Coronavirus is prompting brands and tech players to show the real power of purpose
As self- isolation and quarantine become the new normal around the globe an onslaught of brands have found they have a genuine role to play in a time of crisis, launching campaigns and products to help society negate the inevitable impact.
Until last week, advertisers – usually the first to react and engage with newsworthy topics – had very much been steering clear of aligning themselves the crisis, despite the clear social good (and potential financial) incentives.
Though they initially kept their hands clean, brands are now being forced to act, with companies from Pret to Brewdog, Alibaba to Facebook using their clout to do good. But are they doing it from the goodness of their hearts? Does it matter?
“It’s a tightrope,” Ben Essen chief strategy officer at Iris contends. “Any genuine attempts to help can appear disingenuous. On the other hand, any form of commercial activity can appear as profiteering.”
A starting point for many advertisers has been extended a helping hand to NHS staff on the front line working day and night to treat and protect those at risk. Chains like Leon, Subway, Pret a Manger and Nandos are among those offering discounts on food or free coffee for medical workers burning the midnight oil.
On Leon’s commitment to help those in need, its co-founder and chief exec, John Vincent said, “we want to assist the most vulnerable and those most caught up in the crisis. NHS workers are toiling around the clock and will be for the foreseeable future. Therefore, we are increasing our discount to all NHS workers to 50% and supporting people who work in hospitals near to Leon restaurants with free food deliveries.”
Across US and Canada, Uber has been pledging free food for medical providers. It has also been launching daily marketing campaigns, both in-app and via email, to promote delivery from 100,000 independent restaurants who are financially more at risk with customers staying indoors.
And to add a bit of luxury to the continuous cycle of hand washing that NHS workers are undertaking, skincare brand L’Occitane has been sending hand creams to hospitals to help soothe their hands. Further, it has promised for as long as stores remain open, they invite any NHS worker to come and pick up a 30ml hand cream.
As the people across the world readjust to a life in isolation, the hardest hit are the elderly and vulnerable. While the advice is to stay indoors, seemingly menial tasks like food shopping and collecting pensions, require them to brave the world outside, placing them at risk.
To keep life functioning as normal as possible in these trying times, supermarkets across the globe, including Sainsburys, Iceland, Lidl, Woolworths, Publix, Walmart and Target have been offering designated shopping hours purely for older individuals and the vulnerable.
Lidl has also pledged to donate £100,000 to help feed vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and families who need help during school closures.
Beyond supermarkets, banks are examining ways that can help and protect older customers, with Nationwide building society opening an hour early at 8am instead of 9am, across 100 branches for customers over the age of 70 and for those with underlying health conditions.
A time for tech to shine, companies across the world have been rising to the challenge and finding innovative ways for tech to enable a better life for those in need.
Though the duopoly have been criticised for spreading misinformation throughout the crisis they’re carving out a role for themselves. Facebook has pledged to help SME’s with $100m grant programme to help small businesses who are being impacted by the outbreak.
Alongside Google, Facebook has also been having chats with the US. government on how to use location data acquired from mobile phones to combat the virus. A little bit Blackmirror, public-health experts are testing out the potential to compile data that would allow them to map the spread of infection, and track whether people are keeping at a safe distance.
"As a company we’re determined to do everything we can in response to the coronavirus pandemic,” explains Anita Yuen, strategic partnerships Social Good at Facebook. “On our platform, people are rallying round to support their neighbours and communities through hundreds of Facebook Groups which have sprung up in the last few days alone, and our teams are keeping in touch with group admins to ensure they have the resources they need to provide their communities with accurate and helpful information.
After asking employees what causes they cared about the most, StarHub is organising three ground-up initiatives, that including contributing $300,000 to the Courage Fund. Further, it has assembled 2,000 welfare care packs for lower-income beneficiaries and is helping to defray one month of housing rental costs for 2,000 lower-income seniors. Beyond this, over 100 StarHub employees have answered the Singapore Red Cross and health Sciences Authority’s call to donate blood over the next few weeks.
Quickly becoming the emblem for the coronavirus, it’s hard to say when hand sanitiser was in such high demand. Rising to replenish the drought, a number of brands have taken it upon themselves to produce their own version. In fact, it’s been so in demand, prices for bottles have been going for over £100 online.
Among those rising to the challenge is perfume giant LVMH, who has been producing the sacred liquid at three of its perfume and cosmetics factories for distribution to French hospitals.
A little more unusually, the cheeky punk brewer BrewDog has also ventured out of its comfort zone, producing hand sanitiser at its distillery in Scotland.
And for weeks now Lush has been offering the public free hand washing as a way to help halt the virus.
One of the most problematic aspects of the coronavirus outbreak so far is the dearth of testing kits for people suspected of contracting the virus. This shortage has opened up a space for tech Godfathers, like Jack Ma and Bill Gates to step up.
As his prophesying Ted talk makes the rounds, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been providing at-home testing kits for Seattle area residents, with rumours that Amazon will be partnering with them for free delivery.
And to help re-write the global narrative around the coronavirus pandemic and China, Ma, who has now retired as chairman of Alibaba tweeted a photo of a shipment of 1 million masks and 500,000 coronavirus test kits for “our friends in America” from China.
Ma is also sending consignments of medical supplies to Europe, calling for international cooperation efforts to combat the spread.
The first shipment of masks and coronavirus test kits to the US is taking off from Shanghai. All the best to our friends in America. pic.twitter.com/LTn26gvlOl— Jack Ma (@JackMa) March 16, 2020
While ‘going out’ has become ‘staying in,’ the companies taking the biggest hit include nightclubs and bars. JD.com and Chinese music label Taihe Music Group have partnered to create an online clubbing experience, bringing in major alcohol brands for the experience. Budweiser, Rémy Martin, Carlsberg and Pernod Ricard have all signed up for the service, which JD.com says has increased sales of alcohol by almost 70% and 40% during some shows.
Keen to not let its musical ammunition go to waste, Defected Records is to host a virtual music festival, where house lovers can tune into the live show from Ministry of Sound this Friday.
And more crudely, Pornhub has been offering free premium membership to those stuck inside in Italy to “help keep you company during these next weeks at home.”
Defected Virtual Festival
Defected In Your House... Live & Direct from Ministry of Sound Club this Friday - 12:00 GMT..Posted by Defected Records on Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Businesses that want to do good, can often feel a little damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Largely, given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus, brands have felt unsure how to help without appearing to profit from the crisis.
“The question is, where is the brand’s legitimate and authentic space to act - for both the short term survival of the company and the longer-term goodwill of the brand,” asks Essen.
He points to two competing crises taking place; the virus itself, and the economic collapse it could trigger. “Both could wreak equal devastation in lives and livelihoods lost. So brands shouldn’t be embarrassed to bring commerciality into their thinking. As the crisis deepens, narratives around looking after jobs and communities will become increasingly important to people.”
On the tightrope between profiteering and catering to genuine public need, The Specialist Work’s head of planning, Dan Hojnik says that brands that prioritise communicating with credibility will do “far better in the midst (and wake) of the coronavirus than those opting for urgency-driving scare tactics to boost short-term sales.”
He advises brands to reconsider heavily discounted, promotion-based offers in favour of delivering ‘brand credibility.’ “We’ll eventually get through this, and brands and their marketers who behave and communicate with credibility will be better off for it.”
Essen advises against treating the crisis as a ‘one-size fits all’ and for businesses to have clear and differentiated workstreams focused on helping people get through the challenges of sickness and self-isolation, and others working on helping communities and economies recover.
“No brand should let the crisis go to waste, and instead use it as an opportunity to build a more future-fit product, service, operational and marketing ecosystem,” he insists.
For Reuben Turner from the Good Agency, “Now is the time for brands to be brave, and it’s actions that will matter, not words.” He implores brands to think big and use their imagination, as “this is no time for reticence.”
“Embrace a new paradigm of responsibility, empathy and agility, it won’t go away. And above all, be generous. That’s what people will remember when this is over.”
With coronavirus settling in for the long run, society is just at the beginning of an unparalleled chapter in the history of modern life. As brands come to terms with the role that they can play in lessening the impact of the covid-19 both on society, and the economy, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this.
This means it is pertinent that brands figure out how to strike the right tone while ensuring they’re doing what’s right not only for society, but also their business.