Mini episode: Brands reacting to COVID-19
Generally, I try to make the How Brands Are Built podcast evergreen. I want listeners to be able to go back any old episode and find that the conversation—whether it’s with a namer, a strategist, an author, or some other branding professional—is still relevant.
But this episode is different. It’s April, 2020, and we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. To say the least, it’s been disruptive. (And not in the cool, buzzwordy kind of way.) Early on in the crisis, I read news of Zoom making conference calls free for K–12 schools, grocery stores creating special shopping hours for more vulnerable populations, and The New York Times taking down its paywall for all coronavirus-related coverage. I started keeping track of how companies were pitching in, and created an Instagram post highlighting six approaches, with an example for each.
View this post on Instagram
Shortly thereafter, I started seeing similar content, including a blog post from Character, titled “A Brand’s Responsibility In Times of Crisis.” I wanted to talk a bit more about how brands are reacting, so I reached out to the authors, Lauren Wong, Associate Strategy Director, and Myra El-Bayoumi, Head of Strategy. (Myra’s name may sound familiar—she was a guest on the podcast last season.) Lauren and Myra graciously agreed to hop on Zoom for a quick, impromptu chat about what brands can do, should do, and in some cases, should avoid doing, in times of crisis.
Some of the brands we mention during the conversation include the following (in no particular order):
- Brooks Brothers
- The New York Times
- The Washington Post
A theme we returned to several times is that brands with a strong sense of what they stand for and what they do well seem better positioned to help and to maintain relevance in these strange times. In terms of things to avoid, we talked about some of the “coronavirus logos” brands have been putting out, supposedly intended to remind people of the importance of social distancing. Myra summed it up nicely:
When we look back on this, we are going to remember that the NBA set the tone. We are going to remember that Zoom made their technology available for school children in many places in the world. We’re going to remember that The New York Times and others took down their paywall, and I don’t think we’re going to remember that someone created a more physically distant version of their logo, regardless of the good or the absence of good that underlies that action.”
To read more of my thoughts on the topic (informed by Lauren and Myra’s blog post), check out “Branding in a time of crisis,” which fleshes out my Instagram post with additional detail and examples.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: Myra and Lauren from Character. Thanks so much for joining me.
MYRA EL-BAYOUMI: Thanks, Rob, for having us.
R: So I’ve been thinking a lot about this pandemic as I’m sure you guys have and everybody around the world has, but specifically how brands are reacting to it. And I saw an article that you guys wrote on the Character blog, “A Brand’s Responsibility In Times of Crisis.” So, I thought, “Hey, some similar thinking here to some of the thinking I’ve been doing.” And I thought it’d be interesting to get you guys on the show and chat about what you’ve been seeing and what I’ve been seeing, but why don’t we just start with that article. So Lauren, if you could start us off by just talking a little bit about the article and what prompted you to write it and what some of the core ideas in it are.
LAUREN WONG: Yeah, absolutely. So at Character we spend a lot of time working with pretty incredible brands who think really hard about what it means to live their purpose by the actions that they take in the world every day. And as we started to think harder about how to help brands or look to what branding can do in a time of crisis, we started to spend a lot of time asking ourselves questions about a brand’s responsibility in moments like these.
The article that we wrote is really a reflection of the conversations that we’ve had in the office and between each other, Myra, myself, and the rest of the team about what it means to be a brand that has the opportunity to make action at scale. Because there are many individual efforts that have been incredible through a time like this. Brands have this really unique power to be able to create actions that impact larger communities, that impacts people across different geographies. And we’ve seen some incredible examples of brands that have really risen and stepped up in a time of crisis, but also do that every single day when things are going really well.
R: What about some of the more kind of design oriented and communications things that we’ve seen brands doing? Anything that strikes you as especially useful or not useful?
L: Yeah, so, museums and a lot of news publications have done an incredible job of thinking really hard about how they can open up their archives, open up their content so that people not only have a chance to learn about things that are related to health and the pandemic that’s happening right now, but also lighter contents, infographics, things that help people kind of understand the world and also take a break from it too. There’s been a lot of incredible design examples, infographic examples, data visualization examples that are starting to show how design can play a really important way in which we think about information and concept today.
R: Yeah, I mean The New York Times and The Washington Post, obviously two of the best in the business in terms of just delivering news on a daily basis, but they really stepped up I think in terms of data visualization here with showing what herd immunity looks like and how it could take place with all the dots changing colors and things like that. Explaining how social distancing works. That’s been really impressive. And then you kind of alluded to one of these points that I made in a post that I wrote recently. I had these six categories of ways that brands could help. And one of them was to just inform people. And I think especially from news organizations, granted that’s what they’re supposed to do anyway but the fact that The New York Times, The Washington Post, I think many other publications have made all of their coronavirus-related content free, so any kind of paywall that they’ve had, they’ve taken down. I think that’s, in hindsight, a really obvious step. But I’ve got to admit that when they did it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had taken that step.
And then also you mentioned museums, that’s an area where I think this is actually kind of exciting where you’re seeing innovation in light of the crisis, but I think innovation that may in some cases outlast the crisis where some of these organizations have been forced to rethink how you could experience them virtually. And so, museums are doing virtual tours. I saw that Google is doing virtual tours of national parks and I think all of that stuff is pretty cool and a really interesting way to, to help us stay home but feel like it’s a little bit less painful.
R: I know we wanted to talk about some of the things we’ve seen brands doing with their logos as well. So Myra, do you want to speak to this? We’ve probably both noticed some of the same brands that are doing these kind of coronavirus versions of their logo.
M: Yeah, while I want to acknowledge the spirit of raising awareness for social distancing as a concept, it feels sadly opportunistic, at least from my perspective, the idea of creating a more physically distant version of one’s logo at a time like this. I think it really can end one of two ways. You see someone like Audi or VW or Coca-Cola or I think it was McDonald’s in Brazil, right, who’ve created these new temporary marks and that almost invites you to take a look deeper and say, “Oh, they’re drawing awareness to this issue. They must be doing something to help.” And when you look beneath that first layer, if you’re not inspired and excited to see that the work that’s going on behind the sort of exterior signaling … there’s a big risk, I think, for damaging the brand in the long term.
And then on the plus side, if you are seeing inspiring work being done in the case of some of those brands like Coca-Cola who are supporting organizations, from what I understand in Canada and the United States who, are providing relief from the pandemic, you’re still finding yourself wondering, “Well, if they’re giving all of this money to those organizations, why are they then spending maybe not the same amount of money but significant spend to put a billboard in Times Square with a more distant version of their logo?”
It just feels like when we look back on this, we are going to remember that the NBA set the tone. We are going to remember that Zoom made their technology available for school children in many places in the world. We’re going to remember that The New York Times and others took down their paywall, and I don’t think we’re going to remember that someone created a more physically distant version of their logo regardless of the good or the absence of good that underlies that action.
R: It’s a great point. I mean, a few points in there. I think what’s always been really interesting and also inspiring to me about the way brands react in times like this is when they can find ways to take the things that they do well anyway and apply them to the problem. It automatically feels more authentic and it makes sense. It just feels like Zoom has this technology, they know how to do this already and all they’re doing is making it free for a group that really should have it be free right now. And so it doesn’t feel forced at all. And it doesn’t feel like you kind of scratch your head and say, “Why is that company doing that?” It’s right in their wheelhouse.
And that started back in 2011 when there was a tsunami in Japan, and Google created this people finder seemingly overnight. It really reinforced the power of Google and having all of these coders on hand to, at a moment’s notice, create something and I have no idea whether they were repurposing something that already existed or had used it in prior crisis and just sort of refreshed it for this. But it felt like it’s doubling down on the story that they’re already telling about who they are and, and why they exist and what they’re good at. And it’s a really relevant and important cause right now.
M: Yeah. The extension of those into the modern version of that where we have fashion designers and LVMH repurposing their factories to create hand sanitizers and designers making masks and gowns and all these companies trying to figure out how to make radiators and personal protective equipment. I mean, there’s such incredible stories of that happening right now that again, it feels like it makes sense for us to hear those brands taking those actions. There’s no dissonance there.
R: Right. But back to the logo thing. I wanted to just make a few more comments there. This is a superficial comment about something potentially pretty superficial that these brands did. But even just from a design point, I thought some of those logo changes made a little more sense to me than others. So the Audi one for example, I mean their logo is interlocking rings and then they moved those rings further apart from each other. It felt like people or symbols that were very close together stretching apart whereas the McDonald’s one where they split the M in half, just that felt very forced to me. It doesn’t really mean anything. The Volkswagen one was even stranger where they actually just took a line out of their logo and said something about distance.
So, from a purely superficial standpoint, I thought some made more sense than others. And then obviously to your point it then begs the question, “Okay, but what are you doing besides just showing me a sort of catchy gimmicky design change?”, Which yes, hopefully you’re not investing thousands in, but maybe you just threw up on your social media. What is Audi doing? What is McDonald’s in Brazil doing to really help beyond just using it as an opportunity to get a catchy social media boost?
M: The Audi one, if I may, on the superficial, I do feel like there is a nice story there because when you see it animated, it sort of tells this story of even though we have to be physically distant, it comes back together. And so there is a nice story to be told there. The question to me is, is that the right brand to be telling this story? Is this the right time for that brand to try to tell that story? And how are they actually living it behind the the animation? But subjectively, yeah, I’m with you.
R: Great. You guys talked about Sweetgreen a little bit as well. Can you just tell a little bit about what they’re doing and I think it’s an interesting approach that they’ve taken, which frankly I hadn’t covered in the post I created it. It’s something that some brands are doing now.
L: Sure. So Sweetgreen already has kind of this capability to deploy operations to places that might require a pop-up kind of salad bar. They already do these outposts operations and they are able to do so really fast, really quickly and really effectively. What they’ve done right now is make all of their outpost operations focus solely on supporting hospital workers and folks within the medical field. So what we loved about that was just how much it aligned with something that they were already able to do better than anyone else because they already have that capability, but also how it reinforces their brand in terms of devoting themselves to making healthy eating and fresh food, fresh vegetables available to as many people as possible, especially those in need.
R: Yeah, it seems like there’s a whole … When I first wrote or created my post I had a section there about focusing on those most at risk and at the time I was writing about really senior citizens and maybe the immunocompromised and we were talking about Safeway and Kroger and some other grocery stores keeping their stores open for those groups only. But now along with Sweetgreen, it seems like there are a lot of different brands that are really focused on helping the healthcare workers. I don’t know if they’re … I feel like there have been other examples and I suppose creating the masks which Brooks Brothers just dedicated or repurpose some factories to doing. I think Gap as well. That’s really geared towards healthcare workers.
L: Yeah, absolutely. It feels like when brands like these who understand very clearly what their purpose is and how they’re able to enact that and imbue that within all of their actions every single day, if they understand what their brand is all about, it’s really easy for them to make these quick decisions because they already know what they do so well. And then they can think about how they can apply it to what’s most in need, whether that’s someone who is sick or someone who’s able to care for those who are sick.
R: Yeah. Well, just a kind of maybe a wrap-up question: You guys have talked or I think I’ve heard both of you say a couple of times reference what we’ll remember when we look back on this time and I think that’s a really interesting way to think about that. And I agree that the brands taking more substantive actions and that are really helping us in helping others in a time of crisis. I would think that that would be what we would remember. So in light of that, I just wonder if you have any advice that you might give to people managing brands right now or even to business people as to how they should and shouldn’t react to this. Any kind of general high level thoughts?
M: Sure. I can on the spot riff on that a little bit.
R: Sorry to put you on the spot.
M: No, happy to. I think that there’s a good governing principle here, which is if you don’t know what to do, don’t take action just for the sake of it. If the path doesn’t reveal itself, then take comfort in the focus of taking care of your community, your employees, your first ring of people. But if there’s an opportunity to contribute in a way that feels authentic, then do so and take comfort in knowing that what you might be compromising should you be in a position where you are able, what you might be compromising in the short term revenue will come back to you in equity and loyalty, loyalty and ambassadorship from your constituents that you have today. And those who will see you showing up in a way they didn’t necessarily see you before long into the future. So taking the longterm view and having a wider horizon on how we think about investment at a time like this for the brands and the people who are able feels like the right way to start.
R: It’s a great point. I think, it’s of course easy for us to say as consultants to tell people how to manage their business. And I recognize that a lot of people, a lot of business people are in trouble right now. And so their first thought it probably is and probably should be, how do we keep the business alive, especially if they’re supporting employees. But I think to the point you made, I would just hope that that people don’t necessarily see things that they could be doing to help the community or help in this time of crisis as necessarily at odds with how they can keep their business alive and healthy for the long term. I think that’s kind of what I first noticed about Google, although obviously they’re a much bigger company, but I feel like there are times when there’s synergy there between something that you could do that would help, but that would also help you stay in business frankly.
There’s a local distillery here who was one of the first ones I saw doing the hand sanitizer and they even … I mean they’re kind of a funny little local brand and they started giving out free rolls of toilet paper with every bottle of vodka that you bought from them and things like that. And so, it’s a little bit tongue in cheek, but I feel like they’ve maintained some relevance in a time where … had they had nothing to offer, they should have, like you said, they should have just probably stayed quiet. But they’ve been able to think on their feet and both help and probably build a much broader audience as a result.
L: Yeah, it’s a great point.
M: The brands even like Airbnb who are taking a significant financial hit in that they’re allowing guests to cancel and still paying the hosts. I mean those are … And those choices were made, they’re pretty close to without blinking. It was pretty close, pretty close to immediately that they made that choice. So seeing the scale of that action from the small distiller near you to some of the most beloved global brands in our world, like Airbnb and the NBA and everywhere in between, it’s inspiring and it behooves us all to look for reasons to feel optimistic when we can’t leave our houses.
R: Great point. All right, we’ll end it on that and thank you both Lauren and Myra. I really appreciate you guys jumping on the phone quickly here to to have a quick chat.
LAUREN AND MYRA: Thanks, Rob.