7 Lessons Learned From Brands During the Coronavirus

7 Lessons Learned From Brands During the Coronavirus

By Nicole StempakMay 12 /2020

Marketing is about connecting with your audience. It’s not just what you say but how you say it that resonates.

The industry has examples it refers back to again and again as a source of inspiration, along with tried and true tactics that can help brands stand out from the herd and leave a memorable impression. Think of iconic advertisements such as Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign, Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign (not to mention its 1984 Super Bowl ad) and Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, which marked its 30th anniversary in a new spot with former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick.

But brands must rethink their approach during these unprecedented times. Your brand might need to pivot from an existing or planned offering. That campaign you’ve been working on might no longer apply or seem inappropriate in light of recent events (no classrooms or beach parties just yet).

There isn’t a rule book for how to proceed during a pandemic. COVID-19 has touched virtually all aspects of our daily life, and even though we’re still working, it’s definitely not business as usual.

We’re all navigating the novel coronavirus together, but there are already lessons to be learned from some brands that are breaking away from the pack. This is a real-time case study of other brands from a variety of industries about how to take care of your employees, your customers, your partners and even yourself.

And while this is a time of great uncertainty, it is certainly a good reminder that there are opportunities to practice safety and social distancing while building or maintaining brand loyalty and consistency.

COVID-19 isn’t the first and won’t be the last challenge your brand faces. Now is a good time to reassess what you’re doing and what you can be doing better. Here are seven lessons that can be learned from other leading brands.

7 Lessons Learned From Brands

1. Make Plans and Policies Flexible

Airbnb was planning for an IPO. Then the coronavirus hit. Instead of proceeding as usual, the company paused to focus on the needs of guests and hosts. They allowed guest cancellations, established a relief fund for hosts and created virtual experiences, trusting that what they were doing now, even if it meant pausing on plans, would help set them up for even greater success in the future.

Similarly, major airlines are waiving change fees, allowing customers to cancel flights, extending credits and extending reward points. Marriott and Hilton are providing free or steeply discounted rooms for first responders who are self-isolating themselves to protect their own family members.

If brands can’t offer refunds, they should at least be flexible with promotions, credits or returns. Leading retail brands including Amazon, Macy’s, Sephora and Victoria’s Secret have all extended their return policy while stores are closed. In contrast, some grocery retailers have suspended returns for the safety of their workers and reinstated usage of plastic bags (or waived paper bag fees) in an effort to reduce potential contaminants in stores.

Plans are changing, and the last thing customers want is to feel like they are losing out, which will leave a sour taste in their mouth long after the pandemic subsides. Consider what policies you can be flexible with, what other options you have (such as a credit if not a full reimbursement) and examine opportunities to improve your customer relations, both in the short term and long term.

2. Prioritize Safety Over Profits

As many retailers have closed physical shops, they have turned to e-commerce. Using tried and true tactics like deep discounts, email marketing and online advertisements, retailers are trying to move inventory.

Instead, TJX Companies did something unheard of: They stopped taking online orders. A note on their Sierra, Marshalls and TJ Maxx websites reads, “Our hearts are with people around the world who have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. To do our part to prevent further spread of the virus, we have temporarily closed all of our stores & stopped taking online orders. In the meantime, our site is open for browsing, but you cannot buy at this time.”

Despite only launching e-commerce in September 2019, TJX has been one of a handful of retailers that have seen continued growth in the past few years, making their decision to temporarily halt sales that much more notable. Customers are going to, if they haven’t already, ask brands what they are doing for employees during COVID-19. Showing you were willing to take a temporary loss for the well-being of all employees is one way to show you care.

3. Maintain a Sense of Normalcy

Mental health experts say it’s important to maintain or create new routines as we adjust to shelter-in-place orders, and ultimately a new normal. They also advise focusing on self-care, a key component of which is exercise. This is more challenging for people who are used to working out at gyms or in group classes.

In response, several fitness centers such as P.volve, Gold’s Gym, Barre3, Planet Fitness and Orangetheory Fitness are offering free or discounted online classes for a limited time. For existing members, this is an opportunity for gyms to bridge a gap until they can reopen. For non-members, this is an opportunity for gyms to help people maintain a sense of normalcy or focus on themselves while also showing their value in case users are motivated to join the gym in the future. And while these workouts may not be the experience customers typically associate with these brands, they will still be able to sweat up a storm now and remember a willingness to be flexible and help customers where they are, literally.

4. Showcase Your Offerings

Companies understand that a rise in unemployment, stress and uncertainty means that people might need to escape for a few hours at the end of the day — or use the time after the kids go to bed to double down on learning new skills.

Premium cable and streaming platforms are stepping up to the plate. HBO is making nearly 500 hours of original programming free on the HBO GO and HBO NOW apps. Showtime and Sundance Now are offering free 30-day trials for new customers. Many other platforms like Hulu, Netflix and CBS All Access already offer limited free trials and are reminding people there’s no time like the present.

And while many courses from the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Coursera are already free, the company is offering a promotion through May 31 to earn free certificates for 85 courses. edX has made classes available to academic institutions and advertises its business turnkey solutions as the workforce adapts to distance onboarding or training. Its extension, www.mooc.org, offers free online courses from Harvard University, MIT and Microsoft. MasterClass has also extended Q&A sessions with its expert and celebrity instructors, a member benefit, to non-members as well.

5. Recognize Opportunities to Help Others—and Employees

The number of people buying goods or services may have declined in some industries, but there’s likely still demand — if brands know how to pivot to serve those unmet needs. Lyft and Uber have pivoted their offerings to help fill voids in the community while also giving their independent contractors work.

Both companies are providing free transportation for front line healthcare workers and first responders. Lyft is working with state Medicaid offices and nonprofits to expand access to non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) so patients can still get to and from their health appointments. They’re also expanding their services to deliver critical food and medical supplies to those in need. Meanwhile, Uber is providing free meals on Uber Eats to healthcare workers and first responders and has waived its delivery fee for more than 100,000 independent restaurants.

6. Focus on Strengths

Television networks are running out of fresh television content, as production came to an abrupt halt before some finales could be shot and edited and are scrambling to fill air time. But sometimes, ideas present themselves — if brands are willing to listen. For example, Bob Iger, Disney’s Executive Chair and until recently the CEO, noticed a trend of people revisiting the Disney classic movies while in quarantine. So, the network pulled together the Disney Family Singalong, an hour-long special of celebrities’ singing from its extensive songbook. It was so popular that a second one is on the way.

Similarly, NBC brought back the comfort of Pawnee, IN, in a “Parks and Recreation Special” about how Leslie Knope tries to stay in contact with her friends during the coronavirus. The show, shot entirely from the actors’ home, hits close to home but also delivers the same camaraderie and humor. The network has also aired a couple of episodes of Saturday Night Live from Home and while the production value is significantly lower — no elaborate sets or over-the-top costumes — the show still manages a laugh.

Late-night talk shows are also delivering their monologues alone and interviewing guests on Zoom to add a bit of levity while also raising money for a good cause. Even though it looks different now, brands can continue to serve people through this difficult time by focusing on core services and strengths that customers rely upon. They may need you to be reliable now more than ever, so consider how you can continue providing uninterrupted service, even though the delivery may look slightly different.

7. Rally Around a Common Cause

One of the more memorable commercials in the 2018 Super Bowl came from Budweiser. Rather than a spot featuring Clydesdale horses, dogs or other animals, the commercial showed how the beer company canned clean water for those without access after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and the California wildfires. It was a sobering reminder of how we can all help, even when it means doing something outside of our wheelhouse.

Now, dozens of companies are retooling production lines to help those on the front lines. Automotive companies Tesla, Ford and GM have all started building ventilators. Distilleries and cannabis companies are making hand sanitizer.

And in our own backyard, a coalition of Ohio’s Amish country businesses and individuals have come together to manufacture medical personal protective equipment such as N95 mask covers, protective face shields, surgical gowns and boot covers.

Marketing for the Greater Good

These are just a few examples of the leaders who are putting the greater good ahead of profits and the brave employees who are working to support essential workers. Their actions remind us that we’re better when we’re together.

And amid all the uncertainty that can leave us feeling helpless, these brands are also saving lives. What an opportunity for brands and employees to make a difference and for consumers to know their purchases are helping to fund these innovative efforts.

There’s still so much work to be done. What can your brand learn from these others, and what can it do to help?


Nicole Stempak
The Author

Nicole Stempak

Nicole Stempak has spent about five years as a business journalist, where she has covered finances, healthcare and hemp. She reads and writes about content strategy, marketing and advertising on the side and follows way too many brands on social media. She has a master's degree in user experience design and a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from Kent State University, where she developed a fondness for black squirrels.