A leader is shown to illustrate a blog about COVID-19 brand marketing.

Lessons from Porter Novelli’s COVID-19 Tracker

A little less than a month ago, I received an email from a local bar inviting me to drink there because, as the attached picture of their bar showed, they did not have Corona beer. Hard as it is to imagine now, the instinct of many marketing managers was initially to make light of what we now know as the global COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 and completely upturned the way most of us live.

The marketing behemoth being what it is, brands are frequently embarrassingly slow or oblivious to breaking news. Some have even chosen this time to shutter their marketing operations completely to wait out the storm and see where their customers and the economy are faring in a few weeks or months. This is not the right path, according to new research by purpose consultancy Porter Novelli, which asked more than 1,000 US consumers about their attitudes to brands and their activities at this critical time.

The firm’s new CEO David Bentley, who joined the firm from McKinsey at the start of March, must have had one of the most tumultuous and inauspicious opening months of marketing history. But this isn’t Bentley’s first rodeo, and instead of resting on his laurels, he and his agency have turned on a dime to produce a report about how brands should be leading during this coronavirus pandemic.

In the forward for the Porter Novelli COVID-19 Tracker, Bentley explains why brands can’t afford to rest on their laurels and wait to see what shakes out.

“In this moment of global need, we will remember those companies that stood tall, acted quickly and with humanity,” he wrote. “We will also remember those that did not.”

He said a company’s purpose is “the filter through which leaders and businesses can make the right decision – the easy one because an organization understands at an innate level where its values and priorities lie,” he wrote.

Businesses Are Expected to Lead

The report opens with two statistics that surprised me, even though I know our confidence in governments is at an all-time low.

34% have more faith in business to solve the coronavirus pandemic than other entities.

45% believe companies can create COVID-19 solutions faster or better than government can.

Taken together, that tells me that not only do companies have an opportunity to act, they have a responsibility to do so. The next set of figures backs that up. Three-fourths of respondents believe companies have a responsibility to step up and support coronavirus relief, and nearly as many people say companies should make decisions in the community interest right now.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, we saw some companies step up. First was a wave of medical companies and manufacturers volunteering operational capacity or skill to find a cure, develop treatments, or produce equipment. That resulted in what McKinsey called “an unprecedented burst of global pharmaceutical R&D,” comprising more than 130 therapeutic candidates and 80 vaccine candidates.

The next wave came as millions began to self-isolate, as apps that had the most to gain from people stuck at home – streaming and collaboration services – gobbled market share and attention with deals and freebies. This is a sound strategy. These are times when we form habits that can rule our home and working lives for months or years.

"In this moment of global need, we will remember those companies that stood tall, acted quickly and with humanity. We will also remember those that did not." – @porternovelli #brandmarketing Click To Tweet

However, the Porter Novelli research says merely taking advantage of market opportunities is not good enough. Three-fourths of respondents said how companies act now will impact their perception in the future, and almost as many saying they were watching for irresponsible or deceptive acts and planned to pull their business if they saw any. A further 44 percent said companies that promoted unrelated services or products in the first weeks of the pandemic looked self-serving or uncaring.

How Companies Can Help During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The researchers presented respondents with ten options for how companies should be helping during the coronavirus crisis. Here are the top six, each with a response rate of over 50 percent.

  1. Ensuring their own employees continue receiving money and benefits.
  2. Implementing policies to protect the health and safety of their own employees.
  3. Donating products or services to relief efforts.
  4. Temporarily eliminating fees or barriers to access for their services.
  5. Using their building, equipment and employee time to aid in relief efforts.
  6. Donating money to relief efforts.

Sandy Skees, Global Innovation & Impact Practice Lead EVP, was quoted in the report recommending that leaders “trust your sense of humanity and do the next right thing.”

“Today, brands, governments, and NGOs are grappling with the same existential (threats) that we, as individuals, are also facing. I am struck by the creativity of humanity — people sharing hopes and fears, as well as silliness. Right now, the best a brand can do is participate in this collective effort.”

The report concludes with some recommendations for how brands can figure out what the next right thing for them should be. They are:

  • Start and end with empathy
  • Identify the need state 
  • Consider how your company’s product or service can help
  • Figure out what’s required to operationalize
  • Think about how to be in it for the long term
  • Proceed with communications thoughtfully
  • Be guided by your company’s purpose

Nonprofit brand marketing smarties Big Duck have some excellent tips to guide your visual style and build engaging content without freaking people out.

"I am struck by the creativity of humanity — people sharing hopes and fears, as well as silliness. Right now, the best a brand can do is participate in this collective effort." – @sandyskees #brandmarketing Click To Tweet

Lead Thoughtfully Now to Survive the Downturn

For all the talk of “the new normal,” it’s pretty clear that at least a localized recession is coming. The International Monetary Fund says it expects the world economy to contract by about 3 percent this year. The smart money is that as much as half of discretionary consumer spending might not occur during the downturn. How sure are you that your company’s offer can survive that?

Now is the time to lead from your values and market thoughtfully, positioning your company’s core business as vital during what will surely be a hugely uncertain future.

Need strategic marketing support? We’ve got you. Get in touch and find out what No Pants Consulting can do to make your brand brave, thoughtful, and vital.