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The lasting impact of brand communications during COVID-19

Although the omnipresent lines snaking up to grocery stores, shuttered restaurants, ubiquitous masks and fear of getting too close to someone – even your neighbour, best friend or elderly parents – will eventually come to an end, the memories from the COVID-19 pandemic will stay with us forever. Overshadowing the recollections of frustration, anxiety and boredom will be heartfelt memories of the numerous individuals and businesses that stepped up to help. How brands and their leaders responded to this unprecedented crisis will have a significant impact on the reputation, and ultimately the success, of the brand when life resumes in our permanently changed society.

In the past few weeks, social and traditional media have been filled with examples of brands and leaders who have gone to great lengths to do the right thing. Some of these include: 3M CEO Mike Roman publicly standing up to President Trump about the “significant humanitarian implications” of preventing 3M from fulfilling its medical gear supply agreements to Canada; Loblaws CEO Galen Weston calmly reassuring Canadian shoppers that grocery shelves would be filled quickly after panicked hoarding left them bare and then fulfilling his promise while introducing hero pay for all of Loblaws’ front line workers; and the Spirit of York Distiller in Toronto’s historic Distillery District quickly shifting production from spirits to hand sanitizer and donating all proceeds from sales to food banks. There have also been stories about opportunistic brands that tried to take advantage of the crisis. It will take a long time for people to forget Ontario Premier Doug Ford publicly shaming fine food retailer Pusateri’s for charging $30 for a container of Lysol wipes at a time when the entire city desperately needed disinfectant cleaning supplies.

Although all businesses are navigating an unknown landscape, these suggestions will help ensure your brand rises to the challenge and makes a positive impact that will be remembered when the restrictions are lifted and we emerge in the new normal:

Sensitivity is Key – Never has compassion and authenticity been more important. As Canadians grapple with lost jobs, sickness and fear of the unknown, brands need to reinforce that we’re all in this together and lead with empathy in all communications.

Be Transparent – The challenges individuals and businesses are facing are innumerable. If your brand is experiencing difficulties, be open and honest about the situation; if you have to furlough workers, communicate why. Being transparent about hardships and difficult decisions will increase trust and build loyalty.

Pivot – Marketing plans that were carefully developed months ago likely aren’t appropriate anymore. Although it may be suitable to postpone a pre-scheduled event or campaign to a time when social distancing restrictions have been lifted, think about what your brand can do to make a difference now. Your company may not be able to retool to make ventilators and masks or serve food to front line workers, but if you can help meet your community’s immediate needs in some other valuable way, do so.

Don’t Sell – Now is not the time to market your product or services. Brands that are seen as trying to sell a product would be regarded as tone deaf. They will either receive negative coverage or their story will simply be ignored. Instead, share accurate, valuable information or useful free resources or make a donation that will make people’s lives easier during the crisis.

Communications during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the months that follow are more important than ever. There is so much developing and changing information to process every day, it is unwise to simply add to the noise. Think carefully about what information you share and when you share it. Make sure the information you do share is empathetic, transparent and above all helpful. Going above and beyond now while reinforcing that your brand is true to its values will ensure you strengthen your relationship, and stay connected, with your audience now and into the new normal.

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