Do Brands Need a 'Break Glass in Case of Emergency' Toolkit?

"Not another COVID-19 email." This might be something you sigh as you look at your inbox. But it's also the subject line of an email at the top of mine, from a digital-only brand trying its best to fumble through something meaningful to say in the face our new reality.

While the intention behind this is great, it points to a growing flaw within modern advertising. As brands we've become obsessed with chasing culture, but that's easier when culture means an emerging trend or a yearly event. It's much harder when culture shifts overnight to something scary and unforeseen.

In these scenarios, we sometimes flail. Maybe we rush to bring something to market, though as a result it doesn't really make sense for our brand. It feels like it could be anyone activating or saying it. Or maybe we choose to largely keep ads chugging along business-as-usual. After all, proactive efforts are challenging, and media is created and bought weeks to months in advance.

This also has its faults, though. For example, Microsoft's recent ads promoting its video conferencing suite of tools might read as opportunistic given work-from-home mandates. A recent paid Instagram story I received from Nerd Wallet about "How to travel for free" might seem tone-deaf in the face of the airline industry's plight. And a recent email from Anthropologie prompting viewers to "Head Outside for a Hike" is just clearly out of sync.

All three of these examples share something in common: They were likely concepted and put into rotation before coronavirus struck, and likely not reassessed afterwards. Given the flurry of changes and shifting focuses in our daily lives, this is understandable. It also brings me back to a point I made above—that it's easier to plan for a cultural trend than for something massive like coronavirus.

But I don't think it's impossible. That is, I've started to wonder: Should brands have a "Break glass in case of emergency" toolkit moving forward? Something that is written and then set aside, outlining what to do and say should another plight hit? To caveat, this would be so we're better ready to mobilize help thoughtfully, not to capitalize on grief or hardship.

Which leads me to my second question: What should be in this toolkit?

Tool 1—Ground Control

At the very base, I believe this toolkit should provide rules for assessing what's already in market—if any communications feel tone-deaf given the circumstances and should be replaced. And I'll stress, this doesn't just mean TV. As my examples above show, it's even easier for something to slip through the cracks in email and social, where brands tend to produce a much higher quantity of assets. 

Along with this, it could be helpful to outline whose responsibility it is to assess the creative across channels or lines of business in case of said emergency, to ensure proper coverage.

Tool 2—What We (and Only We) Have to Give

So, the first part ensures messaging feels sensitive and right. But it isn't the same as delivering help to those in need in ownable ways. That's where the second part of the toolkit comes in. To do this, brands can outline answers to questions like: What is our core offering and how might we leverage it to help? What value can anything from our products, services, machinery and people empower us to provide? What do we stand for, and how could we extend that in strategic ways? 

Strong examples of brands who have activated like this are Dawn donating its harm-free soap to help clean animals impacted by oil spills. Or Tide's Loads of Hope, offering free mobile laundry units during disaster relief. Or MillerCoors using its bottling plants to bottle water instead of beer to help those impacted during hurricanes. Each of these executions makes inherent sense for the brand, and would make less sense for others to do, because they leverage something we already know each brand for. They sit at the intersection of ownable and impactful, and it's easy to map each execution to the type of questioning above.

Tool 3—Scenario Brain-Storming

Looking back over the past few years, there have been certain disaster scenarios that continue to emerge. For example, forest fires and hurricanes, and their impact on people, businesses and access to needed infrastructure. A final exercise might be to brainstorm ownable relief executions your company can mobilize against these hypothetical what-ifs. Aligning on this prior, when you actually have room to strategize thoughtfully, can put you steps ahead in providing aid should something come next. This also ensures the idea is already sold-in to key stakeholders, making it faster to get up and running.

Disaster can change culture's focus in a blink of an eye. But a "Break glass in case of emergency" toolkit, strategized and set aside, can help brands better keep up. And spell the difference between a me-too email or something that more directly and distinctively helps. Of course, we're in the midst of coronavirus efforts, but once we're back in our offices, this type of toolkit could be a useful deliverable to circle back to.

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Sam Rothschild
Sam Rothschild is associate director of strategy at Deutsch New York.

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