Sean Healy

Global CSO, Carat

COVID-19 continues to ask new questions of brands. At Carat, the brands we work with are dedicated to offering customer value, showing mindfulness in their messaging and providing an authentic and helpful response to the crisis. Instead of cutting investment, we’re seeing many marketers continuing to support their brands and helping people to get the most out of their offering. With that in mind, here are my top five key priorities for brand-building in this ‘new normal’:

#1 Be (genuinely) helpful

It sounds simplistic, perhaps, but the best thing brands can do in response to the crisis is be helpful—or be silent. The story of Gary Neville and Richard Branson brings this into sharp focus. Branson came under fire after Virgin Atlantic asked its staff to take unpaid leave and its San Francisco Virgin Hotel closed its doors. Meanwhile, ex-England footballer Gary Neville was lauded for having his hotels open their doors free of charge to NHS healthcare workers and vowing not to lay off any employees. It’s early days of course, but you’d wager that Neville’s helpful actions should enable his brand to be enhanced over the long-term.

#2 Keep the lights on

Many brands we work with are forging ahead based on lessons learnt from previous economic downturns. Numerous case studies indicate that continued investment during a crisis leads to brand equity and share gains afterwards. After all, people still need to buy groceries and transfer money, they still want to enjoy a beer at home or switch phone contracts if needs be. Of course, how consumers are doing all these things has changed immeasurably. If you’re an alcohol brand, now’s the time for messaging to focus on the shopping trolley, not last orders. Many brand owners are holding their nerve. Agile brand owners are adapting their messaging and investment to reflect their customers’ evolving needs and behaviours.

#3 Build your employer brand

However, branding in the current climate is made up of more than your messaging. Brands are under the microscope—not only in terms of their marketing, but across all aspects of their business, from HR to supply chains. The impact of COVID-19 has led many brands to lay off staff. A harsh reality of the times we live in perhaps, but no doubt a lot of these brands champion values that include how much they care for their employees and stakeholders. In the US, Google and Facebook are offering paid leave to parents affected by school closures—not only the right thing to do but good for the brand as eagle-eyed consumers continue to praise and criticise businesses’ responses to the crisis. Trust and transparency are now key ingredients to brand success and the employer brand has never held more value. Walking the talk and doing right by your employees is no longer preferable, it’s a must.

#4 Embrace innovation

COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for brands to demonstrate their ability to innovate at pace. From Burberry making hospital gowns to a number of luxury skincare labels making hand sanitiser products, brands have switched lines of business and their production lines at very short notice. This spirit of invention and collaboration will surely outlast this crisis. Brands should take confidence from what they’ve been able to deliver. In future, expect more line extensions, more prototyping and new cross-discipline innovation teams.

#5 Put humanity at the heart

Brands across industries and markets are showcasing humanity at its best. From Coca-Cola in the Philippines channelling its advertising budget towards COVID-19 relief to Vodafone doubling its capacity to enable more people to contact the NHS 111 call centre, many brands aren’t seeking an ‘exchange’ with people —they just want to be of value. Let’s hope one of the good things to come out of this challenging period will be a renewed focus on what should be at the heart of business and brand-building: delivering value and enrichment to people in their everyday lives.

Sean Healy is Global Chief Strategy Officer for Carat. For more insights, you can listen to our #OnBrand podcast where we talked about authentic brand building in a time of crisis.