Brand Government Healthcare

How Your Brand Responds to COVID-19 Is Your Brand

A hand rests on a wireless keyboard in front of an Apple computer monitor.

By idfive \ April 3, 2020

At idfive, we define brand as everything you do to make people feel a certain way about your organization—intentionally or unintentionally. With that definition in mind then, the way a company responds to the coronavirus pandemic is its brand, and not likely something people will forget anytime soon. 

My inbox is blessed (cursed?) with dozens of daily emails from dozens of brands, and I’m starting to see patterns emerging in how they’re responding to the pandemic. Email is an important brand touchpoint and a way for brands to speak directly to consumers—if the message can cut through the clutter of the average inbox. Some brands are nailing their strategy right now, while others are absolutely failing. Let’s take a look at what’s working, what’s not, and why.

A COVID-19 Note, Then Business as Usual

This is how the majority of brands are approaching the coronavirus crisis. They’re acknowledging the pandemic; putting out their message regarding health, safety, and whatever actions they’re taking; and then returning to their regularly scheduled programming. These tend to be brands that send emails on a daily basis, if not multiple times a day.

What Works

If a company’s COVID-19 email is true to its existing perceived brand, then it helps to reinforce that perceived brand while boosting its sense of responsibility and global awareness. 

What Doesn’t

This strategy is, however, entirely forgettable. I couldn’t tell you most of the brands that have sent a pandemic-related email at this point because my inbox has since been flooded with standard-issue headlines for 25% off of whatever they’re trying to sell me. It was probably most of them, but specific brands? Forgotten already. Oh well.

A Genuine Response from a Relatively Quiet Brand

These are the emails that I’ll remember. Oddly enough, my bank, Ally, is among them. Ally is known for bucking standard banking trends in favor of putting customers first, and its infrequent email schedule meant its COVID-19 message about financial relief for those experiencing hardship immediately stood out. The fact that it was genuine and heartfelt made it especially memorable. 

Lyft also broke through the clutter with an email detailing plans to support nonprofit partners and provide critical community services like transportation for healthcare workers and meal delivery for vulnerable populations. For a socially conscious brand, its message was not only on point, but hit home in a way that most others haven’t.

What Works

In a word: authenticity. The messaging has to be true to a company’s brand, or it’s going to fall flat and seem insincere. It also needs a heavy dose of altruism and empathy—a sense that the brand genuinely cares about its customers and is putting them above its own interests at this moment. Would you forget that Lyft’s co-founders are donating their salaries through June to help take care of communities that need support? I won’t. 

What Doesn’t

If there’s so much as a whiff of self-interest, even the more earnest message will come off as hypocritical or disingenuous, and will do more damage to a brand than no message at all. 

Messaging That’s Memorable for All the Wrong Reasons

Oh, Anthropologie. The brand has been stumbling in recent years, and its marketing amidst this crisis isn’t doing anything to help that situation. When I saw the headline, “Stay in, stylishly,” I rolled my eyes so hard they almost got stuck that way. Selling products and services by explicitly tying messaging into the current pandemic is even worse than the aforementioned “business as usual” emails—nothing is more offensive at a time like this than a tone-deaf response like that.

What Works

Nothing. Don’t be Anthropologie.

What Doesn’t

Everything. Your brand’s reputation depends on a carefully crafted, well thought-out response in times of crisis. Using these circumstances to drive sales is never going to be a good strategy.

Bonus: Bringing Levity to a Serious Situation

We could all use a good laugh right now, so if your brand can find a way to be tastefully humorous through this crisis, by all means do it. I absolutely LOLed when I got an email from Universal Standard, a hyper-inclusive clothing brand, offering 20% off the “mullet of video conference attire.” If you’re wondering what that is, as I definitely was, it’s “Business up top. Cozy on the bottom.”—in other words, a work-appropriate top paired with comfy bottoms. Hey, at least they’re encouraging us to wear pants.