Crises are great truth-tellers. Brands are, in real-time, going through a crash course in social responsibility, and there are already winners and losers. Winners acknowledge what consumers are going through. Losers are pitching Mother’s Day sales and charging a premium for medical masks on eBay.
Crises tell the truth about a company. It exposes organisational and operational strengths and weaknesses. It challenges leadership. Crises bring on business disruption, revenue drops, layoffs. And, also brings the pressure to reduce expenses and find new ways of making money.
Crises also offer a creative toolbox. They force thinking and acting differently, and force businesses to address problems in new ways. In the process, a business may stumble upon a great new idea, discover an unexpected revenue stream, take a risk it was too cautious to consider before or find a way to be closer to the community it serves.
Here is what works:
Put strategy behind your brand.
The first step in any good brand communication is always to acknowledge your customers’ needs. We all need some inspiration and uplifting communication. “Get up and get dressed for a positive state of mind” by fashion brand Simon Miller, works better than “shop 50 percent off.” In the bizarre display of tone-deafness, Armani Beauty is offering 20 percent off, with a code BLOOM.
How about code COVID? In contrast, DTC brands lead the way. On the Bright Side is a new digital series revolving around food, art, and wellness, launched by olive oil producer Brightland: “In these times of uncertainty, we hope we can still inspire you to continue #livinginagoldenstate.” There’s also Joycast. This is a free text line from a swimwear brand Summersalt. It shares meditation-videos, GIFs, self-care ideas, and general hope. Brightland and Summersalt succeed because the output isn’t about the brand. It also succeeds because of the tone of voice that’s unique.
Distribute your expertise in a new way.
Brands’ survival depends on their ability to package and deliver their expertise beyond their original business model. Even if consumers are not spending at the moment, they still seek acknowledgment, inspiration, advice, guidance, education and entertainment from brands. What once was a value-add is now a brand’s lifeline. This doesn’t mean that every brand should put up meditation videos and playlists of monks chanting. It means that it needs to lean into its own expertise. Whether that be finance and economics, manufacturing, supply chain management, operations, or Instagram creative.
Offer business development courses centered on remote working; help startup founders to become financially literate. Every company has a number of areas of expertise. Capitalise on them. We’re seeing this with fitness companies sharing expertise through online classes. Sharing fitness regiments, cookware companies leading brand actions with recipes, food companies putting forward a healthy outlook, and hospitality companies delivering perks like sound baths at a distance. There’s a massive opportunity for other verticals to capitalise on the shift from products to content, from events to subscriptions, from transaction to inspiration, and from buying to socialising. Consider it a necessary business adjustment.
Amp up your services
A number of restaurants, pharmacies, and grocery shops transformed into drive-throughs. Revenue from food delivery overtook dining on-premises even before the coronavirus pandemic, a trend that is only accelerating. It is also getting more nuanced. Online shopping sites will take a cue from theme parks, ski resorts, fitness studios and some restaurants that provide variable ticket pricing per date, time, or location, offer discounts for less busy days and charge extra for peak times.
Businesses will move beyond the rigid ordering and delivery process. It creates a more flexible and a more tiered program that ranges from high-end concierge care to basic delivery, and that is also customised per what’s in one’s cart. More flexible thinking applies to online orders and deliveries across industries, from fashion apparel to home decor to pet care to wellness and beauty. The entire area of supply and demand and customer service will rapidly innovate, driven by current inefficiencies and bottlenecks.
Create a new market
The market for remote beauty care is immense. Chances are that it will stay that way once the pandemic is over. There is now a far-flung audience wanting easily accessible skincare and haircare expertise. Tmall and Shanghai Fashion week partnered on an entirely live-streamed, “see now, buy now” fashion week. Designers and brands present upcoming collections directly to 800 million active users. That’s a game-changer.
Or, Metropolitan Opera started nightly live-streaming its past performances. This is both a public service and a way to expand its market and revenue stream. Chef Massimo Bottura, from GUCCI’s new LA restaurant, is streaming cooking lessons, “Kitchen Quarantine,” from his own kitchen. Beyond the pandemic, this kind of content and chef exposure can be a great restaurant marketing tactic and a value-add.
Put social responsibility, sustainability, and corporate transparency at the forefront
Personal experience of hardship makes a difference. There is hardly a better time to accelerate brands’ corporate transformation toward greater sustainability, more transparent corporate governance, and more socially responsible operations. We expect our brands to embrace their social responsibility and act on it. Every brand should start thinking like a B Corp.
Activate behavioural contagion.
The pandemic should give rise to another form of contagion: social and behavioural. We are all fasting, juicing, and doing lymphatic drainage massages. If our neighbours install solar panels, we do too. Our instinct to imitate and conform should be used for good (hoping buying Zara may one day become as uncool as smoking). Right now, we are seeing examples of social shaming. Once the pandemic is over, brands can do social good by encouraging behavioural mimicry (and not just in terms of Instagram aesthetic).
Brands with already existing communities, like Glossier, can use peer pressure to impose positive social action. But any brand with a customer base, from Coca-Cola to Unilever to LEGO, can also mobilise peer pressure. Peer pressure changes both our behaviour and the way we view the world. It’s a powerful tool for more generous, responsible, and compassionate behaviour.
Recognise that, for your customers, a slower pace of life is a good thing
Before the global pandemic, it was popular to discuss the damage of social media to our brains, psyches, and social lives. Artist Jenny Odell wrote a book titled “How to Do Nothing,” about resisting the attention economy. Doing nothing is what most of us don’t know how to do. This pandemic is a good opportunity to learn it. We all loved hearing about the benefits of wasting time and the dangers of hustle porn. Now it’s the time to embrace it.
Our belief that we are too busy to cook, exercise, sleep, watch TV, see a doctor, shop for clothes, or get over jet lag led to an entire economy based on outsourcing and delivering these services. We will become busy again, and we should use this forced time off to create a more balanced existence. In it, we can be free of guilt and set the time aside for cooking, going for a walk, checking in on friends, and helping the elderly.
Brands can enforce this narrative shift through their advertising creative: don’t show busy professionals, show someone cooking with their grandmother who survived the coronavirus epidemic thanks to the protection of her community.
Shift from the outside to the inside.
If the latest trend in modern travel is any indication, the affluent travel for learning, not leisure. For transformation, and not thrill. Fixing broken pottery, enjoying rituals, or retreating to a monastery required a trek across the world. But they can also be practised at one’s own home. It’s good for our planet if we stay in. It’s good for us to sit quietly. We should learn both. We may recognise the superficiality, mimicry, impermanence, and stupidity of chasing the latest Instagrammable street, neighbourhood, or vista.
In contrast, live-streamed sound baths or at-home recreation of Japanese listening bars may bring us equal delight, and save the planet and our money. Brands can play a big role in reducing the thrill of chasing ever-new experiences and helping us absorb better the experiences we already had. These experiences can be both communal and personal (a reliving of the e.g. London Olympics, a SuperBowl, remembering that Berlin trip or the vacation from last summer).
Partner with content producers and curate branded compilations of movies and other content for your customers to watch at home.
Ana Andjelic is a New York based strategy executive, author of “The Business of Aspiration”, one of Forbes’s World’s Most Influential CMOs and Chief Brand Officer at Banana Republic.
On June 3rd she will be speaking at Vivid Sydney, ‘Winning in the Aspirationa Economy’, tickets available here.