Promote Safety First During Pandemic

The coronavirus has billions of people and millions of businesses fighting for survival. Of course, our first concern is for our nation, communities and families. But we must account for the fact that few brands will be untouched. Nonprofit organizations also must think about branding and positioning as part of the equation. In our race to reopen the world, businesses must avoid negligence and failure to safeguard public health.

To turn this issue into an opportunity, brand management must project a tone of crisis communications to build relationships and to demonstrate reliability. We must be responsible, responsive, relevant, trustworthy and extremely proactive because actions speak much louder than words. The pandemic response may forever tarnish the brand of China and elected leaders around the world who failed by prescribing misinformation and mismanagement to the masses. The events will also forever tarnish corporate brands that fail to do the right thing for consumers, employees and other stakeholders. Many governments and corporations will face a gauntlet of lawsuits for negligence. The fallout is far from over, which means that there is still an opportunity to emerge from the pandemic as a leader and the voice of reason.

Building loyalty in a time of crisis can make or break a brand. Organizations are turning on a dime to improvise and make difficult decisions that will ultimately have lasting effects on their brands. When asked what factors make consumers trust brands more, the top three responses focused on the wellbeing of customers, the wellbeing of employees, and not taking advantage of the crisis to maximize profits. What consumers don’t want are messages of hope, optimism, nostalgia or even statements about strong moral principles. Consumers want brands to demonstrate leadership and action by taking care of customers and employees. Brands that fail to take these actions put their reputations and trustworthiness at risk.

Organizations standing behind their employees is one of the top reasons consumers trust any brand. Data shows that during uncertainty, workers are looking to employers and managers to lead even more than they are looking to governments and other organizations. Consumers are watching. Fifty-four percent of them say they are concerned with how employers are treating their employees in this time of crisis. Better treatment fuels brand trust, with 48 percent indicating they trust brands more when they take care of their employees.

Clear and frequent communications from the company will increase brand loyalty among employees. But not all companies are doing it. Only about half of employees say they are satisfied with their employers’ COVID-19 actions, and less than 60 percent believe their employers are communicating well during this crisis. Among those who are satisfied with their employers’ COVID-19 actions, 90 percent believe their employers are communicating well, resulting in significantly higher levels of trust. But too many employers are letting their employees down. Employers who are communicating poorly during this crisis are experiencing significant distrust with 63 percent indicating they trust their employer less.

As consumers adjust to the new world and start engaging in more comfort-seeking behaviors, 65 percent of consumers indicated that during this crisis a brands’ actions have a significant or major impact on their trust in that brand. A study from Morning Consult shows that consumer attitudes about brands have evolved during the coronavirus crisis. Fewer than half of Americans (41 percent) trust large corporations to guide them through these anxiety-inducing times.

The 34-page report examines how brands can still drive situation-sensitive and purpose-led growth during this pandemic. Research for “Weathering the Storm: Brand Management in the COVID-19 Era” was conducted among 2,200 adult Americans on March 28-29. The findings highlight the urgency of brands to employ practices that serve consumer needs and do not sacrifice quality, while also delicately approaching the situation with humanity. According to Victoria Sakal at Morning Consult, key actions now can define how organizations emerge under the new normal.

“The goal is not to just hang on and weather the storm with your existing customers, but to look to the future,” said Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence at Morning Consult.

In order for large companies to fortify consumer affinity and loyalty, Morning Consult’s research suggests that they should put their purposes and values into practice. A majority of those surveyed (over 75 percent) answered that they think it is either very or somewhat important that brands take care of their employees and treat them well, have products available when they need them, care about society, contribute to society, stand for something beyond just profit and show sensitivity and empathy. Moreover, Americans’ top five considerations when deciding whether to buy from a company right now are largely rooted in the basic, fundamental needs of consumers: product availability, safety and cleanliness, financial accessibility and compliant solutions. Boomers were most likely to buy from companies that stand for something beyond making a profit and for companies that are providing flexibility (87 percent).

“To that end, what this research shows is that older generations are definitely more appreciative of the efforts that companies can make,” Sakal explained.

Amid this unprecedented environment this much is clear: what companies communicate to consumers, through both their actions and their advertising, will have lasting effects. Participants of the Morning Consult special coronavirus report noted that messaging should be centered around informing and improving the situation, helping stakeholders rather than selling to them, all while remaining practical and sensitive. The consumers surveyed indicated an interest in not only how brands are taking care of and providing for them, but also how they are managing and protecting their employees by complying with safety and health measures. Consumers also want to be provided with useful updates on business operations and the availability of products and services, which can have real implications on their day-to-day lives.

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So far, only 13 percent of Americans polled strongly felt that companies shouldn’t be advertising during the pandemic. For the majority of Americans that do want companies to say something rather than nothing, messaging perceived as explicitly self-serving, situation-insensitive or situation-impractical should be avoided. Instead, brand messaging should be comforting and optimistic, demonstrating how team members are being treated and accentuating how company products and services can be used to combat the spread of the coronavirus and improve customer wellbeing.

Three-quarters of those surveyed desired brand advertising with tones that are empathetic, safety-focused, honest and transparent, or were compassionate and kind.

Results show that consumers are far more likely to be attracted to messaging that shows how the company’s products and services could be used to tackle the spread of coronavirus (DoorDash), or those that show how the company’s products and services could improve customers’ happiness and well-being during the pandemic (Hyundai, Ford), versus advertisements that do not address the pandemic at all (Seventh Generation).

According to a survey from Advertiser Perceptions, nearly half of advertisers have either pulled a campaign or delayed the launch of a campaign because of the novel coronavirus. A third say they completely canceled a campaign pre-launch. Brands that build a solid foundation for long-term equity gains by managing business in a favorable way and engaging with customers compassionately will also position themselves as reliable. In a new report from Edelman, based on interviews with 12,000 people in several countries, 71 percent of respondents said that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever and 77 percent want brands to explain that they are aware of the crisis and the dramatic impact on people around the world.

As you continue refining your crisis communications plan and stakeholder engagement activities, here are several tips for your consideration.

Strategies For Branding, Positioning and Messaging During Pandemic

  1. Safeguard public health. Don’t allow an opportunity for a negligence accusation or lawsuit. Identify all possible pathways that the virus can spread and expose stakeholders. Manage those pathways aggressively to prevent/minimize exposure.
  2. Build relationships with stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, allies, regulators and elected leaders. Listen, don’t be tone deaf and avoid humor. Be human. Be relevant and responsive. Survey stakeholders to find out what they need, what they think and what they are doing to evolve.
  3. Be a leader. Aimbridge Hospitality, which operates Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotels, is making rooms available to house and quarantine healthcare workers; New York City is paying. Embattled cruise companies like the Carnival Corporation have offered up ships as makeshift hospitals. Leaders develop solutions, offer resources, issue awards, produce best practices, and offer ongoing career education. This might be the right time to initiate some of those tactics. Leaders also earn media coverage that is relevant and meaningful. Don’t forget to monitor your competition during these times just to stay in tune and in step. In fact, there might be an opportunity or need for cooperation to help save lives.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, corporate and nonprofit brands must figure out how they can help and what actions can be taken to help solve the crises. They must find ways to help stakeholders survive. Brands have an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of trust with employees, customers, and communities. Aim higher with Crossbow.

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Crossbow Communications is one of the leading public relations and public affairs firms in the United States. We have influenced public opinion and public policy around the world for more than 30 years. Today, we are tackling some of the most urgent issues of our time, including vital health and environmental challenges. We have offices in Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona.