced to act under pressure after their initial response was out of step.
The public expect businesses to act proactively for them, for their employees and their suppliers.
Communicate with Empathy & Facts
What we have seen is that there is little appetite or space for messages other than the actions that brands are taking to provide help and offer solutions. At a time of crisis, people want communications that allay their concerns about their material and social needs.
The reality is that before communications we must have credible action. Pretending existing marketing initiatives can be reshaped as a response to COVID-19 lacks authenticity and credibility. Clever wordsmithing only emphasizes the absence of action.
People are looking for actions that help them in their real lives. If that is happening the job of communications is straight forward. It is simply to amplify those actions.
This theme is also coming through in our Trust research. 84% of respondents said they want brand advertising to focus on how brands can help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges.
As ever, in every crisis, there is opportunity. Brands can build a new level of connection with consumers or damage the relationship forever based on how they are communicating. 65% of respondents said that a brand’s response in the crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood of purchasing it in the future. By contrast, there is great risk to brands that are perceived to be acting unsympathetically.
Partnership with Government
In our work with clients over the past few weeks we have seen a significant theme in the potential for brands to partner with government as well as unique opportunities arising for long-term trust building.
The overarching advice on how to insulate your brand at this time is ‘don’t go dark.’ You have the permission to communicate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and in fact people expect brands to communicate and what’s expected is calm, considered action.
So, what does ‘good’ look like in the current environment? To help shape the correct course of action for your brand, we advise you to ask three questions: “who am i?’’ and “where am I?” in the current environment, and, based on that context, “how can I help?”
The feedback that we are getting from government is that the amount of lean ins, the offers of help and the added value is unprecedented but also that their doors are open. However, brands must go to government with an offer, not an ask. Anyone who is asking for something at this time will not be heard and if you are offering to help, it becomes very clear, very quickly if the offer to help isn’t sincere.
When they write the story of COVID-19, there will be a chapter titled ‘Who Did What?’ The benefits of doing the right thing at this time and how a brand behaves will define both its reputation and its bottom line in a post-coronavirus world.