The power of brand communication in a health crisis: The case of Covid-19

Jacqueline Boysselle, Assistant Professor in Marketing, Communication and Design Thinking for Montpellier Business School and Edmundo Galvan, Marketing Professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in México City write about the delicate but important nature of communicating during times of crisis.

The power of brand communication in a health crisis: The case of Covid-19

Day-to-day life for consumers and brands has completely changed in the last few months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are all impacted and living a new reality. Now, more than ever, brands need to be creative and improvise an accurate communication campaign in order to show consumers their support during this stressful time.

Recent results show that the well-being of customers and not taking advantage of the crisis to maximize profits seem to be an important factor that can make a brand trustworthy. Brands will need to demonstrate the best way to help organizations and react during this health crisis and at the same time be consistent with their values. 

Some brands have understood that consumers want them to demonstrate their leadership and action by taking care of society, so they started to act through many different approaches.  For example, Logitech is donating free webcams and headsets to teachers for virtual teaching. Ford Motor Company is shifting gears to lend manufacturing and engineering expertise to help build respirators and ventilators for Hospitals. Crocs is donating 10,000 pairs of shoes each day to healthcare workers. Services related to brands also showed similar concerns. For example, Citibank, Banorte, and BBVA among others offered to postpone credit payments. SKY offered their paid channels for free for a limited time. HBO offered free use of their digital channel. Uber eats offered free delivery orders.

From a commercial brand message to a goodwill message as coronavirus spreads

Actions will also need to be paired with consistent communication according to the health emergency. The aim of a traditional marketing communication campaign is to design an effective content message in order to sell products or services and fulfill consumers’ needs in order to earn profits.  Nevertheless, a more accurate communication strategy during the Covid-19 pandemic will need to be aligned with governmental and international health institutions, as they are the most important source of trusted advice in this moment. Thereafter, adopting a social marketing communication strategy seems to be the best option for brands. Social marketing strategy’s main objective is to benefit society in terms of social gain. The focus is reaching the target audience and changing their behavior. A key element for building this type of strategy is understanding existing behaviors and what can influence it, as well as understanding the real cost for people to change their behavior. For example, during this worldwide health crisis, society is adjusting to a huge behavior change right now, and this is THE NEED TO STAY HOME.  

The benefits of a crisis

Reaction to a critical situation or crisis can differ depending on the subject. There are different reactions varying from depression, chaos, and paralysis to optimism, change, and reinvention. A crisis can work in your favor or against you. Some great inventions have been generated by a crisis and/or a need for a real change: the atomic bomb, penicillin, electricity, telephone, mobile, automobile, internet, television and simple things as bottled water. One word can describe the main variable needed to produce great ideas: The speed to CHANGE.

Brands and companies have also shown differences in their speed of reaction before Covid-19 struck. Some have moved to reduce economic impact, others are trying to find out how to continue selling despite quarantine barriers. But there are other brands that have decided to also strengthen the emotional bond with consumers.

A crisis demands leaders to take fast and strong decisions. On top of this behavior, a leader can distinguish himself by adopting bold and creative solutions that do not directly imply high cost implications.

Strong brands look to differentiate by spectacular campaigns, innovative products, great promotions, and point of sale executions. A true leading brand always shows the path to constantly emotionally engage with consumers and bet on a love bond to build brand loyalty thus Brand equity in the long run.

“Speed” is the name of the game

The Covid-19 virus arrived unexpectedly and the universal weapon to combat it has been to stay home. Several messages from different governments have been generated to create awareness on this decision. Even though this decision has been very effective to reduce rates of virus spread, it has also had high economic impact at all levels: country, business, brands, trade, SMEs, and multinational companies, employment, revenue, profits etc.  Different questions arise: Should a brand continue investing in communication strategies? Should the budget be focused on promotional efforts?  Should new products be launched? Should the brand team be reduced?

The answer is simple: a brand should identify a PLAN B and implement it at a fast pace, always keeping in mind the brand role in terms of engagement.

How can a brand still be in touch with consumers? How can they show empathy? How can they encourage consumers to stay home and somehow enjoy it? How can they keep brand awareness despite the momentum? How can they still build loyalty despite the crisis? How can consumers feel brands care? How can consumers feel brands are supporting them?

Finally, and most importantly, how fast should brands move to show their love? The answer is as fast as possible! Leading brands should be the first to send the right messages to have the advantage of an uncluttered scenario. Followers will react and face more difficult scenarios where the message will have less probability to create a strong impact.

Show me the leadership

As soon as the world gained awareness regarding the global Covid-19 pandemic, some brands showed leadership not only by understanding the situation, but also by identifying a powerful insight to build on and create a link with its positioning on what consumers were feeling, believing and needing.

Nike was probably one of the first brands to understand the situation and they immediately took initiative and sent a message that became viral. By mid-March the message was posted and shared by millions of people. Nike was not only smart to send a SIMPLE message, not a TV campaign, not an expensive video, not an inspirational photograph with a celebrity, just a black and white thought that built both on the need to stay home and the brand positioning. It also had an emotional halo to touch consumer’s emotions.

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Was it expensive? NO. Did it require a long production process? No. Was it a spectacular production? No! It had the advantage of being SIMPLE, CREATIVE, and FAST to implement. The message was also posted by the brand ambassadors that Nike currently has, in an effort to increase reach and bonding.

Consistent with the brand message, Coke followed a similar path as Nike. They sent a simple, low cost message building on the situation consumers were living: “Staying apart is the best way to stay united.” Digital tools helped it reach a global audience. It is another example of true creativity that can be easily implemented at a fast pace. It also built on the emotional arena to touch consumer’s hearts. 

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Instagram is the new

Social media channels have played a leading communication role with a special highlight to Instagram and the IG live feature. Celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Ellen DeGeneres, Lady Gaga, or Casa de Papael, or professional athletes such as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, have exploded their community size by broadcasting live events like interviews, cooking lessons, concerts, challenges, and training routines in an effort to keep in touch with fans and make the interaction a close and more intimate experience, strengthening their personal brand equity at the same time. 

The power of now

The right message at the right time and the right communication channel will be a powerful weapon for building brand engagement and trust. No matter the situation of crisis, a brand message content should use the right insights by understanding what motivates the consumer, what their priorities are in life and what daily challenges they face. Brands as people, will always face a crisis in different ways. We just must keep in mind that citizens, consumers, common people will always seek for guidance and comfort from others that choose to play a LEADING ROLE in times where hope is the only thing we can embrace.


Covid-19 Corporate branding Digital marketing