Open Happiness. Close Communications.

The world of branding is buzzing with news of Coca Cola’s decision to reduce international marketing costs. The omnipresence of their products in every restaurant and bar across the world will no longer matter as a result of lockdowns and closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also reported that in the second quarter of 2020, Coca Cola will completely take its ads off air in some markets.

The global pandemic has created a downturn in Coca Cola’s global sales by 25% in the first three months of the year and is expected to create more financial damage as the world continues to live under lockdown. Hence, Coke has cut down on its brand marketing as (a) a means of cost cutting and, (b) ROI on marketing would be far less.

When the news was first announced, industry pundits considered that Coke was leading the way for other global brands. But, where one icon dwindled, another sprawled out. P&G has set forth their COVID-19 strategy which will involve increased ad spend for all of its brands. To quote their strategy, P&G looks to “maintain mental availability to the greatest extent possible”. The conglomerate has also reported an organic sales increase of 5% due to the general population’s need to hoard up on healthcare, fabric care and homecare products among other categories.

A Quandary For Brands

“To brand or not to brand; that is the question.”

Every crisis brings with it a set of guidelines. During the Great Plague of London in 1665, doctors, chemists and even coffee companies claimed to have products that could guard the customer from the devastating disease. Since January 2020, news websites, medical websites and blogs have witnessed a record number of visitors looking for information on how to safeguard themselves from the virus. However, as with accurate reporting, there’s also a barrage of misinformation.

In the same vein, brands are consumed with the dilemma on whether or not to continue their brand marketing activities. Brands must try to maintain the trust of its demographic through careful, considerate messaging. But, saying it is easier than getting it done.

The crisis has led branding agencies in India and around the world to change marketing strategies and shift their focus to providing digital products and content. This turn of events was rapid in execution forcing many offline campaigns to be put on hold. While global brands can find a way to manage a dual channel marketing plan, the little guys will find it extremely difficult to keep up with it.

This is where brand purpose comes to the fore.

Branding During The Coronavirus

In such a time, branding executives may find it difficult to find a place to begin with; a place to dip their toes and test the waters. The world and its inhabitants have changed rapidly in the first three months of 2020. Every brand is now to follow a set of guidelines on social media or fear being banned for saying the wrong thing.

It isn’t difficult for a brand to speak its truths during a pandemic. Every brand has a personality – one that was created with care and based on its target demographics. By tapping into that personality, you can evoke the empathetic side of your brand. A global crisis such as this requires brands to dig deep into their respective personalities. Apple and Honda are known for their innovative, intelligent side; Crayola is known for its creative, child-like communication while Vogue or Louis Vuitton know exactly how to take it up a notch. Every brand needs to find their empathetic side and tap into it right now. Effective, authentic communication right now will benefit brands with long-term gains.

With that in mind, we’d like to present some tips on what brands should do during this period.

1. Practise Empathy

We’ve mentioned it already but this time, we mean it. There’s a general sense of vulnerability as people’s routines have been highly affected by the pandemic. Imagine a hypochondriac and now drive his or her paranoia up to eleven. That’s the world right now. As a brand, every word you put out needs to be thought through. Recognise the hardships of your target audience and offer comfort through your words.

Earlier in our blog, we talked about brand voice and how any brand communiqué can be analysed to determine the brand’s voice and tone. During this time, your brand’s voice and tone is what will define it. Are you caring or are you cold? Are you always in touch or are you distant? Pepsi has over three million followers on Twitter and are known for tweeting around the day. In the last six weeks, Pepsi has been tweeting less.

There are days when the brand hasn’t made a single tweet. The same applies to its other social media platforms. When a customer turns to Pepsi for “cold drinks and hot takes” as their Twitter bio puts it, they will find little or no communication from the brand.

What a brand is and does on any normal day should continue in the event of a pandemic, albeit with care and empathy. You can liken this to the band aboard the Titanic continuing to play as they along with the rest of the ship plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. The Titanic band didn’t play something upbeat but rather the sullen hymn, “Nearer My God, To Thee”. Take Guinness for instance. It’s beer. It’s Irish. And it’s the first step to a blackout. Guinness aims its branding at select events around the year. One annual tradition where the brand goes all in is St. Patrick’s Day. This year, the stout ale brand put out this video that not only exhibits what the brand is about, but does it caringly.

Guinness is most consumed in pubs but with the brand asking customers to stay away from those places, it created a shift in the brand’s self-awareness. The customer is more important.

To provide a stark contrast, Tesla has been repeatedly called out for continuing to run its car factory with its full workforce. While this continues to dent the brand’s image, Tesla is also globally famous and we’re sure that the brand will survive through these PR disasters.

As a bottom note, we also advise brands to keep it lighter and spread positivity through their communication as it would help them build more effective customer relationships.

2. Be A Good Brand, And By That We Mean, A “Good” Brand

Reward people for their hard work to keep you safe. Call out and recognise good Samaritans. Offer advice and tips that integrate your brand but are also customer-oriented. One of our clients, Stonefield has been giving back to the community in a fruitful manner. From ensuring that mandatory guidelines are being strictly followed in the facility to donating face shields to the local police department, Stonefield has raised its empathetic side for the world to see. Car companies in the USA have moved from manufacturing cars to manufacturing ventilators. Even alcohol brands have moved from making hard liquor to hand sanitizers.

As a brand, it is very easy to find out where and how you can help. Simply organise an online meeting with your team and discuss the possibilities on how you too can help. From a passive act such as a donation to an active role such as personally making lives better through your products and services, your brand too can become a “good” brand and forever be remembered for your deeds. Some brands are even considering modifying their packaging to include their philanthropic activities and how by purchasing a bottle of shampoo or a pack of AA batteries, the customer can do their part in battling the pandemic. It’s a very small thing to do but for the customer it would seem like a life-changing concept.

3. Track, Anticipate And Adapt

Now more than ever, keep track of the virus and all news surrounding it. Many brands made communication pieces encouraging good hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation days after the practices were announced. Brands must always be on their heels and anticipate any change, be it curfews or total shutdowns.

If you sell movie tickets, remember that no one is going to be buying one in the near future. Change your plan from inviting your fan base to the theatres every Friday to finding a different way to spend their weekends indoors. By frequently tracking behavioural trends, you can know how to monitor customer sentiments and shape your communications.

Retail brands have been forced to shut down their brick-and-mortar stores and most of them have also closed their warehouses putting a freeze on eCommerce activities. However, brands such as H&M and Stella McCartney are using their websites to blog on fashion, upcoming collections and safety. The brands are staying true to their personality and at the same time, remain graceful in the eyes of their customers. Every brand has its guidelines which serve as how and how not a brand can behave. When you look into both of them, you’ll be able to find the many ways your brand can extend a helping hand and at the same time, remain true to its core values.

4. Find The Right Medium For Your Brand

A majority of brands have considered increasing their digital content efforts with the belief that locked-in customers will not be interested in touching their newspapers or magazines or even step out and see the billboards until the crisis is over.

While it is true that digital content has seen a surge in downloads especially in the West, it is not necessary that every brand should do it. LIC – as archaic as any brand can be – has turned to Twitter and Facebook (you heard that right, LIC is on Twitter and Facebook) to put out important communiqués on how to pay premiums online.

The trouble is that – and we say this with utmost conviction – most LIC customers are not on Twitter and even if they are, the chances of the target customer following LIC on Twitter are slim.

It is essential to use media in more agile ways. In the earlier point, we talked about anticipating and adapting. You’ll also need to choose the right medium to present your new communication piece. While many brands have viewed social media as the best place for communicating with their base, it’s necessary to remember that due to the crisis, more and more people are turning to television. So, think of your target audience and choose the medium wisely.

Branding After The Coronavirus

It is extremely vital to also plan for what to do once the crisis has ended. Sure, one way would be to throw a big party but, we’re not talking about that right now. We are talking about the new normalcy plan. This plan will be two-fold: (i) communications after the pandemic and (ii) planning for future pandemics.

As with any natural or manmade disaster, brands must tread lightly after it is over. For nearly six months after the 9/11 attacks, most US brands feared being censored by the government and followed a strict policy of not expressing “too much joy”. After the 2004 Tsunami, brands across South India limited their ads and focused on socially conscious PSAs featuring A-list celebrities that ran for weeks after the disaster.

As a brand, this is your time to brainstorm and ideate. Once the pandemic is over, people will return to their pre-coronavirus routines but with some hesitation which will be the roots of the new normalcy. So, how you welcome back your customers will determine how you’ve matured as a brand. We suggest that you use the time you have now to drum up an expansive content strategy.

From the end of the pandemic to the next one year, plan a series of content pieces that are aligned with your brand but also show some care for the customer. An end of pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean that your customer and their loved ones are safe and alive. There have been over 227,000 deaths worldwide as of the time of this blog and this number is expected to sharply rise. So, remember to use caution while crafting your post-coronavirus messaging.

The pandemic has also made it certain that several brands didn’t have a contingency plan in place. It is vital that you create a contingency plan to shield your brand from future pandemics. The technologies that your brand has trusted upon during this time can also show you a way forward. If your website or app has been getting a lot of usage, think about fixing the broken parts of your website or consider a revamp to ensure that it is quicker and easier to use and navigate.

Brands will also need to understand the financial impact that can be caused by an interruption such as this in business and ensure that a failsafe plan is put in place in the event of future pandemics. Small designer labels in the USA have taken to Instagram to offer collection previews. This simple idea could be a way forward to redefining customer experiences. Finally and most importantly, brands will need to tap into the diverse digital landscape and discover newer and better ways to connect with the customer on a long-term basis.

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is that a digital presence is essential. Plan on ramping up digital-only products and services and also consider being a digital-first brand. While for an FMCG brand such as Coca Cola or McDonald’s, being digital-first may not be a viable option, it could work wonders for retail brands. They say ‘the future is digital’ and what your brand should be doing right now is to develop digital content and also fully integrate your business into the digital world in order to remain two steps ahead of any future pandemics such as this.


It is no secret that customer expectations have shifted dramatically as a result of this pandemic and is expected to shift after it has ended. This is every brand’s greatest test. If your brand can come through this duration as a caring one that still holds on to its brand values, we are sure that your brand will see long-term benefits. Earlier in this blog, we talked about brand personalities. We still consider brand personalities to be the saviour for every brand. Understand everything there is about your brand’s psyche and you will find several ways to make your brand appear empathetic directly and heroic indirectly.

Does your brand need adjustments to the branding strategy? Do you have a new normalcy plan in place for your brand? If you require branding advice on how to make it through the pandemic, get in touch with Sukkrish Aadds through our website or simply give us a holler on Facebook or Instagram

written by Shreesh Shankar