Times of great stress and anxiety always bring out people’s true colours and, in recent weeks, we’ve seen wildly different responses to the unfolding pandemic play out before us.
There are the angels and the good Samaritans – those on the NHS front line, routinely making huge sacrifices for the benefit of others, and the hundreds of ordinary people up and down the country delivering food to those self-isolating or organising local support groups to help keep everyone’s spirits up.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the reckless and the rule-breakers, wilfully ignoring the advice to stay at home or to buy responsibly.
And somewhere in the middle are the responsible majority – those of us dutifully staying home, trying to continue to do a half-decent job while also taking a crash course in being a teacher, and all the while trying to hold on to some sense of balance and normality.
And when you look at brands and how they’ve responded to the crisis, they segment down almost exactly the same lines as people.
There are, thankfully, a growing number of brands that are the equivalent of the angels and the Samaritans.
These brands – perhaps those with a deep-rooted purpose or staffed by bold leaders with the drive and conviction to do the right thing – are those that are doing remarkable things to support the nation.
Whether it’s the Gtechs, the Dysons and the BrewDogs repurposing their production lines to make ventilators and hand sanitiser or the many retailers such as McDonald's or Pret a Manger offering discounts to NHS staff.
The primary behaviours of these brands are – just like their human counterparts – generosity, selflessness, integrity and a drive to put greater good before personal gain.
In stark relief are the crisis profiteers and those that are simply tone-deaf to the prevailing sentiment and opinion. Let’s not dwell on them; social media is doing a pretty good job of putting them in their place anyway.
And then, just as with people, there’s the "responsible majority". These brands may not be stealing the headlines with extraordinary sacrifices, nor eliciting the condemnation and outrage that follow the reckless, but they are still worth our attention.
These are both the brands in categories that have particular currency and resonance – well-being, financial support, telecoms, grocery and FMCG, for example – and those that can fulfil the powerful human needs for social connection, pleasure, control and identity (all of which are prevalent right now).
Brands that provide an emotional lift, a sense of escape or simply bring a little levity to the situation can all find a meaningful place in this world.
Moreover, just as it is the human responsible majority who will make the difference in terms of "flattening the curve", so, too, will it be this middle majority of brands whose collective action will help soften the economic impact of the crisis.
Because, in order to emerge with an economy that is robust enough to bounce back, we need to invest in it right now.
Marketing may not be on the front line saving lives, but it is very good at creating long-term consumer demand.
Arguably, if enough brands followed the lessons of previous downturns – committing to "business as usual marketing" as far as that is possible in these straitened times – we might just create herd immunity for the economy.
And there is a further, perhaps less obvious, benefit attached to marketing "business as usual" – because brands themselves can act as symbols of normality.
So, in a world that is looking for stability, seeing a familiar brand online or on the shelf, experiencing the regular and predictable pattern of ad breaks (dare I say it, perhaps even a feeling of mild annoyance at the ads in-between a favourite song or programme), is profoundly reassuring.
For those of us searching for anchors of normality in this much-changed world, seeing trusted and familiar brands "carrying on" is a welcome sign that, at some level, normal life continues.
In other words, not every brand needs to make a grand gesture to play its part in this crisis, because in answer to the question "What did you do in the great pandemic?" just "being there", just doing your job, just doing your best to follow marketing best practice, may well be enough to help us all see the rainbow on the other side.
Kate Waters is director of client strategy and planning at ITV
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