How Brands Can Navigate the Next Phase of Covid

Finding the right balance to make an impact

Hope of "getting back to normal" is high as cities reopen, the economy gradually recovers, and vaccination efforts continue to boost optimism. Celebration might feel like the most obvious next move, but brands still have tough calls to make as they transition from crisis mode to navigating the uncertain aftermath of a collective trauma that has no exact parallel.

Not since a calamity as far-reaching in consequence as World War II have so many people around the world been touched by a singular event. A year ago, we were terrified and confused. Now, as we emerge from Covid's shadow, there is widespread anticipation and heightened receptivity. For brands, it's a rare historical moment and an unprecedented opportunity to speak to people, rally them, reinforce relations with existing audiences, and reach entirely new ones.

It would be a shame to miss your chance to say something impactful at a time when so many are looking for direction, solutions and a renewed sense of belonging. But before you get your message out there, let's revisit some of the lessons learned during Covid, and look at how (and when) brands should speak in the post-Covid era. 

A brand's core is its compass, through thick and thin.

In the early days of Covid, many brands rushed out of the gate, at the height of uncertainty, to make a statement. Not all of these statements were thoughtfully considered. In the midst of crisis, people didn't want to hear false assurances and trite slogans. In fact, a lot of companies were strongly criticized for efforts that came across as tone-deaf, gimmicky or out-of-character.

In times of upheaval, brands tend to fall quickly into group think, take cues from one another, and opt for the safe road. The result is a sea of conformity—no one voice stands out, and well-intended messages ring hollow. Now that most brands have conveyed their versions of "Just stay home" or "Keep socially distancing," what's next? In short, "Keep doing you."

If Budweiser has always been about grabbing a beer and celebrating together, then we can embrace the brand's offer to pour free beers for those who have been vaccinated. And say what you will about Amazon, but the brand seized a moment during the worst of Covid and delivered on its promise to provide essential services to customers. Operationally, Amazon met the challenge and people trusted the experience. At the same time, customers were appalled by reports about warehouse conditions and Amazon's treatment of its employees. Rather than doubling down on messages about seamless service, the company wisely pivoted to highlighting its workforce in a way that felt genuine. Labor issues remain a huge challenge for Amazon, but the willingness to respond quickly to customer concerns about employee treatment was a critical step forward for the brand. It also illustrates how important it is to be dialed-in to public sentiment about your brand, to know when to shift messaging, and to address tricky situations in a manner and voice that comes across as sincere. 

Of course you want to pull the right levers of communication to grab consumer attention in clever, unexpected ways, but be authentic. Stay rooted in your brand's DNA and let your brand's essence inform the strategy—not just during good times, but all the time. When you're responsive, draw from your brand's core values, and answer the call of the moment (whatever that requires), you'll be more likely to create flexible messaging and expressions that resonate with audiences when it matters most.   

Sensitivity (and timing) is key.

You set the tone for how customers perceive your brand in uncertain times. Whether challenged by macro conditions or a Twitter storm, don't ignore the problem. You can't influence the narrative by sitting on the sidelines. At the same time, think your message through before rolling it out. Is your timing strategic or reactionary—or smacking of self-interest? Are you considering all possible audiences and using the most tactful language? Is the tone right for the moment? 

Case in point: When social distancing was first recommended, some companies had a gimmicky response: logo tweaks. In two of the most visible cases, McDonald's in Brazil separated the golden arches and Volkswagen put space between the V and the W. The verdict? Some said it was a supersize lapse in judgment. But more importantly, it was a critical learning moment that helped many brands understand what people expected from them. It reset the tone, dictating how brands needed to speak to the public throughout the rest of the pandemic: honest, mindful and not cavalier. 

From food to fashion to pharma, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and a higher degree of honesty from brands. With all the sourcing, production and supply-chain issues Covid threw into sharp relief, a slick execution is no longer enough. Under the weight of today's expectations and 24/7 online scrutiny, it pays to be genuine. While there were brands that carried on business-as-usual well into the pandemic—without explanation for the disconnect—others acknowledged reality without abandoning well-laid plans. British retailer Boden, for example, confessed to customers that, although it might seem "highly inappropriate" to show them clothes they might not need, Boden had already made the clothes and printed the catalogs, and hoped consumers wouldn't find it "horribly insensitive" to receive them. 

Communication that resonates in tough times can be as easy as an explanation, an apology (if needed) and a little empathy. Find your brand's unique role as events unfold and lean into the conversation with authenticity, creativity and, yes, courage.

Pivot—or bust.

When disaster strikes, you have to think of everything, down to the last detail, from marketing emails to what's displayed on your brand's website. For example, months into the pandemic, Corona beer's site still showed carefree people frolicking at the beach while consumers were being told to hunker down and mask up. Other brands were quick to put out relevant messaging but did so opportunistically. Some fashion brands, for example, suggested consumers "dress up" during quarantine—not surprisingly, most clothing sales in the U.S. plummeted. Similarly, home brands like Pottery Barn and CB2 repeatedly stressed the importance of a chic new work-from-home space while otherwise sticking to their usual marketing.

In stark contrast, there were brands that made admirable pivots, such as LVMH and New Balance, both of whom got right to work producing personal protective equipment, while Ford shifted from cars to manufacturing ventilators. Fashion brands that did succeed spoke to the realities of living in lockdown—and offered us sweatpants. What brands like McDonald's missed with their short-lived logo adjustments was that such gestures are a poor substitute for what many critics really wanted from these profitable brands: meaningful action.

The brands that put their resources and infrastructure to work to meet unmet needs, innovated on the fly, and did what was tough but necessary when it counted most, are likely to be remembered for their integrity—and will find themselves with an unexpected edge when the storm passes. 

Make the most of the collective moment.

The post-Covid era is an incredibly unique time and presents a rare opportunity to demonstrate why your brand matters, what you do for people, how you serve them, and what your brand adds to our collective experience. Long term, the "new normal" will require brands to root positive impact into the very bedrock of their organizations and communicate effectively about the difference they're making. 

So, pressure test. Weigh your words. Strike a balance between—or find the right opportunity for—levity and seriousness, optimism and caution, inspiration and aspiration. Like it or not, the pandemic has cast a spotlight on your brand's leadership (or lack thereof) and its values. Figure out how your brand's offerings, skills or services can help us all transition to the better days we hope are ahead—and seize this moment.

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Ben Solomon
Ben Solomon is creative director at Conran Design Group.

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