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The Impact of COVID-19 on Brands

Chris Wilks, Cynthia Stipeche, Bo Bothe


Solving for B°
The Impact of COVID-19 on Brands

Question bubbles and computers with COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed the way brands do business globally and its impact will be felt far beyond this outbreak.

In this episode, our experts discuss how business has changed and what the lasting impacts of the Coronavirus will be. They also offer examples of brands that have adapted well to this new normal along with tips on how to prepare your brand for what lies ahead.

Episode Transcript

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

Branding Trends in the Age of Coronavirus

Chris Wilks: Let's talk about branding in the age of COVID-19. What are some of the trends from brands that you guys have seen or are starting to see in response to this pandemic?

Cynthia Stipeche: Well, lifestyle-wise, family-wise, health-wise, this is something we've never faced in our lifetime. And obviously brands are struggling through this as well. Struggling to figure out what happens when an entire economic model or a business model gets turned upside down.

So I would say that the trends we're seeing at the moment are just basically brands trying to figure out how to communicate in an effective way to their audiences and their customers. I think it's also a matter of how brands are communicating internally within their companies to reassure their employees and keep them going. And it's a challenge.

So I think the overall trend right now is getting your footing in this new situation. How do you stay authentic and not move into this kind of strange realm where you're trying not to drown and suddenly off-brand or off target? 

Bo Bothe: Yeah, I've seen a lot of innovations. I think some people made some adjustments right at the beginning that have been really interesting. Where they were working really hard to try and figure it out but maybe flailing around a little.

But I've seen some really interesting examples -- good things and bad. Some were examples where brands were authentic and kind of true and real and they've kept that up and it's worked really well for them. And then I've seen some brands completely change their character, either be more somber than they normally are or to be more serious than they could ever have been. And it just almost seems inauthentic.

And I think brands are struggling with that. They're struggling with that internally too. We've watched some of the executives that we coach and work with almost go radio silent. And this is not the time to do that. People need leadership, people need direct discussion, people need honesty -- to the point that you can be with all this uncertainty. And it's been really hard for some of those to really step up.

Opportunity Amid the Chaos

Cynthia: Right. The one thing I keep thinking about is those brands that are silent. And this applies to company brands or people with brands, like individuals who are well-known. But it's kind of this COVID communication abyss and today it's like there's this gap for those brands who aren't speaking to their target audience or their customers or to the public.

The silence could potentially harm the brand and probably is. But at the same time, it's like as you're staring into this abyss, there's a lot of opportunity in there. I think it takes courage and the ability to pivot quickly to see that as an opportunity.

Bo: Yeah. I think that's one of the things that we're finding is people are starting to see business opportunity out of this. And then how do you talk about that and be authentic and true to the current situation? I think this whole shift, like right now what we're doing with our podcasts and being remote, our business has thrived. When I say that, who knows what will happen two months from now, but our business has thrived in how we communicate really well with each other, how we stay true to our brand.

We actually turned down some of our own marketing because it just didn't make sense in the first four weeks of all this to be reaching out to try and find opportunities while people were scrambling to take care of themselves. And so I think that has an impact on the tone and tenor.

Timing can be a big part of managing your brand through things like this. But now it's time to start reaching back out. And how we reach out, how we manage the brand true to our values are big deals. And that's the same thing with other businesses out there. Are you being true to your values? Are you sticking with what you've done?

If you've normally been pretty aggressive, it would make sense that you're aggressive in this state. Would it make sense for you to pull back a little bit for a period of time? Sure. You want to be opportunistic but you don't want to be seen as opportunistic. And how do those things balance each other in the current situation?

Messaging Trends During COVID-19

Chris: From a messaging standpoint, what are some common themes that you guys have seen coming through? Whether it's authentic or inauthentic or whatever it may be, I'm curious, what do you guys see in the market as the trend or the things that are happening?

Cynthia: I think there's a lot of noise. Going back to this whole thing about authenticity and being real, some of this stuff is probably getting a little stale and stagnant. Everybody's emotional, everybody's a little bit more serious now and we understand. I think people who have to report to work or a lot of people who are working from home, we all understand the gravity of this situation but it doesn't mean that you have to change who you are personality-wise.

I think it ties back into something Bo had just mentioned a second ago, which is that brand values are important and it's not just for the company or business. It's also important for how the company functions; how you think, how you produce work, how you communicate.

And I feel like for companies who don't have really strong brand values or they're not really quite sure what their mission and vision is about, that a time like this is a test to see the true state of the brand. Because if we're authentic and we're true and we have true mission, vision and values that we can lean on, then the messaging is going to stem from that through the lens of the challenges that are happening through this pandemic.

Bo: Yeah, and I think when you talk about trends, I mean I'd love to use one of our clients as an example, BodyBilt. I think Cynthia you've worked with them for years.

We've tried to get them to move to digital and online sales to supplement their press-the-flesh kind of sales team with a more digital approach. Everything from search to content because their brand lends itself to being the best from an ergonomic standpoint.

But then when you mix in antimicrobial fibers and the current fears that we've been talking about on top of a completely different way to do business, then all of a sudden where they didn't think they could handle online sales, they've now switched to that. They had to. I mean they were almost forced to.

And I think we're going to see a lot of that where people are going to move to digital -- in a way that they can handle it -- more. And I think social content and thought leadership are going to be even more important but in different ways.

I think that press-the-flesh, go to a trade show, go to an event, be around a lot of people, present as a thought leader in front of a room of attendees at an event, we'll get back to that. But I think people are going to get used to the Zoom platform. They're going to get used to being part of a group online much like the way my kids use video games and the way they all connect with each other is different than we were when we were kids.

That same thing is going to transition to a different demographic, to those of us that are a little older. The fact that we've now spent six, eight, 12 weeks doing this kind of thing and doing it remotely, that's going to change behavior. I think that's going to be a big trend that the clients are going to have to get.

How good are you at pitching over Zoom? How good are you at sharing your information? And what things do you supplement that in the marketplace digitally so that the audience can get a full picture of how you can impact their business from a service that you provide or a product that you provide?

The Value of Brand Adaptability

Chris: So is it fair to say that brands that have adaptability or flexibility built-in are the ones that are going to really thrive in this environment? 

Cynthia: Yeah, for example, I'm a big Airbnb user. I've used them for years. And if you look at their business model, it's renting out people's homes or rooms all around the world. So you look at a company like that, a business model like that and you think, "What do you do when most people are grounded?" Nobody's hopping on an airplane, a lot of people aren't going to open up their homes.

I found it really interesting that Airbnb has made this quick shift to offering online classes by hosts internationally, for things like wine tasting and perfume making. And people register for these courses online through the Airbnb online platform. And I'm like, "Wow, that was fast." I mean we're talking about weeks.

Now all of a sudden it's like we're getting some traction. People are taking these courses online. And it's an interesting thing because they're still true to their brand. They're connecting people from different areas of the world and putting them together, allowing them to experience culture and life in other cities through the lens of other people's cultures and lives. And I think it's brilliant.

Is it going to generate the same kind of return on that versus people staying in living rooms or bedrooms across the world? No. But I think staying true to their brand and who they are and their mission, vision and values, I thought that was kind of a brilliant solution.

It's an interesting trend, but it also shows that that company has the ability to move quickly and adjust to change much like you were mentioning earlier, Bo, with BodyBilt. You can go one of two ways with this:

  1. The sky is falling and this is going to crush us and destroy us.
  2. How do we make a quick change and prepare for this type of a crazy historical challenge?

Bo: I think that's a great example because I saw the same thing with Bonvoy and Marriott. They started posting these digital experiences, virtual experiences, that you could go on and it was toned perfectly. It was like, "We know you're tired of being in the house. We'd like to share these experiences with you."

To your point, if I'm a big Airbnb user or if I'm a Marriott points person and I'm all fired up to do something, I think that's going to build up some latent opportunity. For example, here's a wine tasting, and somebody in France is showing all this amazing stuff and saying, "Come stay at my Airbnb at some point," that then positions that person as a local expert. And then why wouldn't you want to stay at a local expert's house when this turns around?

I mean there are those things that are pretty amazing that'll happen over time. How do you shift to that? I think it comes down, again, to aligning with mission, vision, values. That vision starts to turn into leadership.

I don't know that adaptability has to be in the values of the organization as much as some vision has to be in it. Those companies have obviously have talked about these things. Similar to when we adjusted to this very quickly and easily, we'd been preparing and talking about it. We have over time kind of been building our brand. Adaptability is not in our brand pyramid, but the creativity is there. We inspire people to create, transform and grow.

We were able to transform since it's a part of our mission. We were able to transform our organization and by association transformed the other organizations we work with. And I think you're right in that. I don't know that adaptability needs to be a word on the pyramid or a core value, but that idea that you have vision and leadership and you have an idea of who you are, that makes it a lot easier to see other opportunities.

To Cynthia's point, if you don't have a good, clear view of your mission, vision, and values, you don't have a good clear view of where you're headed. In that case, the organization doesn't really understand where they're headed because there hasn't been good communication and you can't pivot because you haven't built an organization that's able to do that.

Brand Reactions During COVID-19

Brands Doing the Right Thing

Chris: Yeah, and you guys provided some really good examples. A couple of other ones that stood out to me are the businesses that wanted to do something good and to put good out there. For example, Headspace offering some courses for free because they know people are stressed and here's a really good opportunity for people to get Zen and do some meditation and stuff like that. And instead of charging you and using this as an opportunity to sell you something, they're giving you something to help you cope with this.

Then there's the Ford program where if you buy a car right now for the first three months, they'll cover your payments for the next three months they'll defer your payments. And so for six months, you owe them nothing.

So those are both examples of just trying to ease the burden a little bit. But ultimately, for Ford and Headspace, there's an end goal there, right? To build up that brand loyalty, build up that brand association or that connection with the brand and they're able to do that while also doing good and trying to help out. Do you guys see that as a trend that will continue or do you think that's just kind of a blip for right now?

Cynthia: I think that it's a human response from these brands to try to connect with their customers and their audience. People want to help and I think part of it is goodwill. I think the other half of it is wanting to be seen in a good light in how they responded to this crisis. I think the examples you provided they seem real and will definitely help people.

Another one I was thinking about was AT&T. They recently gave three months of service free to doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers, which is awesome. It just eases the burden, which again, humanizes these companies so that you can feel like they're in this with you. And I think that's another big thing. This is such an opportunity. You have the chance to really truly connect almost on a personal level with your audience with the goodwill, the real help -- like deferring payments for a number of months.

Everybody's stuck at home so how do you connect with that captive audience in a real way that really benefits them? I think people are going to remember that. It's like for the first time ever more than me just picking and choosing what I want at that moment, these brands are living through this with us.

Bo: I've seen it too. Some local restaurants have pivoted to giving lunches to workers in their industry. So, Lasco and Tasting Room is doing that where they're making meals, making 200 meals a day, and if you've got a paystub from a restaurant or some service industry business, you can go and pick up a meal for your family. I mean, those things are awesome, and I think those a very authentic, and they're true and if you look at the people that are doing it, the companies that are doing it, they always had a tendency to do that kind of thing.

I think the other side of that is we have to be careful -- and I'm watching this with the whole Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and banks -- is that you have to be careful not to pick winners and losers either. I mean, you can't serve everybody, right? I mean other than maybe Ford or GM because they've done the numbers and they know that they can forego six months of payments. But they have to offer that to everyone.

But when you start to get into, "I'm going to offer doctors," or "I'm going to offer to this group," you have to be true to who you are and where you are. And so it can make sense. You just have to be careful with those kinds of strategies because, with the cynical nature of some people out there, it can come back to beat you up. And I think it's a shame, but it's a reality.

What Not to Do During a Pandemic

Chris: Unintended negative consequences, right? That's certainly worth mentioning and it underscores the need for forethought for this kind of thing. And not doing something haphazardly or doing something that isn't true to your brand. You want to do something that's thoughtful and purposeful with something like this.

So we've talked about a couple of brands doing a good job and some of the good things that are happening. Are there any particular examples that you guys have of companies that are doing a poor job or maybe dropped the ball on this kind of thing?

One of them that comes to mind for me is Spirit Airlines. They caught a lot of backlash for promoting this as being the best time to fly since that is putting people in harm's way. So is there anybody that you guys see that's maybe missing the mark a little bit?

Cynthia: Yes. I've read things about some franchises saying now's a great opportunity to get on board and to possibly buy into this franchise.  I think, "Why would you try to sell that at the moment?" It just seems a little odd. So yeah, I think that it's a fine line where you have to be very careful to not come across as predatory or opportunistic during a really kind of crummy time for everyone. 

I think that can be dangerous and I think there could be longterm consequences. Back to Spirit, as we all know, it's for the budget-conscious traveler. It's like maybe they're a little bit more risk-tolerant. Maybe they're fine to travel and take advantage of a deal. But it's just kind of, it seems a little tone-deaf at this exact moment.

Bo: Yeah. I think that's a trap that brands can fall into. It seems to be some marketer gone wild or somebody with not much perspective. For Spirit though (or the agency managing them) it seems to fit their brand. But then there's the greater good part consideration. The idea is to not let people go from one place to another for a period of time, right? So I think while the effort is authentic to their brand and beneficial to their audience, they also don't want to be encouraging that. And I think some places you've seen that disconnect.

  1. I think banks with the PPP, where they seemingly prioritize their own customers when there are a lot of small businesses. Although I think small banks did an amazing job of taking in new people.
  2. And then I think the second one that I've seen is the issue that you had with Harvard and some other higher learning institutions that applied for the PPP money they got it and they've got billion-dollar endowments. Or the Lakers applying. Now the other side of it is they're taxpayers too. They should have access to that capital. And so how do you balance that?

I mean it's managing your brand on top of taking advantage of things that you should have access to. So I think to your point, Cynthia, what you talked about in the past is that it's just a really tough situation that people have to navigate and think, "How are we going to survive, but also how do we best position ourselves for success moving forward.?"

Cynthia: Right, yeah. It was in the news recently about Shake Shack returning their money and I just thought about how somebody in one department applied for that, got the money and then the branding team or the CEO or somebody is like, "Wait a second. What does that do to the whole perception of what Shake Shack is about and the image of the company?"

So, it comes across as like they did the right thing but then also kind of like, "Well, why do they get the money?" So there needs to be discussions internally within companies as they navigate their options and things that might get misconstrued or might have a negative impact through the eyes of the public.

Chris: And you guys nailed it. Those conversations need to be based around what's true to the brand, what's important to the brand, and who the brand is.

Cynthia: Right. And I think in regards to the longterm benefit, some of the questions are:

  • Do we need to request funds from this stimulus money?
  • Is it really going to help the business?
  • What if it gets out? Will it ruffle feathers?

So, yeah, rather than having to do damage control, it's better to plan ahead and think about it.

Chris: Yeah. What are maybe those unintended consequences?

Bo: Well, back to organizations knowing their mission, vision, values and having a clear understanding of what they're trying to achieve. If Shake Shack needed that money and they knew why, I'd be fine with them taking it as long as they communicated that.

If the Lakers really needed that money to keep their frontline workers employed that's fine.  But that's part of the why. You have to understand when you sign up for it, that's part of the why. And so you're going to take a beating for it so you need to be prepared for it.

It's easy for us societally to beat up people without knowing the full situation. But then when you don't understand your own situation and can't communicate about it, it just compounds the issue. And so is that adaptability or leadership? And are those both keys to every brand? Especially in a situation like this. Having the vision and understanding and adapting in a way that's true to who you are and what the true need is, I think is imperative in any situation like this.

The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Brands

Chris: Ok, so let's look forward for a second. What lasting impact do you think this pandemic will have on brands? How is this going to change the way we communicate with clients? How do you think it's going to change the marketplace?

More Virtual Experiences

Cynthia: You have to think about this, business-wise, in terms of things that have been already going on like virtual officing -- that seems to be working, I think that's going to continue growing. 

What's the outcome of retail after all this? Online sales are more important than ever as opposed to big stores. I mean are people going to want to start shopping in smaller stores? More pop-up type experiences? I think it's like anything goes at this point. We'll kind of see what sticks.

Stronger Sense of Community

Bo: There's a little barbecue place here in town, I know I've talked to you guys about it a thousand times. He's put out these long emails about how he feels and personally and he's also giving food to hospitals and stuff, which is really pretty amazing.

You can go in, buy your barbecue, donate $10, and then for every $100, $200, $500, and $1,000 he collects, he ends up smoking a couple of briskets and bringing it to the hospitals. That's been really nice. He and his wife have been writing these emails late at night after they're done. And he shifted his business online and he was not online at all before. What impact is that going to have? And then as people start to compete online, what's that going to do to digital marketing?

Touchless Transactions

Bo: Taking it back off the marketing part, hands-free is going to be a big deal. If you're not buying stuff with your phone or a tap of the credit card, then nobody's going to want to handle your stuff and people don't want to handle money.

That's the thing that I think has been the most surprising to me is when I hand somebody money at a drive-thru to purchase something right now. I'm surprised that they're so willing to grab it and I almost feel bad giving them physical money. So what's that going to do to currency? So hands-free is going to be a big deal.

Shifting Inventory Management Strategies 

Bo: Today, stores are packed to the gills with inventory so close together that you're banging into stuff. I used to work at Dillard's and I don't remember them being nearly packed as tight with the rounders and everything being so close to where you're bumping into clothes while you're walking around and you can't get around people.

I think inventory is going to be interesting back to not just the shift online that people are making, but also the fact that the volume isn't going to need to be there. It'll be interesting to see how this affects retail clothing in other types of stores where people are touching, picking up, trying on doing things.

Emphasis on Cleanliness and Health

Bo: It'll be interesting to see how that shifts brands and their cleaning crews or the way that they talk about it. Best Buy was so great at that at the beginning when we were still able to go out and shop. They were like, "We're wiping down our entire store every night." And you're thinking, "No, you're not. There's no way. There's absolutely no way in that amount of time you have enough people to wipe down every box."

You can't do that during the day with people there touching things. And so how do you adapt to that? How do brands adapt to those things that impact their business? And so I think moving forward there's a lot that will be carried over from this:

  • hands-free
  • cleanliness
  • inventory management and space
  • the ability to get things online that you wouldn't have normally been able to
  • mom-and-pops being able to be more digital

I think there's a lot of good that's going to come out of this. I'm hoping that I can hug and kiss people like I used to do before. Not in a creepy way, of course, but I'm hoping that we can still interact with each other in a social way, but we'll see. There will be good and bad that comes out of it.

Cynthia: Along the same lines of what you were saying Bo, I think one thing we've dealt a lot with a lot of B2B clients is safety issues. Now safety is being applied to so many things. So that safety messaging or like how the brand's protecting my health. I would think that that'll definitely be important.

Brand Association

Cynthia: I think the other thing too is partnerships. One thing I've noticed and read about are unique partnerships. Either tightening up partnerships like Starbucks and Uber Eats to get stuff delivered. Or entirely new partnerships like DSW actually now selling their shoes in grocery stores, which is interesting.

And going back to that whole space and safety issue. I can eventually see Targets reducing down almost to a CVS size where they offer a lot of different things you may not see in a small store. Where it starts to become a little bit more of a pop-up experience. And then, if you start to see that tied in with home delivery, curbside service, this whole model starts to shift in a really interesting way.

And then you layer the digital component on top of that. That might be what we start seeing in the future. I order online products, something that I really love. It's actually featured at another store, it gets tied into delivery. And all of a sudden these different brands and companies are stitched in together that you never would have considered being tied together.

Bo: And that's brand association but he brand conveyors are changing, right? The places we go to see brands, the type of materials we're going use to share information, the media that we'll use, I think that's all going to shift.

But those conveyors, I mean they're the brand associations. Like DSW shoes in a grocery store, I think you're going to see a collision of things so that people don't have to go to so many different places or so they don't have to touch so many things.

So, I think that's a great point, Cynthia, that I hadn't really thought about. That association piece is going to become bigger. We talk about it a lot when it comes to associating yourself with good things, other brands that make sense for you, or athletes or whatever, but now it's going to be a little bit different whether it'll be around cleanliness or other kinds of things.

Does somebody have a hand sanitizer pump on the way in? I mean they're popping up everywhere. All of that kind of combining the association with the cleanliness that you were talking about earlier.

Cynthia: And tying back to the whole safety issue like for example, Instacart. They got burned because they weren't really offering their delivery dirvers any type of safety protection. There was no hand sanitizer, no gloves, no masks. And these individuals, they're frontline workers too. They're at the grocery store, they're exposing themselves to all sorts of different types of people and environments.

But then these are the same people who come to your home and drop off your groceries. So again, it's the safety issue. Someone like Instacart, the most they're probably thinking about is like maybe a background check, who the delivery driver is and that's it. They're just dropping off your groceries on your doorstep. Now we think, "Are they dropping off a virus at my doorstep?"

And is Instacart exposing these people who power their company? Are they not providing them the PPE they need. So again, it's that safety issue that we see in B2B businesses, in industrial businesses getting applied to something as modern and consumer-focused is as Instacart.

Tips for Brands Dealing with the New Normal

Chris: Awesome. All right guys. Let me get you out of here on this. It doesn't have to be anything too specific, but as brands are preparing and frankly navigating this new normal and figuring this whole thing out can you provide a tip or two for how they should handle this new normal? How they should approach it? What they can do to be better prepared for this?

Bo: I think leadership versus adaptability. Really, really hone in on mission, vision, values, and communicating those things to your teams and to your customers. And why you matter to them, how you're going to take care of them, how are you going to ensure their safety, those kinds of things.

And then I think, reimagine your business and the channels that your business is in. Selling tomorrow may not be the same as selling yesterday. So how are you going to communicate and connect with your customers moving forward?

I think those two things are big things, but I think they are big things that everybody today needs to know. Especially as we start to work more remotely, especially as we start to be together but more distant from each other. I think those two things are key. 

Cynthia: I'm going to keep it simple. Be flexible enough to adapt. Be genuine. Keep it real.

Chris: Okay, well guys, thanks so much. This was awesome. I learned a lot and I hope everybody out there listening learned a lot as well. 

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