Silence isn’t always golden: why brands need to be vocal in a time of crisis

By Wez Eathorne, Research director



The Drum Network article

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March 27, 2020 | 5 min read

The impact of the coronavirus has reached into every household, in every town and city, in every country across the globe.

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The impact on brands and companies has been just as severe, with brands having to make difficult decisions about balancing economic health, with the health of their customers and employees.

Like human beings, some brands have responded well to the crisis, whilst it has bought out the worst characteristics in others.

And we know that brands are being judged by their response to the crisis. Are they spectators, self-isolating in their boardrooms until the crisis ends, victims like British Airways, or are they one of the brands that have successfully offered reassurance, hope and truth?

Our study answers three key questions that should help brand managers and marketeers navigate a rapidly evolving situation and life-jolting challenge:

1.Which brands have risen to the challenge and why?

2.What do people want from brands at times of crisis?

3.What actions (or inactions) taken now will harm your brand reputation for days, weeks and potentially years to come?

People want brands to be truthful

Everyone with access to a smartphone will have seen some viral news story quickly circulate, before being exposed as fake news. Some are humorous, such as the idea Wembley will be used to bake the world’s largest lasagne, but some are more sinister, offering supposed medical advice on combating the virus. Our study shows that in times of uncertainty and fear people are returning to trusted sources of information, endorsing BBC’s response to the coronavirus over the media wild west of Facebook.

People want brands to be useful

Supermarkets and retailers have never been more important. The crisis has elevated retailers like Sainsburys and Tesco to the importance of government, with the humble shelf-stacker now a more important ‘key-worker’ than the investment banker or CEO. Both retailers offer examples of how to adapt and respond to a crisis, using initiatives such as early opening for the vulnerable and regular shopping hours for NHS workers. Both have presented leadership and a social conscience in the face of adversity, and with heartfelt initiatives, like flowers and appreciation for NHS workers they have both tapped into and acted as a conduit for the emotional mind state of the nation.

Other retailers have been less successful.

Amazon’s role is as vital as the major UK supermarkets, but negative news surrounding unsafe working conditions, extended working hours and a failure to clampdown on profiteering has badly affected the reputation of the brand.

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People want brands to have a voice

There is a tendency in times of crisis to want to wait it out and keep your head down. In the past we have seen brands want to circle the wagons until the situation is resolved, but our study shows that now is when people want and need brands most. At times like these brands are so much more than the products they sell.

We look to them for guidance, distraction and hope. McDonald’s clear communication and quick decision-making at this time of crisis has endeared them to the public. Whereas the apparent silence of other iconic global brands such as Nike and Coca-Cola, has lost the public’s goodwill at a time of real emotional need. In the UK, Dove has permission to place itself at the centre of the conversation, with a relevant product line and brand identity that can have a dialogue with consumers but is notably absent from the conversation.

Benjamin Franklin famously said: ‘Out of adversity, comes opportunity’. Now is an ideal time for brands to recognise this, offering the three things people need most at this time: truth, hope and guidance.

The full report from Opinium is available to download here.

Wez Eathorne, research director at Opinium


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