How to manage your brand while managing your bravery.
Clickbait never feels right, but right now the profiteering verbiage slices its serrated blade particularly deep. The coarse edges of badly framed infomercial-type ads cut into our collective purview like an angry fart. Rhetoric, fluff, jargon, over-promissory tonality, carnival barking, the fat swing of a forced handshake, all the bottom of the shelf go-to tactics we could afford feels like something that is at best flinch-worthy in these times. What is a business supposed to do in a climate that feels like an exposed nerve? Life is scary right now for even the robotic and heartless. No one wants to hear about your amazing deal unless it comes with hand sanitizer. But brand management and marketing efforts are not personal, they’re business – right? And hell, we have everyone’s undivided attention now that they’re all at home staring at screens we can buy into. Right?
Of course not. It’s unlikely that, if you are a business owner, your gut instinct in times like this is a cash grab. The line between corporate greed and human decency, however, is rarely this well-defined. Brands are susceptible in times like these because intentions matter less than actions. There is no time or maneuverability for damage control if you make the wrong marketing move.
Apple had a brand and marketing plan a month ago. Their summer lineup likely didn’t include helping the government and the world with a response to the global spread of COVID-19. (See their statement here.) Nevertheless, they pivoted quickly. They are donating money and closing stores; they launched a COVID-19 news aggregator and moved their WDC to online-only; and they are applying a more critical eye to evaluating apps relating to COVID-19.
Obviously, Apple is a unique company in a unique position to be flexible and helpful in times like these, but the response is scalable. The easiest thing a company can do is put out a press release of their intentions and actions. Being proactive and helpful within the direct community you’re serving is a move that transcends business-as-usual and is a bold move.
With the exception of this graphic on P&G’s Charmin webpage, I see few other public proclamations from them right now. Which is not to say intense efforts are not occurring behind the scenes – they are surely in the trenches – but the brand response to the average consumer of Charmin toilet paper seems to be “we are in high demand and unavailable for comment.” A press-release promissory on their twitter feed creepily hashtagged #EnjoyTheGo and pinned March 16th is accompanied by nothing else in their feed with respect to the pandemic.
I’m not trying to shit on Charmin. Company shaming is just as bad clickbait. My point isn’t that everyone has a responsibility to be proactive (resources are just not there in many cases), but the absolute worst thing a brand can do in a time like this is to get in the way by being tone-deaf. A panicky response from a corporation can reflect your brand in ways that harm years’ worth of equity building. Branding is forever fluid so you can likely recover, but your response to stress is only as good as your understanding of who you really are. You can’t plan for everything. There will always be things outside of your control. That’s part of branding. No matter how curated your brand plan is, the world has its own plan. To your consumers, you are the aggregate of all your brand efforts and all the things that happen to/about your brand that are outside of your efforts. A response to a global pandemic is a response to the flexibility of your plan, girded by the strength of who you really are.
So what can you do right now to react in a humane way? It doesn’t matter what your brand archetype type is, here are a few simple response tips that are universal.
- Listen to the news.
Information is king. The more you know about the state of the world during this time, the more informed your responses will be. Take care to solicit good sources, however. I know that’s easier said than done, but look at news and information sources through the eyes of a professor. Be critical. Are you examining under your own researcher bias, or are you being fair?
- Listen to your customers.
Social channels were a cute way to spread a fun promotional hashtag. Those days will come back. But for now, this is your direct line to your customers. Remember that marketing is no longer a monologue, it’s a dialogue. Listen and communicate with your customers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook groups, wherever they can be found. If you aren’t already available on social, now is a great time to get started.
- Take the time to process.
Responding out of fear, panic, anger or any other untethered emotion is bad for people and bad for brands. This does not mean sit on your hands, it means to keep your most raw emotions in check. Breathe and take an hour, afternoon, or day if you are feeling too anxious to be trusted.
- If you can, make a statement.
People are being inundated by press statements from their local dentist to their department store. It might be white noise to customers right now, but silence is even louder. Let your company be human and show people that there is a heart beating at the core. Will this connect to a sale and contribute to shareholder earnings? Maybe not right away, but branding is a long game and the point of any business is to serve, not to generate.
- If you can, make an effort.
This might mean dropping your projections and plans. It might mean taking a loss. Your customers and your community need support, not silence. Do what you can and brand loyalty won’t just be something you read about, it will be reciprocated.
- Stay calm and do not react with knee-jerk offers.
Much like taking the time to process, now is also the time to sit and wait for the storm to pass. Your patience will be tested as we move through this gale together and remember that customer interactions will come again. Keep your brand strong with a stoic eye on the horizon and people will remember you.
- Be willing to change your plan.
As we saw companies struggle and learn how to respond to this crisis, we also saw that if their intentions were good people allowed for the calibration. Shortened hours, turned into curbside no-touch delivery, turned into outright closures. This progression was an adaptation and your customers’ tolerance is higher than you might imagine as long as your communication is clear. Build trust with honesty and be willing to adjust your plan when it is prudent.
Your brand is only fragile if it is filled with holes of understanding. The strength on which your brand is based is how well you know who you are, what you offer, and why people should care. If these things aren’t clear to you, don’t panic. Now is a great time to give your brand some deep thought and care. Understanding who you are is vital anytime, not just during a global pandemic. There are no shortcuts, hacks or top ten lists that can do the job for you.