Mimi Kalinda
Mimi Kalinda

Getting brand communications right amidst a crisis

by Mimi Kalinda. No business has remained unaffected by this worldwide health and social crisis.  Retail brands that are likely to gain positive reputational equity as a result of their marketing and business tactics include those who implement and communicate well in a crisis.

by Mimi Kalinda. The impact of the current COVID-19 outbreak on the global economy is unprecedented, with the already pressurised African socio-economic environment experiencing the harsh consequences of the situation. No business has remained unaffected by this worldwide health and social crisis – from the smallest, local informal retailer to the largest international conglomerate.

It is fair to say that this healthcare crisis has blindsided the African retail market – no brand was prepared for the speed and magnitude of the effect is it having on the continent and the global economy. The lack of preparedness has resulted in brand communication strategies being largely reactive, with companies taking varying approaches to communication activities.

While the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are negative for almost all industry sectors, some businesses – such as those involved in the supply of hand sanitiser, disinfectant and face masks – are experiencing financial benefits as a result of the outbreak. How businesses choose to manage their marketing and communication during this period will affect their public image both during and post the crisis. Retail brands that are likely to gain positive reputational equity as a result of their marketing and business tactics include those who implement and communicate the following:

  • Their positive contribution to the current situation: This includes the contribution of both financial and in-kind resources. One such relief effort is a joint initiative by the Jack Ma and Alibaba foundation, in association with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia (Dr Abiy Ahmed). The contribution is in the form of resources to combat the spread of COVID-19; and includes over 1.5 million laboratory diagnostic kits and over 100 tons of infection prevention and control commodities. As part of this initiative, Ethiopian Airlines will offer their logistics services and distribute equipment consignments (consisting of 20,000 laboratory diagnostic test kits, 100,000 medical masks, and 1000 protective suits and face shields) to each of the member states.
  • Their commitment to risk reduction and the health of their customers and the global community: Brands across the continent are showing their support in fighting the spread of the virus by reducing the cost of certain products or services, and even adapting their business models to include measures that reduce the spread of the virus. For example, Jumia, Africa’s leading ecommerce platform announced a list of changes made to business operations aimed at supporting the country’s fight against the pandemic. These new measures include contactless delivery options, waiving commission on certain sanitary products to reduce costs to consumers, offering the use of their logistics network for the distribution of public healthcare communication and the distribution of face masks to healthcare practitioners across Africa.
  • Their efforts to amplify health and safety messaging in the form of public service communication: Earlier this year, Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand published an advertisement urging people to practice preventative steps to reduce the spread of the virus, including frequently washing their hands with a hygiene soap. But what set this message apart from brand advertising, positioning it instead as a public service announcement, is that the ad mentioned a number of different hygiene soap brands aside from Lifebuoy. Competitor brands such as Dettol and Lux were mentioned as alternatives to Lifebuoy, stating that people should use whichever soap is most readily available to them.
Brand communications

Conversely, brands seen as exploiting consumers amidst the crisis have received severe backlash from both the public, as well as corporate brands. As the situation continues to escalate, brands need to take decisive and pro-active steps to mitigate the extent of further negative business impact and assess ways to adapt marketing strategies to promote positive brand sentiment where possible. While comprehensive communications strategies may take time to develop and implement, the following communication tactics should be actioned as a matter of priority:

  1. Crisis Communication: Companies need to have a person or team fully dedicated to crisis communication related to COVID-19. Messaging needs to be pro-active, re-active and agile. Responsiveness, relatability, relevance, accuracy and sensitivity are key factors to be considered for each piece of communication – regardless of media type or platform. Concurrently, crisis communication experts (whether internal or external), should be consulted to develop a strategy for the various scenarios that could be anticipated in the upcoming days, weeks and months.
  2. Internal Communications: The need for strong, effective and consistent internal communications has never been greater. This applies to all internal stakeholders – employees, board members, shareholders and so forth. Lack of communication is likely to result in added tension within the current climate of uncertainty. Companies need to communicate with internal audiences in a manner that is as transparent as possible, without causing panic. Responses need to take into account the concerns of stakeholders; and focus on a solution-driven approach.
  3. Media Training: Public-facing executives need to be equipped to handle all interactions with the media, via public platforms such as radio or television, or brand-hosted platforms such as a media briefing event. Although any media opportunity requires the ability to respond with diplomacy and strategy, the sensitive nature of the COVID-19 outbreak requires an even more cautious approach. Media training assists spokespeople being able to control the brand’s narrative and key messages when participating in an interview, as well as the equip them with the skills needed to tactfully refrain from making statements that may negatively impact the brand in the long run. Even companies that do not necessarily face the media via live platforms should still have an understanding of communication do’s and don’ts when it comes to all activities within this crisis period – be it advertising material, thought leadership content or press releases

Swift yet strategic action needs to be taken by brands to navigate the current crisis. Decisionmakers need to re-allocate resources as required to manage communication in a real-time, effective manner that will prove to be an investment towards brand equity in the long term. Crisis and communications experts need to work closely with company executives to align messaging with business goals and scenario planning.


Mimi Kalinda, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and raised in South Africa, is the Group CEO and Co-founder of Africa Communications Media Group, a pan African public relations and communications agency based in Johannesburg, South Africa.


– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Monday and Thursday • Subscribe here

– Take advantage of Retailing Africa’s ‘Pay-what-you-can’ business support package • Read more