Recognise and respond, but don’t forget to react and rebuild: adapting to the current COVID context

COVID-19 is having a truly global impact and we are still in the midst of tackling it. It’s a challenging, confronting and, frankly, scary time for us all — especially for those who are most vulnerable.

Many brands have been looking at ways to make a difference in the five months or so since the pandemic began. The Ford Motor Company making masks in their manufacturing plants or LVMH making sanitiser are just two examples. And there are also those who have copped some flak (governments around the world struggling to respond in the main, but also brands making mis-steps — McDonald’s springs to mind, with their logo of solidarity while cutting pay for employees in the US at the same time — creating a reputational headache for those in the comms function).

A trend amongst companies seems to be emerging, with brands firstly communicating they recognise there is an issue, that they want to help, then, for the good societal actors, continuing on to support their customers and looking to reorient their business (if necessary) to steer them through and help rebuild their organisations. The situation seems here to stay for at least another 18 months or so, so taking steps to mitigate its impact make sense on both a reputational and business level. Plus, for someone like me who has increasingly advocated positive societal impact from businesses, you get to do the right thing and play your part in moving us all through this.

One observation so far is that communication from brands without action leads to frustration from the community — so what can brands do at this time, to be both genuinely useful while continuing to be true to their values and purpose?

Here are a few basic principles when thinking about how you can steer your brand through these uncharted waters:

1) Don’t just say it, do it

People don’t need yet another email telling them that you are worrying about them. What could you do to make a genuine difference? From free meals for emergency workers if you’re a restaurateur, to making masks and supplies if you have the manufacturing capabilities available to do it, to donations to those who need it most such as the most vulnerable groups in society. Some early research suggests people are taking note of who is and who is not helping — which may well prove to be important once we’re through this initial period. Major events like this live long in people’s memories after all.

2) This is not the time for cost benefit analysis

Writing a business case for why this is important means you’re already in the wrong mindset, everyone is hurting financially and everyone is being hit in the markets. Yes, you don’t want to bankrupt your own business, but start by thinking how much of a fighting fund is feasible and then move into action swiftly.

3) Don’t forget about your employees

Communicating with your employees is critical. How are you supporting them and ensuring their wellbeing? To maintain some productivity you need to ensure teams are still motivated and feel reassured. Also, you can find ways to help your employees make positive contributions — I remember when two years ago the mega typhoon that hit Macau wreaked havoc and Melco (and others) straight away encouraged their workers to go and help clean up. Meaning everything went back to normal faster. Offering employees the opportunity to support where it’s needed also gives them something to positively channel their energy into, vs. stagnating at home. Mental wellness is being talked about more and more the longer the situation goes on for the tougher it becomes. Feeling you’re making a difference, even small, helps.

4) Plan for what happens next

Life will come back to ‘normal’. But certain things may have changed e.g. will working from home then be seen as a viable practice for more businesses? Twitter has come out to say remote working is here to stay for them, while Facebook and Google have said WFH will continue into 2021 for their teams. So what does your business need to do to reflect that shift? Running some research with customers, employees and wider stakeholders will give you some sense of where people’s heads are at and what they might be looking for you to do going forward. Explore new partnerships (a six months Zoom subscription if your typical customer is a small business would go a long way as a very simple example).

5) Don’t just stop with the enforced changes, think bigger

While COVID-19 is dominating our minds and world right now, the other challenges we face haven’t gone away… sustainability, diversity and inclusion. There is an opportunity to make wider changes inside your organisation and emerge the stronger for it. From supply chains to sponsorships, take this chance to look at what it is you could do differently across your entire business — given you are in a period of having to make changes and adapting already. Consumers and investors are if anything likely to be more conscious of these wider issues than ever before in light of 2020’s journey so far.

Now is the time for empathy, positive action and for taking care of your organisation and the wider community in which it sits. I honestly do believe you’ll be better for it. When it comes to the big issues we all face, there’s a key role for brands to play. So take this chance to show you’re up to the task.

Jonny Stark, Head of Business Consulting & Innovation, MullenLowe Group APAC