In Edelman we have always firmly believed that the more we share and talk the better the solutions we’ll find. In the past few weeks and month, working and living in a COVID-19 defined world, has only reinforced the importance of community. That’s why we’ve committed to share ongoing research and insights from around the globe.

What follows are some insights taken from our Brand Trust research, and learnings we in Edelman have developed since this crisis emerged, based on our work with clients to help guide you through the role for business and brands in managing COVID-19.

Situation Analysis

In dealing with COVID-19 we need to understand how do brands ensure that their actions have value, meet the expectations of stakeholders and are in-step with people in their real lives? We’ve looked at 4 major resources to come up with answers and ask the fundamental questions that marketers should consider.

Firstly, Edelman’s international network provides us with a global view of the crisis, and we can draw learnings from our teams in Asia specifically China, South Korea and Japan who are further down the path with this crisis.

We’ve conducted our own primary research speaking to over 30,000 people in March and April across multiple geographies on Trust and the Coronavirus.

In terms of secondary research, we have drawn on industry sources and academic research to build a comprehensive view of what audiences expect.

We are also constantly reviewing media and social media to understand how these expectations are evolving in real time.

Many businesses are already doing so much; acting generously and swiftly to show solidarity with people and their challenges.

But, as the crisis lengthens, these expectations will stretch too, and the question will soon be what more can brands do? This requires an ongoing understanding of what matters to people so brands can step in with decisive action that responds authentically to what people need.

 Role for Business and Brands

The world suddenly feels very fragile, and many people are looking to organisations and institutions to help them through this time. Many brands have stood up to plate at this time and offered solutions to some of the challenges we face.

We’ve seen Coca Cola redirecting its ATL spend across markets to deliver clear, simple public health messages; Supermarkets introducing early morning shopping hours for those at risk; Airbnb putting aside $250 million for hosts over cancellations.

Consumers want to hear from brands and business who can foster connections and belonging. Those brands have an opportunity to grow their reputations positively by helping people to connect, have fun or blow off the steam they need to keep going.

Big infrastructure businesses have an opportunity to leverage their logistical capabilities and marketing spend to create communications that address people’s new priorities.

People are relying more heavily on services they are already familiar with and looking for support from them, for example total messaging activity across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp is up by 50%.

Another great example of a trusted brand leveraging their position in society is An Post which has implemented a range of measures to support the most vulnerable in society and keep Ireland connected; from delivering the newspaper to those cocooning, to sending a postcard to every home to connect with loved ones.

At the same time, people are hungry for authoritative sources of information. 7 in 10 respondents to Edelman’s Trust Barometer told us that they are following COVID-19 news at least once a day. This is driving a global spike in news consumption that shows people are seeking out reliable information and clear guidance.

In an Irish context, RTE as the state broadcaster has played a huge role with 1.6 million people watching Leo Varadkar's St Patrick’s Day address. Online sites of Irish newspapers have seen an increase of 49% in unique users and, to combat the spread of fake news, social media platforms have partnered with the HSE to install a banner that brings users to their site.

While there are ample opportunities for brands, it is important to have guidelines to help steer your efforts. First of all, be conscious of your new permission space. At a time of crisis, people want communications that allay their concerns about their material and social needs.  This means indexing toward solving rather than selling.  Brands are being called out for their missteps, for being exploitative and overly commercial rather than showing solidarity with people. They are expected first and foremost to bring solutions.

Sitting it out is not an option.  This includes being a voice that amplifies the facts and leveraging customer relationships and using marketing spend to point people towards the authoritative information and the good advice that they crave at this time.

People Expect Business to Play a Role

The additional Trust Barometer research Edelman carried showed clearly that the public believe business must act to protect employees and the local community, with 90% of people across 12 markets expecting businesses to act proactively for them.

9 in 10 said that they don’t want brands to let down those who work for them or depend on them. This tells us that brands must do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers, even if it means suffering financial losses until the pandemic ends.

The research also found that business as usual is not an option because more than half the population are not listening.  54% will not pay attention to new products right now and they want products produced that can assist people.  

45% believing that businesses and government are trusted more when they work together. The key point here is that brands don’t have to act alone and are not expected to; they are expected to partner with government and find places where they can fill the gaps.

Adapt & Act Now to See the Benefits

The actions that brands take now will define how they are perceived for years to come. The response of brands to the pandemic is already influencing what people buy. 37% of those surveyed said that they recently started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak. On the other hand, 1 in 3 are already divesting from brands who did not respond well.

Brands can build trust for the long term by delivering tangible solutions, by evolving with the needs of the community – all stages of this crisis will not look the same – and by showing solidarity with people.

This is the time when trust matters more than ever. More than 60% of people revert to brands they trust and have a relationship with at this time.

Having a solid understanding of the 4 key traits of trust can help business navigate through the crisis. These are:

  • Ability – be good at what you do, take action effectively and fix mistakes swiftly.
  • Integrity – be honest, clear on your intentions, communicate openly and inclusively.
  • Dependability – keep your promises for the longer term and be a reliable partner to communities, your employees and the government to try and solve this crisis.
  • Purpose – show that you are working hard to have a positive impact on society.

By following these 4 principles a brand can be built for the long term, demonstrating that it cares about the same things its community and customers care about. Now is the time for brands to ask what they can give not receive.

Brand Communication Should Be COVID-19 Appropriate

Our research shows that 89% of people think brands should keep the public fully informed regarding how the brand is supporting and protecting their employees and customers.

There is an opportunity for brands to serve as an educator and amplify the messages that help customers understand the virus and how to protect themselves.  This means brands using their channels to communicate relevant HSE and WHO advice. 

Marketers are great at creative problem solving. This is now more important than ever we must look at how we take our brands out into the world, become problem solvers in a broader sense, developing new products and services that show creativity but also empathy and solidarity.

Building a Valuable Action Plan

The next step is to turn all these learnings into a valuable action plan. There are 4 main principles of action to establish a brand as a trusted partner in the present situation.

Firstly, brands must show up and do their part. Brands have a vital role to play. Now is not the time to disappear, but to show up and use all your resources and creativity to make a difference.

Secondly, don’t act alone, and don’t think you have to act alone. There is strength in collaboration. To truly help people during this crisis requires joining forces with others, most critically government. 

Thirdly, solve don’t sell. Brands should focus all efforts on finding appropriate and meaningful solutions to the problems people are facing today.

Finally, communicate with emotion, compassion, and facts. People are reassured by positive brand actions and commitments. Communicate with empathy to help both inform and calm. 

There will be implications across the different phases of business disruption around COVID-19 including Continuity, Stability and Recovery. This will require brands to be agile before they reach a position of understanding their new role.

Remaining relevant and credible as the context evolves should be the objective. To achieve this, we suggest a three-step approach which will allow you to adapt and improve your brand’s impact.

Firstly, define a valuable role. Ask yourself, what is an appropriate, valuable place for the brand to be active? How can it best play a role and communicate that role? It might be throughout the phases of the crisis, or only in one.

Once you’ve settled on a role you must activate distinctly through a programme of activity and communication which adds value and builds trust amongst internal and external stakeholders.

Thirdly, prepare to be constantly adapting by learning from China and other countries already recovering through the pandemic. Evolve the role that your brand can play as the context changes.

The situation is evolving rapidly and by sharing our insights and learnings along the way we’ll all have far better outcomes.