Brands must have their customer’s backs as coronavirus takes hold

Brands must have their customer’s backs as coronavirus takes hold

As the spread of Covid-19 is forcing countries to shut down their borders, businesses to drastically alter their operations, and individuals to take dramatic steps to safeguard their health - brands are wondering if they should react and how.

The unique nature of this coronavirus means many marketers believe it requires a unique response. Most of the customer communication pertains to the situation at hand – safety measures, disruptions, alternatives and so on. But for many brands, this can also be an opportunity to shine.

In moments of crisis, brands have a chance to step up and assure their customers (and stakeholders) that the brand is their ally and will always have their back. Being on the side of the customer is not a novel strategy, and it's not unique to this pandemic – it's what the best brands have always done.

But first, here's what not to do.

Don't be tone-deaf or insensitive to the moment, like the unfortunately embattled beer brand Corona which has been pushing its new hard seltzer with the tag line "coming ashore soon," or the cruise line that communicated to its customers to bring along extra food and supplies in case they get quarantined.

It's also not a good time to appear opportunistic, like marketing Kyoto's normally tourist-infested area as "empty Arashiyama" to encourage people to visit at a time when social distancing is the norm.

Of course, there has also been a generous outpouring of support from the brand community. As the luxury business staggers under the body blow to its Chinese market, brands like LVMH have pledged significant financial support. Armani has chipped in with a sizeable contribution as Italy goes under lockdown. Many others, like Microsoft, Cargill, Dell, and Apple, are donating to support the fight against the virus.

However, the most meaningful responses, the ones that stick in the memories of the consumers and shape brand perceptions, don't involve writing checks. Instead, they come from a place of caring and commitment.

In a Forrester study of the brand perceptions and preferences of over 4,000 respondents, I found that a brand's ability to engage its audience emotionally was the most potent explanatory variable influencing consumer choice and affecting financial outcomes.

Further investigation of the component emotions revealed that there was a subset that mattered most, and the locus of sentiment described a brand that was "on your side." In other words, ally brands that look out for the interests of their customers build the strongest relationships and create extraordinary value for their customers and themselves.

The time of the coronavirus is the time for ally brands to show their true colours. Those that already have customer-obsession ingrained in their brand essence are the ones best positioned to respond.

The best response follows three principles: Be relevant, make a difference, and come through.

To be relevant is to deliver an experience connected to your brand; to make a difference is to have that experience be meaningful and useful, and to come through is to ensure you have your customers' backs, even though it may hurt you financially in the short term.

There have been several examples of successful brand outreach that meet these criteria. CVS will deliver medication to your home for free, ensuring individuals stay home to minimize exposure. Delta has led the big three US carriers on taking a proactive stand on providing ticket flexibility to affected travelers. In Spain, Telefonica is providing free higher data allowances to accommodate remote work and free entertainment options for kids stuck at home. Johnson & Johnson has provided masks, goggles, protective suits, thermometers, and respirators to healthcare workers all over the world. And Lyft has committed to financial relief for drivers who are infected, giving them a cushion and also mitigating significant risk to riders.

This time of uncertainty is a treacherous time for brands to communicate – being off-target by even a smidgen in the authenticity and sincerity of the effort puts much at risk with little to gain.

Not surprisingly, plenty of brands will choose to sit it out. But if there is the opportunity for a brand to find a relevant expression that is truly in service of its customers and can alleviate their concerns, then that brand will leave an indelible mark.

As the architects of experience design know very well, the best brand perceptions are forged in the crucible of crisis.

Dipanjan Chatterjee is vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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