Branding responsibly in the time of COVID-19


With a multitude of nations either going into lockdown or movement control, the COVID-19 pandemic marks one of the most disruptive worldwide phenomenon we’ve seen since the 2008 global recession. While this provides a perfect opportunity for brand marketers to produce relevant communications, there is a fine line to tread.

The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated at an alarming rate with most nations having gone beyond mere social distancing to imposing varying degrees of movement restriction. And in this time, I’m sure we’ve been swarmed to the hilt with all kinds of content– from memes on personal hygiene right down to the fake news being propagated by trigger-happy aunties and uncles on family Whatsapp groups (or even certain politicians who will remain unnamed).

Like it or not, major events often produce some of the more engaging pieces of brand communications. But why is that? Is it because content is objectively better, or is it more to do with the pre-conditioned psyches of our audiences? In most cases, it’s a case of the latter. 

The true north for any brand marketer worth his/her salt is to change behaviour – whether it’s public perception for governments or influencing a transaction for a product or service. The key enabler for this is relevance. But in a time of worldwide crisis, where fatalities continue to climb and the global economy continues to slump, how much is too much when using contextualised brand communications to resonate with your audience? Does it help your brand, or will you be perceived as making light of an increasingly dire situation? Here are 4 ways that brands can communicate responsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic (and any crisis for that matter) to better position your brand to hit the ground running when we return to normalcy. 

1. Communicate frequently

Among other countries, Malaysia has been no stranger to the nonsensical phenomenon of panic buying. In our case, this was largely due to an initial lack of communication from our government prior to the announcement of the Movement Control Order on 16th March 2020.

In a time of crisis, given the sentiments of uncertainty, brands need to be nimble in communicating the right information often and quickly. This ensures that both internal and external stakeholders are managed and up-to-date. In the case of our Malaysian government, while I applaud the recent efforts to communicate further developments around the pandemic, for example, iterations of their stimulus package[1] as well as the (generally) useful guidelines from the Ministry of Health, there is still much they can learn from the likes of Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, who in my opinion has been doing a stellar job in keeping the city of New York informed. 

In Andrew Cuomo, we see an example of a leader who understands that frequent and honest communication trumps overly doctored rhetoric. His unapologetic honesty about the state of affairs peppered with strong accountability for some of his harder decisions[2] makes him a prime case study even for brand marketers to follow in a time of crisis. 

With another global recession already in the making, brand budgets will often be one of the first to be slashed. But that doesn’t mean that communications efforts should stop.

This may be a time to rethink your approach to branded content. Like Governor Cuomo, perhaps this is where you trade slick and polished for honest and factual. As a creative, I know this can be especially hard to do – after all, isn’t good creative the cornerstone of good content? Well, yes. But who said that good creative needed to be overly polished? I’m reminded of the award-winning anti-bullying campaign from Leo Burnett, Malaysia in 2019[3]. It wasn’t clever copy, nor was it fancy cinematography. It was the sheer storytelling that won. 

Frequency and consistency trumps polish in a time of crisis. But to keep the momentum going requires a shift in operational processes. Try turning content reviews from weekly into daily affairs. These review sessions should include opportunities for recursive problem solving in order to ensure your content and messaging is relevant amid the rapid pace of developments.

2. Communicate factually

With research from Sprinklr showing over 19 million mentions of COVID-19 across social media and other digital platforms on 11th March 2020[4], naturally misinformation or fake news will be rampant. Brands should assume the responsibility of ensuring that any content – even if it’s a variation on a meme (couldn’t resist)– is factual. The last thing you want is to be another cog in the machinery pushing misinformation. 

However, factuality is not just a matter of execution but something for brands to consider in their overall communications strategy during a crisis. I use our own agency’s response to COVID-19 as an example. Our bread and butter have largely been in the area of strategic communications and digital brand marketing. 

Admittedly, like most startups, we too have been guilty of focusing on revenue drivers i.e. putting all our eggs into doing external branding for our clients, that we’ve sometimes neglected our own content marketing efforts to build the COMMUNICATE brand.

In the time of COVID-19 and all the noise on our digital platforms instilling fear and pandemonium, we wanted to disrupt fear with facts. So, for us this marked a shift from producing explicitly marketing-related content to news updates on the latest developments in Malaysia’s battle to contain the coronavirus.

Adopting a similar approach to your content strategy can be a useful supplementary tool to put your brand at the forefront of the issue. Communicating factual information in times of uncertainty will position your brand as a forerunner in clearing the noise and providing assurance. Done well, with the right machinery to amplify your message, this can help maintain top-of-mind recall once the world returns to business-as-usual (or at least some degree of it).

3. Communicate sincerely

I return to the debate on whether brands should communicate at all in a time of crisis. McDonald’s in Brazil recently split their iconic golden arches in two to represent social distancing[5]. And while to many, this may be a piece of branding genius, other members of the brand marketing fraternity have considered this as a distasteful gimmick that not only makes light of the situation but blatantly capitalises on the crisis for the sake of advertising.

Admittedly, regardless of our intentions, all brand marketers will want to make the most out of an opportunity to convey a message. Again, this is how we build brands that are relevant. But perhaps where McDonald’s in Brazil ruffled feathers was in the lack of supplementary messaging that explicitly storytell their efforts to curb the pandemic.

Sincerity is crucial to communicating a brand (or any message for that matter) responsibly, especially so when in times of crisis. Funnily enough, it was our Malaysian Prime Minister’s second announcement on the COVID-19 developments, where he repeatedly uttered the now heavily memed “Just. Stay. At. Home.”, which seemed to get a message through. Much of this had to do with him looking (and sounding) visibly irked – with Malaysians likening him to an annoyed schoolteacher telling off his students – as he implored defiant Malaysians to observe the Movement Control Order.

As a general principle, unless your product/service can directly contribute to the times at hand, you’re better off using this time to connect with, rather than sell to your audience. This may be a time to revisit and refine your brand’s unique value proposition to suit the current needs of your clients/consumers.[6] Start there – identifying quick-win initiatives that can be rolled out quickly. This will position your brand as one that is offering genuine support.

4. Get used to business unusual

Here in Malaysia, the Movement Control Order may be extended even further. Whatever happens, considering it may take up to 18 months for a vaccine to go to market, we must be prepared to adopt a new way of working for the long term. But to operationalise this effectively, brand marketers will need to:

  • Recursively evaluate spend – Performance needs to be monitored more frequently with quick action made to adjust spend or shift the messaging. No autopilot digital buys, please!
  • Revisit your offerings – communications should always be a means to an end. If your brand’s products or your agency’s services are not providing relevant value to your prospects, then your content will be disingenuous.
  • Flatten the chains of command – if members of your team function in singular roles, this is a time to encourage a more cross-functional way of working. This can be done by involving entire teams even in strategic discussions to avoid additional briefing sessions and enable quicker action.

Times are indeed uncertain, but this is where brands have a chance to use frequent, practical and sincere communication to connect with their audiences and dispel the negativity and fear. 

This will be your lever to position your brand as one that is responsible and trustworthy in the hearts and minds of your existing and prospective clientele. But if you’d like us to consult you on how best to operationalise all of this, just [email protected]