Mathew Weiss
Mathew Weiss

Making brands matter in a time of crisis

by Mathew Weiss. If you can’t trade during lockdown, there’s still an opportunity to communicate at a brand level. The tone and approach will vary, but brands can matter to people by showing compassion, utility and public service.

by Mathew Weiss. The world has changed. We’ve gone from thinking ‘everything is going to be fine’ to ‘this is super serious’, to ‘help, I’m a prisoner in my own home!’ And with it, retailers experienced an equally rapid shift in shopping behaviours. Repeat purchases, normally done over months, have been compressed into a single shop.

Toilet paper is the poster child for this curious phenomenon. A kind of self-perpetuating cycle, where people believe that everyone else is buying toilet paper, so to avoid missing out, they buy it too. Scarcity, if not insanity, has always been a purchase driver. Conversely, products usually considered staples, are suddenly classified non-essential and purchases deferred. In these circumstances, when the norms of consumer behaviour upon which retailers build communication plans no longer apply, marketers need ensure their brands continue to matter to consumers when perceptions of value are turned upside down.

The risks companies face due to the shutdown are not equally shared. Some, like grocery stores and manufacturers of hand sanitisers, are flourishing; but the majority face a Sophie’s Choice, between protecting the wellbeing of the company and saving jobs. Marketing budgets will be cut to conserve cash. But in this crisis, there is value in maintaining your brand equity. Brands and companies are not the same things. Brand value is intangible and takes time to build. Consumer’s attitudes towards them change slowly. The impact of the pandemic on a company is rapid and profound, but a brand won’t feel the effects for a lot longer.

Companies that market their products under a strong brand have some inoculation against the virus. When people are fearful, they’re more likely to choose brands they know and trust. They’re more likely to support brands providing reassurance. In a crisis, there’s always the seed of opportunity. If companies can ring-fence some marketing budget, Neo Makhele, Ogilvy’s chief strategy officer, explains that it’s helpful to plan responses across three time horizons:

  1. How do you matter right now, during the acute outbreak phase?
  2. How do you matter in the medium-term, during the recovery phase?
  3. How do you matter long-term, during the ‘new normal’ phase?

Considering what matters will help retailers stay connected to customers even if its stores are closed, without being perceived as taking advantage of the situation.

Mattering right now: Show compassion, utility and public service

If you can’t trade during lockdown, there’s still an opportunity to communicate at a brand level. The tone and approach will vary, but brands can matter to people by showing compassion, utility and public service.

  • Give back: Government has called for donations. The Rupert and Oppenheimer families took the lead and companies should follow. It’s not just about donations, but using expertise to help, e.g. Google launched its educational website, and LVMH switched production to hand sanitisers.
  • Spread positivity: Optimism can help people who are feeling isolated. Videos of Italians singing from balconies in praise of the medical staff went viral because it shows solitary, respect and kindness. Similarly, PEP’s ‘Get Better’ mini-campaign encourages kids to draw and post ‘get well’ pictures on Facebook or Instagram with #pepcares.

Utility provides convenience during times of distress, is empowering and informing for people feeling helpless:

  • Improve access: Access to information or products is highly valued while movement is restricted, e.g. DSTV shared its news channels across all packages to keep its customers informed, while Woolworths and Pick n Pay allocated an hour in the morning exclusively for pensioners to shop.
  • Bite-size content: Fitness studios and Under Armour provide exercise tips and workouts online. Already popular with my family is The Body Coach TV. Similarly, a host of bite-sized educational solutions have been made available, often for free. Even Minecraft is onboard.

Public Service demonstrates purpose-based marketing helping society:

  • Appeal to the greater good: Pick n Pay’s social media campaign using local musicians to discourage panic-buying is a smart, authentic and immediate solution to a practical challenge.
  • Educate and raise awareness: Despite warnings about social distancing, many people remain unresponsive, or ignorant of the risks. Brands can help. Lifebuoy soap has partnered with government to educate and raise awareness about COVID-19 symptoms.
Mattering in the medium-term: Recovering from the crisis

As trading resumes post lockdown, there should be a temporary spike in sales, but millions will be cash-strapped from having lost their jobs or going unpaid. Retailers will be revising marketing plans in an acute recessionary environment. Consumers may postpone purchases, trade down or buy less. Must-have items before the pandemic will become tomorrow’s can-live-without.

Trusted brands will be highly-valued, while new brands and categories may struggle. Luxury brands trading on conspicuous consumption may recover slowly during more austere times. In all likelihood retailers will be developing their marketing plans in a more acute recessionary environment. Strategies that help brands matter during the medium-term recovery phase include focusing on family values, low prices and purpose.

  • Family values: People seek to reconnect with what matters, like loved ones. With its positive, family-orientated message and low price promise, a brand like PEP may appeal to a broader demographic than usual.
  • Doing good while doing well: Industry leaders such as Discovery and Unilever that have made purpose core to their business should also benefit. Economic inequality could increase further, but the companies that demonstrate that they’re helping could grow brand preference.
Mattering in the long-term: Adjusting to the new normal

Our life could be quite different once this is over. Behaviour changes post this crisis may lead to more online shopping, working from home more, educating children differently, less flying, and telehealth could become the norm.

Asking retailers to think long-term when they may be out of business tomorrow seems facile. Still, the opportunity for long-term survival and prosperity is sown in decisions made by brands now. Mark Read, CEO of WPP, writes, “People remember what brands do at times like these. As we saw following the recession in 2008, those who invest in the right actions and the right communications during a downturn are rewarded disproportionately when consumer spending returns.”

As life slows down and the constraints of lockdown take its toll, let’s try not to give in to cabin fever and rather focus on what matters. Brands that are seen to make significant and positive contributions to our national effort to defeat the virus, will reward you accordingly.


Mathew Weiss is the managing director for Superunion Africa. He has accumulated broad experience in both design and advertising in the US, Central America and EMEA where he built brands across a range of industries including FMCG, financial services, hospitality and tourism. He has a degree in English literature and a diploma in strategic marketing from Cambridge. As a keen sportsman, he spends much of his spare time in pursuit of a lower handicap and fewer double faults.

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