Brand resilience in the time of COVID-19

Thomas Ordahl Bio Photo

We are all in uncharted waters. None of us know the ultimate impact COVID-19 will have on society, business or ourselves. For brand leaders this ambiguity can be both paralyzing and terrifying. It raises so many questions: Do brands matter in times of human crisis? Is there anything we can do to slow the erosion of brand value? How do we best respond to change? What should we be doing today to be in a position of strength when the crisis inevitably passes? And, most importantly, is there something our brand can do to help right now?

If there’s one thing we at Landor have learned over our 79-year history, it’s that strong brands are more resilient during hard times and bounce back more quickly. For example, during the financial crisis, our BrandAsset Valuator’s Top 50 Brands fell 15 percent less than the S&P 500 during the first year of the crash (Q1 2008–Q1 2009), and bounced back 33 percent faster in the year after the crash (Q1 2009 to Q1 2010). Not all brands survive a crisis and those that do may come out the other side profoundly changed. But we do believe brands matter, even in times of human crisis. We do believe brands can make a meaningful contribution. And finally, we believe that with good management (and a little luck) brands can emerge stronger than ever. Here’s how:

Speak the truth

The exemplar of crisis communications remains the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis. Johnson & Johnson (with the counsel of Harold Burson) defied the accepted corporate communications wisdom of the time and spoke truthfully about what was known and refrained from speculating or spinning what wasn’t known. Your stakeholders will forgive you for being caught by surprise or even unsure of the future, but they will never forgive you for lying or misleading them.

Do what you do best

In the best of times, every organization should have a clear purpose. In a crisis, you won’t survive without one. Just as every individual can make a valuable contribution so can every brand—however humble. But it must be true to who you are. It must reflect how you authentically create value. This is not the time for grandiose gestures. For example, USAA, who serves military families, is offering customers impacted by COVID-19 special payment arrangements on car and property insurance. The company is also offering these arrangements for life and health insurance policies and are waiving or reimbursing deductibles and copays for COVID-19-related testing for USAA Medicare supplement plans. Comcast (full disclosure: a Landor client) is not charging for Xfinity hotspots, pausing all data plans for a month, and will not disconnect any customers or assess late fees. Low-income families that are new customers will receive 60 days free service of Internet Essentials with increased speed.

Cultivate your community 

A peculiarity of this crisis is that in one way we’ve never been more alone and yet also more united. In the past week I have been on videoconference’s with colleagues and clients working remotely in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and on the other side of town. In a sense, place doesn’t matter anymore. We’re all alone together. Brands increasingly are cultivators of communities represented by shared values, interests and passions. This represents an opportunity. Brands can bring people together and unite us around both the profound but also a (just as needed) laugh. YogaWorks is streaming free classes on YouTube for any mood, whether it be to calorie burn, meditate or smile. Every day Ten Percent Happier, a leading meditation app, streams a “sanity break” that includes a five-minute meditation and an audience question period. Free access is offered to healthcare workers.

Be prepared to change

We don’t know what the other side of this crisis will look like, but it is fair to say we will never be quite the same. This doesn’t have to be cause for fear. If there’s anything we’ve learned about successful brands, it’s that they are typically the first to spot and adapt to changing conditions. (In fact, we are seeing a few of our more progressive clients already looking for creative ways to do just that.) Etsy has committed to giving $5M in grants to help support its sellers and is offering grace periods for bill payments. This is not just a moment for Etsy to support an imminent need, it’s also a way to build even deeper and more meaningful relationships with its sellers.

Practice the possible

What has impressed me most over the past few weeks of collaboration with clients, colleagues and partners is the focus on what we can do. What’s possible to get started on now? How can we adapt our processes for the new reality? What technologies can we use to shift a work session to virtual? How can we remain working efficiently while also connecting as humans? We are all tapping into sources of creativity and problem solving we didn’t know were there a month ago. Outdoor Voices, an athletic wear company, is hosting “Virtual Recess” on Instagram to get its online community to raise endorphins and exercise together. The Met Opera “will go on” with nightly free streams of performances from the past 14 years.

In times of peace and prosperity it is easy to forget that the human race’s chief advantage is resilience. Our ability to adapt, problem-solve and respond to unexpected challenges is central to our survival and success. COVID-19 will be no different. Brands and businesses have an important role to play. With the right mix of empathy and creativity we can help soften the blow, be a source of inspiration and optimism, and most importantly prepare for the opportunities we have ahead.