Published in Jul-Aug 2020
National lockdowns, global travel bans and social distancing – not exactly the 2020 we were expecting. With the novel coronavirus steadily making its way around the world, there isn’t a single institution, industry or human being immune to its effect – and brands are no exception. Between store shutdowns, cancelled launches, media blackouts and trillions in losses, this virus is spelling disaster for everyone, leaving even the biggest brands scrambling to respond to this unprecedented crisis in whatever way they can. This said, some brands are rising up to the challenge, whether by sharing knowledge and resources, supporting employees or repurposing supply chains to support efforts, they are doing whatever it is in their power to combat the pandemic, even at the cost of their own profit margins.
Considering the speed at which the crisis escalated, brands were left with little time (and options) to respond to the outbreak and with lockdown policies in place (such as those imposed in Pakistan), many had no alternative but to remain silent or even close shop. Even setups such as Daraz and Foodpanda that were fully equipped to service customers (and benefit in the process) had their hands tied due to the lockdown. Surprisingly, even purely online services such as Netflix encountered issues due to massive surges in bandwidth, forcing them to reduce streaming bit-rates in some regions to compensate for the demand.
On the upside, there is still plenty brands can and are doing to help during this crisis. With millions of bread winners forced to stay home, many brands are focusing on taking care of their own employees first. Apple, Levi’s, Lush and Sephora, for example, reassured their staff that they would be fully paid despite global store closures. Amazon responded by hiring an additional 100,000 employees in the U.S. and increased pay scales in all their fulfilment centres to compensate for the millions of additional customers shopping online. Although such initiatives are not always promoted outwards, it shows how these brands stick to their core values in difficult times, putting their people ahead of their profits. In stark contrast, a brand like Virgin Atlantic, which often pontificates their love for their employees, responded to the crisis by immediately forcing thousands of employees into taking eight weeks unpaid leave. The controversial decision was met by public outrage, including a tweet from Labour MP Angela Rayner urging Chairman Richard Branson to flog his private island and use the proceeds to compensate his staff.
Many brands also started to take extra precautions to protect their customers, such as sanitising stores or closing down outlets altogether and redirecting patrons to shop online. Some went further; for example, telecom companies like Jazz, Telenor and Ufone introduced discounted ‘work from home’ packages, while AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon removed data caps for broadband users to facilitate people working remotely. With train services suspended, Pakistan Railways helped ease the pressure on healthcare services by converting 220 coaches into isolation units capable of housing 2,000 hospital beds. Pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens announced they would facilitate Covid-19 screenings in secured parking lots at selected stores. Google is apparently in the process of creating a website that will allow people to check their symptoms online. BBC Global News donated 20% of their ad space to international health and government organisations to promote public-health messages free of cost. Insurance companies AIA Singapore and Prudential Hong Kong stepped up by providing residents with exclusive medical coverage against the virus. Brands like Kopiko in the Philippines and Uber Eats started delivering food and water to healthcare workers and first responders. Uber waived their delivery fees to support small businesses and are exploring the possibility of delivering coronavirus test kits where required.
Some gestures have been even more monumental. Fashion brands like Asim Jofa, Deepak Perwani and Lulusar sprung into action by revamping their workshops to produce free protective wear for frontline workers. Global fashion giant LVMH (owners of Christian Dior, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton to name a few) repurposed their perfume manufacturing units in order to produce hand sanitizers for hospitals in France and donated $2.2 million to the Red Cross. Kraft-Heinz donated $12 million in cash and food products to support communities impacted by the virus and KFC partnered with the non-profit organisation ‘Blessings in a Backpack’ to provide weekend meals to thousands of children. Sketchers China donated over $700 million in cash towards Covid-19 prevention and relief, including 10,000 pairs of shoes and jackets. Alibaba developed a 20-point plan aimed at providing economic support to their network of merchants. The plan includes providing financial support, lowering interest rates, introducing flexible job opportunities and remote working management.
These are only a few of the initiatives taken by brands – and I am certain there are and will be many more and although no brand could have predicted or prepared for this situation, there is much they can learn from what we have seen so far.
Firstly, Covid-19 is proof that the unimaginable can happen and a brand’s ability to adapt, assess and respond swiftly is the difference between riding a wave or going under. Secondly, not every contribution needs to be massive in scale. Even small brands with limited resources can contribute through simple gestures, such as sharing information, reducing fees or donating products. Such contributions may not seem like much, but they help bring some relief to people’s lives and eventually funnel back to the greater effort. Thirdly, brands that opt to do the right thing in times of adversity should do so without expecting anything in return and without touting for publicity, sales, or likes. Situations like Covid-19 are not marketing moments for brands to profit from or push their agendas. If anything, they are opportunities to join humanity’s collective effort and prove the value of their citizenship. It means acting responsibly, appropriately and selflessly, even if this is completely at odds with commercial objectives.
If this pandemic can teach us anything, it is that great brands will always find ways to rise to the challenges of extreme adversity and do whatever is needed for the greater good. They will suspend their marketing metrics and respond to unprecedented situations with equally unprecedented innovation, compassion and solutions. Whether it is supporting their own workers, entire communities of people or saving lives, in difficult times, great brands will stop at nothing to achieve great things. Pandemic or no pandemic, this is what being a brand is about.
Taimur Tajik is former Head of Creative, Manhattan International.