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  • Writer's pictureTimothy

Brands that don’t put people first in the Coronavirus pandemic could disappear


We were already on a dizzying spiral the past few years as various voices called our era the end of retail as we know it; the retail apocalypse. Of course, there are a multitude of facets to why certain types of retail are thriving and others not so. For example, a commonly heard narrative is that the department store format is dead. Yet there are insights to be had by looking at Macy’s or JC Penny compared with Isetan or Hankyu in Tokyo.

But the whole debate about what successful retailing looks like has been pushed off the table by the Coronavirus worldwide pandemic.

For some time now we have seen how very late boomers and then millennials have started to steer away from well-known status symbol brands to spend more money on experiences. Moreover, even when this wide swath of consumers looks to make a purchase, they have been putting more and more emphasis on brands that they perceive to be authentic and doing something, in some way, for the social good. It has been said that sustainability will be one of the new luxury standards. This pandemic is telling us that cause and caring are also going to be a new baseline for any brand.

Many corporations are stepping up in the crisis to tell their workers to stay home to protect others and come out with measures to support their employees if they cannot work during these times. These kinds of measures to put your people first are what define the social fabric of a company’s DNA now. The focus in the media, at least, has been on what companies (and governments of course) are doing for their staff (or not doing in all too many cases). Just as the announcement in an airplane says, if an emergency strikes, put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.

But what about your customers? How does a company or brand engage with their customers in a crisis of this magnitude? There used to be a case for “business as usual” in the past, but that simply doesn’t apply in the Coronavirus pandemic. If a company or brand communicates in a “business as usual” context, they are going to be seen as tone deaf at best, ignorant of what is going on in the world at worst.

This is business as unusual and brands need to reach out to their customers in ways that are also unusual, at least in the current paradigm. Customers are stuck at home, many not able to work, and even those that can work have extra time to use. With the media glaring doom and gloom, your customers are looking for escapes and empathy.

It is time to look at your customers as first, one large community united by their affinity for your brand. Then they are also a myriad of smaller sub-communities aligned by common affinities for things like function, design, price. There are also sub-communities that are aligned by cause, social impact, human impact. Within the context of the growing emphasis on authenticity, sustainability, and social good pre-Coronavirus, these sub-communities are the new driving force of a brand. The Coronavirus crisis makes them all that more important.

Brands need to make a 180 degree re-alignment in their engagement with their communities now. This is the golden opportunity to reach out starting with existing customers about them. It’s not about the brand, or the product now. It’s all about the customers and the communities they are part of. How are they doing? What are they doing? What do they wish they could do? The Coronavirus is striking close to many in your brand’s community and people are being affected. What brands need to show more than anything else right now is empathy.

Empathy is nicely expressed as a cause or dedication to some social good. Engagement can and should happen on two levels. One level is defined by a cause or social good that the brand believes in and strongly supports. That could be gender equality, sustainability, or economic safety. Brands are in a good position to frame this community engagement. Another level is defined by the common needs and causes of the many sub-communities in your larger overall community of customers. This level is the most uncomfortable for brands because it is largely community and customer-driven. But that is the golden opportunity to really learn who your customers are.

By “opening up” about the things that a brand believes in makes the brand more authentic to the customer community. And by opening up the discussion to the community allows the brand to see what its customers really value. This is also a great opportunity to engage in a customer generated content type initiative. Instead of hoping for customer or influencer posts about how much they love the new collection, give the community the opportunity to interact with each other in a lightly curated environment. Your customers already have an affinity for your brand for some reason. Let them express themselves within the context of this pandemic and the realities of having to stay home or take extraordinary precautions.

A brand is only a combination of trust and emotion in the hearts and minds of consumers. By reaching out and showing its humanity, and by engaging the customer community in a meaningful way within the crisis, a brand can come closer to the community and the community can come closer to each other. By coming closer to each other, the community trust level and the ensuing emotional connection will grow. If the community gets stronger, the brand gets stronger. Cause and caring are the new base attributes of a brand

It’s not about the brand, it’s about the people.

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