Helping vs branding: strategies that work (and those that don't)

Nike: brand encourages football fans to 'play inside'
Nike: brand encourages football fans to 'play inside'

Brands have gone the extra mile to address Covid-19, with varying levels of success.

With the out-of-home industry facing difficult times and cinemas shut, brands are trying their best to navigate this strange and uncertain climate.

As daytime TV viewership reaches new heights, ITV revived last year’s "Britain get talking" campaign to support people alone during the lockdown, while Snapchat jumped on the social media usage surge with a tool to help people with mental-health issues, Here For You.

Campaign asked a trio of top strategists to assess brand initiatives from McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and H&M (to name a few) launched in response to Covid-19.

Right now it has to be business first, brand second

Jo Arden, chief strategy officer, MullenLowe Group UK

It’s amazing how fast brands can corral when a bandwagon is hurtling through town. I’m all for businesses doing their bit and for brands having a purpose – either without integrity is shameful. I’m going to caveat what I say by assuming that all the brand responses (well, most) have come from a place of wanting to help in some way. But this is a time for us all to remember the relatively insignificant role that any brand plays in people’s lives – not everyone has stopped to think before "supporting" the nation.

Thinking business first, brand second: car manufacturers are making ventilators and fashion brands making PPE and clinical clothing. In the space of a week, major businesses have changed what they actually manufacture – and in the most part not making a big song and dance about it. Awesome. 

Brands being extra good at what they already do: The new BBC user experience surfacing more immersive content, Just Eat and Deliveroo delivering emergency supplies to those that need it, BrewDog's digital bar experience (I want to hate it, but I think it may genuinely serve a need) and ITV getting Ant & Dec out to make us feel less lonely. Lovely.

Brands awkwardly trying to be relevant: McDonald's, no-one is going to change their behaviour because you modified your logo on social media. All the brands giving free drinks (or, worse, discounts on drinks) to NHS staff and making ads about it. BrewDog Brewgel. Urgggh, awful. 

It’s incredible to see brands fast-tracking innovation (I think speed of response might be one of the legacies of this crisis), but it’s a bit galling to see some blatant awards guff too. How about, to keep us honest, we make a pact? That rather than fill the world with any more bullshit posturing, we give the money it’d cost to the charities and public services that can use it for something genuinely good? 

Strong brands will always be able to adapt their purpose to changing times

Bridget Angear, joint chief strategy officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Brands are just like people right now: trying to work out how to behave in this new world. It’s tough, so it would be churlish to call out those that have got it wrong. It’s more useful to learn from those getting it right. Because we are all making this up as we go along. There has never been an event like this that the entire world has experienced at the same time. Ever.

Be helpful. Be helpful. Be helpful. That seems like a good mantra for everyone just now. And many businesses have been just that. Donating money to the most vulnerable groups, prioritising their offering to front-line staff, using supply-chain capabilities to get vital equipment to hospitals and diverting factory production and engineering expertise to make the things we need most. All brilliant examples of businesses knowing the right thing to do and just doing it. Without seeking fame or fortune. 

When it comes to marketing, strong brands know what to do, guided by a purpose which can be adapted, but not fundamentally changed, to suit changing times.

Nike can encourage us to play indoors because it is entirely consistent with its core purpose of "bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete*" (we all know the *). And ITV can carry on encouraging the nation to talk (albeit virtually). If your "purpose" was just a grafted-on corporate social responsibility programme, then the tide just went out and, as it turns out, you didn’t have shorts on.

So, what do we learn from all this? 

As in many things, Peter Mead was right: "When in doubt, be nice."

Coca-Cola: brand launched activation in Times Square

Try to help, not just be seen helping

Richard Bradford, group planning director, VCCP

It's a time of heroes and villains. Bog-roll hoarders and hard-working nurses. Patriots and pariahs. Good and evil.

I'm still nervous about the fact that I bought six portions of lasagne from our local pub as an act of support, then shared it on the village WhatsApp group. Am I a community-minded parishioner or a panic-buyer?

So to our examples, which sit in two camps: brands that have helped with the coronavirus and brands that have branded the coronavirus.

Companies have been quick to be clever with their logos in solidarity. But if all you've done is change the logo, it's not really solidarity – it's just branding. People seem more than usually wary of brands capitalising for social shares.

Nike is very good at making the most out of events it hasn't sponsored and Covid-19 is no exception.

Nike can be forgiven for branding because it helped. And it brought something superbrands bring: optimism in hard times.

The best examples here committed help rather than communicating. BrewDog made hand sanitiser and a digital pub. Snapchat supported social mental health. ITV used its influence to get us talking. They're acts of public duty, not branding exercises.

Poor Tesco got very little thanks on Twitter for its NHS opening hours. Perhaps adding "#everylittlehelps" made it feel a bit like Tesco wanted thanking. The critical question is: are you trying to help or be seen helping? As long as you're mostly trying to help, you're doing the right thing. Right now, that's all that matters.

Feeding the nation: supermarkets asked consumers to stop bulk-buying

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