Some Thoughts On Brand Purpose And How To Approach Branding During The COVID-19 Crisis

Before we dive into our blog, we’d like to address something.

Branding is eternal. You don’t stop branding in the case of natural or man-made disasters; you simply modify your tone to provide empathy and comfort through your communication.

The reason we begin with this advice is because a number of brands have spectacularly failed during this pandemic to provide empathy not just to their customers but to their own people.

In March, Adidas decided to keep its stores in the US open and fully-functioning, writing in a company-wide email “Closing down is easy, staying open in a healthy environment requires courage, persistence and focus." While courage, persistence and focus are the haloes of the Adidas brand, keeping the stores open can potentially risk the health and safety of both the customers and the store employees. Adidas faced swift backlash for its tone-deaf response and has now moved to an eCommerce business model.

In our previous blog on the coronavirus, we wrote about Tesla’s decision to keep their factory running despite lockdowns. Tesla founder Elon Musk has taken to Twitter to vent his frustrations and also share the unfortunate news that both Tesla and SpaceX are operating in full capacity. What’s more? SpaceX is launching two astronauts into space by the end of May.

When we discussed brand wars, we talked about Pepsi’s long-standing commitment to rubbing people the wrong way. The cola giant teamed with Walmart to put up a billboard advertising a COVID-19 testing site. Nothing wrong about that, you think? See the billboard below and prepare to hit yourself in the head.

Selling Cars And Buying Empathy

American carmaker Ford scrapped their glamorous car ads and aired a PSA instead. In the 30-second spot, Ford mentions all the times they’ve stood up to support America and that they are doing it again. Cars are widely purchased through EMIs and other financing options and through its ad, Ford offers to help ease the payments for those who are economically impacted by the pandemic.

While this ad tugs at your heartstrings, this isn’t the first time a carmaker has done it. During the global recession a decade ago, Hyundai placed a similar ad which not only won them global admiration but also made them a hot brand. Hyundai revived the ad again and this time, aimed it at those suffering as a result of the pandemic.

More Beer, Less Hiccups

In Malaysia, Carlsberg introduced a new initiative called “Adopt a Keg" to help local F&B businesses get back on their feet. To adopt a keg, customers must first buy Carlsberg for their personal consumption from the stores and then upload the receipt to a website where each sale is converted into virtual millilitres. The more beer purchased, the more the virtual keg fills up. Once the keg is full, customers will be rewarded with two free beers that can be redeemed at their local bar or restaurant when restrictions have been lifted.

What Carlsberg has done here isn’t new. They have tapped into an old sales trick and found branding glory. We are all familiar with the punch card scheme where on every sale, a hole gets punched and when all holes are punched, you get a free purchase. But, by transferring this idea to a digital landscape, Carlsberg has opened a new world of possibilities.

Carlsberg is also one of the few brands that have found a way for their customers to engage with their products after the pandemic is over. Carlsberg isn’t offering two free beers to their customers, they are offering business to the bars and the restaurants. Let’s face it, no one has ever stopped with just two beers, we always want more. Carlsberg has mobilised an army of beer drinkers who can’t wait to get their two free beers and many more.

Every Brand Needs An Existential Crisis

When we looked into the reactions to Adidas and Tesla’s tone-deafness, we found resonant voices that demanded brands to not just worry about business but also about people. Every brand desires to forge a deep connection with its customer. However, most of the brands prefer to remain in the sales realm – a place where it’s all about selling products and making more money. What makes brands such as Nike, Microsoft, Apple and Dove iconic is that they have moved away from the sales realm. The connections they share with their customers are immaculate and they have achieved this through brand purpose.

In an earlier blog, we discussed how brands are exploiting Earth Day to tell people that they too care about the planet. Earth Day pledges and CSR activities are often confused as brand purpose. The truth is, some are and some aren’t. Before we explain the differences, let’s take a look at what brand purpose is and what it does.

Brand purpose enables your brand to make a deep and unshakeable connection with your customers through innovative ways and means. Your brand’s purpose must be connected to your brand’s offerings. What does your brand sell? Cars? Homes? Industrial-strength polish? Condoms? Brand purpose exists everywhere. When you find it, you can take your brand to a whole new realm.

Brand purpose (a) helps build a stronger emotional connection with your customers, (b) makes you stand out from your competitors, (c) brings inherent value to the lives of customers and the society, (d) spreads awareness faster than a wildfire and, (e) amplifies sales and strengthens brand loyalty.

We repeat, brand purpose needs to be associated with your offerings. Apple sells technology products that connect, entertain and enlighten people. If Apple launches a learning initiative for kids, their branding is on point. However, if Apple decides to donate to a food bank, it’s not branding. Apple may appear as a philanthropic entity and donating to a food bank is a very good CSR activity but it doesn’t connect with what they sell.

Catching Moby Dick

In Herman Melville’s great novel, Ahab and his men do their best to catch the white whale but ultimately fail. Nobody ever asked “why”. They simply knew that the whale is the ultimate goal. Brand purpose is your white whale. Unlike Moby Dick or the Roadrunner, it isn’t difficult to obtain brand purpose.

The first step to finding your brand’s purpose is to clearly state your brand’s persona and provide a number of reasons as to why your brand exists. If Nike sells shoes for athletes, why do Reebok and Adidas exist? If Ford sells cars across the world, why do Maruti and Audi exist? Every brand has a reason to exist. Your brand purpose is part and parcel of anything and everything your brand does. If you sell sports shoes, your purpose must be related to running, health and fitness or going outdoors.

Brand purpose is neither a stint nor a stunt. They are campaigns that are embedded in the psyche of your brand. When SodaStream announced that they are committed to reducing plastic wastage, they revealed their brand purpose. When Timberland committed to planting more trees, their brand purpose is in line with what they sell. The ads below show that Dove has moved from selling beauty products to starting a conversation on what defines beauty.

Nike’s brand purpose is to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. The brand states that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.” One look at what they do and you know that Nike is bang on target.

Brand Purpose During COVID-19

So, how does brand purpose help your brand to engage during the COVID-19 crisis? First, let’s reiterate the points we talked about in our previous blog on the coronavirus:

1. Practise empathy

2. Be a good brand, and by that we mean, a “good” brand

3. Track, anticipate and adapt

4. Find the right medium for your brand

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy is a non-profit organisation initiated by the former First Lady nearly 31 years ago. Recently, the foundation’s in-house team created an online toolkit aimed at stay-at-home parents. This includes a free online classroom and library, enabling and encouraging parents to continue learning. A private aviation company by the name of Wheels Up launched Meals Up, a new initiative where they will supply 10 million meals. Wheels Up is also providing free flights to healthcare workers and first responders. Both brands have tapped into their purpose.

Amazon is numero uno when it comes to eCommerce. The online giant has now partnered with Vogue magazine and the Council of Fashion Designers of America to offer a digital storefront that will help independent designers impacted by the virus. Through this initiative, Amazon will team up with twenty designers and sell their creations online. Amazon is also donating $500,000 to a fund that will help workers in the fashion industry.

What we have discovered during this pandemic is that digital presence is essential. Brands that have digital-first products are seeing a huge spike in sales and usage while brands who have continued to remain hesitant about their digital presence are scrambling to find ways to stay afloat.

Just look at what Hawaiian Tropic did. The brand sold suntan lotion and always saw a spike in sales from April-July. But, this year, no one has even thought of packing their bikinis. So, Hawaiian Tropic ventured into selling candles online that smell like their signature sunscreen to remind people of the beach and of the brand.

Digital integration is your key to making it through the lockdown. Anyone who has access to the internet is now spending almost their entire day online either connecting with their friends, loved ones and co-workers or, looking up news and information or, viewing entertaining content.

A Note For The Little Guys

(We’d like to explicitly state that none of the brands mentioned here are the little guys.)

While big brands are doing big things, SMEs are finding it difficult to survive. Branding is about finding the right way to communicate. Sometimes, what you want to say could very well be what you value and cherish. SMEs must therefore focus on how they and their products can offer value to customers.

For instance, we all know how Florsheim shoes are different from Hush Puppies or Bata. But, how is Bata better than Florsheim during this time? How can Bata add value in a way that Florsheim or Hush Puppies haven’t done?
One question will lead to more questions. More questions will lead you to the answer. Ask more questions and find the answer.

In our previous blog on the coronavirus, we mentioned that fashion designers have taken to Instagram to showcase new collections. All they need to do is to take one step further and integrate these social media posts with their eCommerce platforms. Retail brands that do not have home delivery services can follow suit by allowing customers to choose their products online and then purchase them at the store, but, at a predetermined time slot to avoid contact with other customers.

The more you think on how to connect your product with your people, the more you create a way for the future of your business.

Never Give Up That Ship

It’s evident that the coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon. Lockdowns around the world continue to ease up but with an immensely visible caveat. The key is to keep branding, but with a careful and considerate tone. Many brands are turning to experiential marketing and other advanced technologies to showcase and sell their products.

Companies across the world have already created playbooks for their employees and their customers on how to handle the virus while running a business. What the playbook signifies is that demand is never low and that more people are feeling the want to buy things but fear for their own safety. A playbook can be viewed as a declaration that you are open to selling to your customers but in a careful manner.

This is a glorious time to discover your brand purpose and use it to take your brand to the other realm. In a world of Pepsi and Tesla, be Dove or Nike.

If you need help with finding your brand purpose and on branding during 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