19 March 2020

Novel Coronavirus raises novel brand issues - 5 pointers to reputation protection


Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | US

Click here to read more insights on how we can weather the coronavirus outbreak with you.

To jump on the bandwagon. Idiom. (informal, disapproving) to join others in doing something that is becoming fashionable because you hope to become popular or successful yourself. Oxford Learners Dictionary.

It is with some caution that anyone should publish anything about Novel covid-19, colloquially if not fondly known as the coronavirus. Publications in traditional print and on social media, newsletters and updates, blogs, TV and radio advertising – all are important elements for brand recognition, for creating a respected reputation and building a trusted brand. But messages that hit the wrong tone, smack of bandwagoning or hysteria, can harm rather than enhance.

At a time when virus updates have gone viral and when non-corona items are relegated to “and finally in other news…”, businesses hoping to profit reputationally from an online Elastoplast of covid-19 care stuck onto their websites will be caught out by canny consumers. While those seeking to profit financially via associated advertising campaigns may find themselves on the end of a brand-busting backlash.

1. Be true to you

What and how an organization communicates must be consistent with its genuine brand values. This is important at any time in a busy, competitive marketplace, let alone when resources are stretched and with a recession looming.

“A brand needs to be authentic in its narrative” Graham Webster, a Withers’ corporate partner enthusiastically involved in the start-up and sustainable sector told me. While a generation ago price point was the key determinant, when it comes to brand loyalty and corporate credibility, authenticity and sustainability are “at the forefront of consumer consciousness”. Meaning that brands need to take supreme care with their branding hygiene.

2. Let’s be clear

News about this most recent global health scare is moving as fast as the virus infects, and organizations are running to catch up. Business can be applauded for their underlying efforts in keeping their staff and customers safe, but pilloried for their efforts in communicating those efforts to the public.

Messages that sound hysterical may capture the actual zeitgeist but may also see jumpy consumers looking for reassurance, jumping ship for a more reliable partner. Best practice for companies is clearly to educate, inform and alert staff, customers and contacts to their timely and responsible internal and external efforts openly and in a calm and reassuring tone. This will go a long way to maintaining trust and confidence in them and their brand.

3. Don’t capitalize on a crisis

Price-gouging – selling scarce items such as lavatory rolls at huge mark-ups – may do a lot for the bottom line but nothing for the reputation of the profiteering seller. A brand that seems to profit from a crisis will do itself similar damage. Catchy epithets can be a big brand draw. “Just Do It” for example, was a hugely successful slogan for Nike despite its origins as the words of a Utah killer in the 1970s. But sweatshirts emblazoned with the message “Now Wash Your Hands” – some have been launched courtesy of the brand Talentless – may seem tasteless to some.

3. Avoid publicity profiteering

Profiteering may not be of a directly economic nature. Businesses need to walk a narrow line between offering their services to a needy audience and potential customer base, while not appearing exploitative. The advertising world is alive to the hum of electronic offerings whizzing online, dropping into inboxes and flashing up on screens, each promising a new service or device to help us through this crisis. Meanwhile, newspaper editors are drowning under a sea of opportunistic press releases from those offering advice, blogs, updates and commentary on every aspect of life during these troubled times.

4. Practice what you preach – and preach what you practice

Should this article risk looking like the work of Dutch graphic artist MC Escher, Drawing Hands – a hand infinitely drawing a hand, drawing a hand, drawing a hand – in that it is an article about not writing an article about the coronavirus, in my defence I say this. I am passionate about reputation and protection – as the firm’s head of media it is what I do and have done for decades. It what I practice, and what I therefore preach. If during any crisis suffered by your business your messages are similarly genuine and authentic to the values and standards that you, your business and brand espouse, then in properly and professionally communicating those activities you will not go far wrong as you are quite properly both talking the talk and walking the walk.

5. Keep calm and carry on

The new strain of coronavirus is crossing continents, closing schools and sporting events, bars and restaurants, cities and countries. People are being taken ill, many are surviving, some are sadly dying. This disease raises real concerns: from its apparent derivation, concerns over the manner in which we are breeding and keeping animal stock; given its speed and method of contagion, concerns over our less than optimum health habits and systems; and given the run on toilet rolls if not a run on the banks, concern over our herd mentality during a crisis. Meanwhile, the media reporting of every instance of illness or death in a manner unheard of in other illnesses risks causing widespread concern and mass hysteria.

Citizens and countries across the globe, and business and brands the world over have suffered crises and survived them. In a world ripe with dissent that is one thing we all have in common. The motivational government poster intended to reassure the British public before the Blitz in 1939 was rarely displayed at the time. It has resurfaced now and remains emblematic of the British stiff Upper Lip that has other countries laughing at, while still being envious of those Brits for that very quality.

I do not advocate that simply reproducing this message on your website is the way to save a brand’s reputation during a crisis. But those in search of a reassuring and pragmatic foundation on which to construct their business’s communications may need to look no further than “Keep calm and carry on”.

Click here to read more insights on how we can weather the coronavirus outbreak with you.

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