5 Guidelines for Brand Building Through Crisis

By Jane Ottensmeyer, Senior Client Strategy Director

Person sitting at a computer with fingers on their keyboard

In the face of global tragedy and economic uncertainty, consumers don’t want to be sold to. They want to be reassured that companies are doing the right thing by their employees, consumers and communities. They want emotional support and a sense of community. They want to be helpful themselves, in any way they can.

But what does this mean for marketers trying to reconcile consumer needs with business priorities, all while navigating the sensitivities and complexities of the moment?

COVID-19 has changed our expectations of brands. As the crisis exposed system gaps, we looked to companies to fill them – and they stepped up. As a result, there is newfound appreciation for the private sector. An Edelman study found that 62% of respondents believe their country will not make it through the pandemic without brands playing a critical role. 

So while this moment can’t and shouldn’t be about driving sales, it is a powerful time to build brand equity and consider how you show up in people’s lives. 

Acknowledge the current moment.

The world is not normal and brands can’t act like it is. Consumers want companies to comment on the pandemic. According to Edelman’s data, 77% say brands should only be talking about their products in ways that acknowledge the crisis. Farmers Insurance navigated this especially well in their recent spot Seeing It Through. Normally, their lighthearted ads highlight the absurd things they’ve seen and covered. In this one, they break with their brand tone completely to acknowledge they’ve never seen anything like this before reassuring viewers that they are taking action to support consumers and communities.

Consider how your role has changed.

If you’re unsure how to acknowledge the crisis, start with how your role in people’s lives has shifted. Do they need you less? More? Just, differently? This reframing is a delicate balance as consumers are put off by anyone appearing to capitalize on the situation (lookin’ at you, fashion brands advertising the “WFH OOTD” and furniture companies selling the “ultimate WFH set up”). But instead of pushing products, build your community. Offer self-care tips or ways to build a workstation with common household items. Nike nailed this with their Play for the World spot. The piece acknowledged how physical activity has changed, and did so with their characteristic inspiring tone, making viewers feel like part of an important community.

Be careful with humor.

Humor is a coping mechanism during a crisis. It can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon, especially if comedy is in your brand DNA. But it’s challenging to do without seeming tone-deaf or insensitive; Coors Light pulled their “Official Beer of Working Remotely” spot for that exact reason. On the other hand, Burger King’s Stay Home of the Whopper worked because they weren’t making light of the situation itself. They were teasing those complaining about having to stay home, reinforcing the importance of social distancing. According to Edelman’s study, 57% of consumers say brands should stop advertising that is humorous or lighthearted. So if you’re not sure how to be clever but tactful, leave the comedy to the Tik Tok stars.

Talk about your impact.

Typically, consumers are skeptical of marketing that celebrates all the good a company is doing; it’s perceived as self-aggrandizing and self-serving. But these days, people are relying on brands to step up, fill gaps in systems and support communities. Consumers aren’t just open to these messages, they’re seeking them out. Edelman found that 89% want to stay informed about how brands are supporting and protecting employees and customers. Budweiser did this nicely in their One Team spot, thanking those on the front line while also talking about what they’re doing to help. Follow their lead; tell your impact stories! They’re likely to be met with openness and gratitude right now.

It’s okay to take a COVID-19 break.

42% of Edelman respondents say brands should avoid escapist advertising. But, as long as you stay sensitive to the current moment, your content doesn’t need to be pandemic centric 24/7. Customers don’t need weekly updates about your response unless something substantial has changed. In fact, we think the world is experiencing some quarantine content fatigue. So go ahead, run your Mother’s Day campaign (just as long as it doesn’t remind us that we can’t take her to a spa right now).