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As the world wrestles the COVID-19 calamity, brands are groping their way through a dark and smoky tunnel seeking the right message and tone to engage with people.

Some are nailing it. And some aren’t.

That is understandable, and even forgivable, although brands that get it wrong won’t be forgiven. There is no playbook for this moment, only red lights, amber and green for crisis plans and strategy.

Brands are walking a fine line in COVID-19.

COVID-19 has demanded sudden pivots, a massive shift in strategy and new purposes for brands. This is the “new normal” and don’t get too comfortable because tomorrow it will be the “new new normal.”

The brands that are nailing it have arrived at a simple and fundamental insight. They have understood that they are no longer talking to the parsed identities of “customer”, “ stakeholder” and “investor.”

They are now talking to the whole human being – that person who is living through a frightening pandemic. They are afraid, possibly unemployed, caring for the sick, grappling with their own challenges and groping for their answers.

These humans are not looking for that cute pair of pandemic shoes or the quiet drive of a luxury car. They do not need a brand trying to squeeze something out of them at this time. They are tapped. They are not customers right now. They are humans.

This is not to say that most people want brands to hit pause during the pandemic. Quite the contrary. A global survey of 35,000 respondents found that the majority of respondents said brands should pitch in to help government and public health officials with their messages and communicate their pandemic activities without veering into exploitation or self-congratulation.

The brands who are succeeding in the time of COVID-19 are engaging publicly, delivering messages with the wider purpose of supporting our mutual humanity.

One of the most powerful messages is gratitude. This was evident in the television campaign by A&W featuring a casually dressed spokesperson Allen Lulu speaking “selfie-style” into a phone. The production values are low and the lighting isn’t great. He is thanking healthcare workers, truck drivers, employees, grocery store workers and “everyone staying home to stop the spread.” The logo is in the background but it’s hard to see.

 

Another example of a brand’s genuine pandemic ethos is the now-famous Dove pivot from Real Beauty to the Courage is Beautiful featuring the faces of healthcare workers bruised, pinched and scared after a shift wearing N95 masks.

 

People want brands to show compassion and empathy and they want these sentiments backed up by action.

Many have been reinforcing these values with acts of donation to food banks, repurposing factories from apparel production to the manufacture of masks and protective gowns and sponsoring virtual live aid benefits and live concerts.

At first many brands reacted with emails telling us that “we are here for you in these unprecedented times”  In some cases, the emails contained valuable information on changes to service, but others have sounded random and inauthentic and become the stuff of cliché and the subject of scorn.

 

Brands will be judged on how well they respond to this crisis. The ones that place self-interest and profit before people will be punished for insensitive handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

But crises also create opportunities for brands to rise to the occasion by showing their true purpose and values. The needs they are now serving are not the promotion of their products and services but rather the hierarchy of human needs. Brands who are successful will allow their values to intersect with the psychological needs of people in crisis.

Other brands are stepping in with their products and services to help with the COVID-19 efforts.

Unilever donated soap and hand sanitizer to organizations in need and Netflix pledged money to out-of-work creatives who provide so much of the content for the streamer.

These activities will establish a bond with the customers, audiences and humans they serve.

"Brands that acknowledge this by adapting their messages to provide comfort and leadership will continue to build brand equity over the long term." said Donna Alteen, President of Time + Space. 

"Historical evidence has proven that investing in long term equity is a sound strategy for brands in times of economic downturn. Now is the time to gut test your marketing plans to ensure that they are still relevant. Now is the time to be the brand leaders that your consumers are seeking and to demonstrate your loyalty to your stakeholders."