Ri An Quek
Mar 4, 2020

Crisis and opportunity: The role of brands in social resilience

The type of role a brand can adopt during times of crisis must be informed by an understanding of the market and the cultural mindset of its audience.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Brands often talk about brand purpose, championing causes and demonstrating corporate social responsibility. It is in times of crisis when such purpose talk can be strengthened through real and meaningful action.

The COVID-19 outbreak has started many discussions about the resilience of communities. This will likely be the dominant narrative as governments and individuals seek to recover from what is arguably a black swan event and strengthen existing capabilities for future preparedness.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to unexpected events and to bounce back when met with setbacks. It consists of the capacities to fight against threats to survival.

From having necessary healthcare resources, to making sure an action plan exists for implementing and enforcing containment, to ensuring individuals are aware about personal hygiene and other preventive steps, the coronavirus outbreak demonstrates that a coordinated response from individuals and society as a whole is needed.

Brands can also play a role, as shown by Grab Singapore.

After unfortunate reports of healthcare workers being openly discriminated on public transport, Grab Singapore rolled out a dedicated service—GrabCare—for healthcare workers to travel to and from hospitals. The efforts were widely lauded for demonstrating how companies can make their brand purpose tangible and meaningful, especially in times of need.


As the narrative of resilience becomes a central rallying call in public communications, and arguably policy formulation, we can expect some changes in consumer culture and behaviour. Consumers can be expected to be more aware, cautious and concerned about hygiene, immunity, protection and being prepared for uncertainties. Individual resilience will become a central organising principle for consumer lifestyle and attitudes and brands have the opportunity to play an important role in this reorientation and mindset shift.

Consumer behaviour and mental models are shaped by cultural values, and this shows most clearly during times of crisis. The type of role brands can adopt and what they can do will vary for each market, depending on the cultural nuances of what resilience means in context. Let us look at how two markets differ in their culture code for resilience and what this means for brands. The markets are chosen for how they differ, not just in their economic and political landscape, but also the character of consumers, and their unique cultural mindset, which has implications for the roles brands can play during times of crisis.

Resilience as trust

In Singapore, resilience operates as a national discourse and policy, often discussed in policy circles and national speeches. The fight against terrorism reflects the obsession with a rational, systemic, organised response led by the government; pulling together and guiding how everyone in society ought to react and respond when the time comes.

The SG Secure website includes detailed guides for what individuals and organizations.


Most recently, this discourse has strengthened as a rallying call to fight the virus. After the national warning and coordinated response system was raised from DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) Yellow to DORSCON Orange, the city-state saw an island wide panic buy of necessities such as toilet paper, instant noodles and rice, in addition to the already depleted medical supplies of face masks, sanitisers and any bacterial killing products. Resilience seemingly failed at the first test.

A typical Singaporean places great trust in the government to put in place an integrated system that runs like clockwork to ensure the country is ready for any known or unknown shock. But when a crisis of this magnitude stresses the system and raises important questions about the unknown spiralling out of control, the code of competitiveness cultivated over years of nation-building reigns and brings out the ugliness of hoarding and social discrimination against healthcare workers, specific nationalities and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

While the cracks that rapidly emerged at the first sign of trouble reflected a seeming lack of resilience, the response to quickly repair the cracks reflected how resilience works in Singapore. Singaporeans are acclimatised to order, with expectations of clear instructions and guidelines from the top on what to do—right down to what types of products and brands is considered effective. There is also an expectation that strict legal force is used to enforce norms and police deviance, such as profiteering during times of crisis. When order and enforcement is lacking in clarity and the individuals lose trust in the wider system to provide guidance, individual resilience manifests in actions geared toward protecting self-interest for survival.

Resilience as optimistic resourcefulness

In Philippines, resilience is a cultural strategy out of necessity due to the nation’s geographic position with high vulnerability to natural hazards such as typhoons and flooding, with the occasional but deadly volcanic activity. This is in contrast to Singapore, an island protected from the menace of nature’s wrath.

As a result, Filipino communities internalise the need to work together and use whatever resources they may have to build an effective defence against these frequent disasters. The impact of these disasters has also necessitated adaptive communities and individuals, enshrined in the cultural code of diskarte, loosely translated as resourcefulness. This is the ability to maximise whatever little resources one might have to make everyday life work. In daily living, Filipino mothers, especially those from underprivileged classes (of which there are many in the developing nation), are the torchbearers of this harsh reality, adept at utilising limited financial resources for often big families.

Flooding is a common predicament for Filipino communities, making grit and optimism key survival principles. (Getty Images)


More often than not, the best defence is acceptance. Filipino communities are characterised by their optimism—in part, influenced by a strong Catholic faith—to overcome hardship and sustain joy in their lives. For a nation plagued by divisive politics, and when one cannot rely on the national or even local authorities to deliver efficient and effective services, resilience is left to the community level. This means ground-up initiatives that emphasise self-reliance and ‘making do’ are common when the community is met with setbacks.

What roles can brands play?

Mirroring the codes of resilience in different markets, communication strategies can adopt one or many roles of inspiration, facilitation, celebration, and/or guidance.

Resilience as trust calls for brands to play the role of a guide, one that delivers credible expert advice on what to do, with clarity in benefits and appealing to rational considerations. In Singapore, there is an inclination to look for guidance from the top or from experts to give clarity to model decisions and behaviour. But with the recent initial breakdown in resilience from individuals and the community when faced with the first test, Grab has demonstrated how it can fill in the gap for the role of facilitation, helping the community organise to show their appreciation and support for healthcare workers.

Resilience as resourcefulness calls for brands to play the role of celebration. With ground up efforts naturally underway as an everyday life reality, brands can help convey hope and optimism by championing the everyday heroes who are making a difference.

Considerations for brand owners to develop a "resilient" brand

  • Times of crisis offer a meaningful window of opportunity for brands to put their messages of brand purpose into action.
  • Respond quickly and create campaigns that are aimed at strengthening connections with consumers and creating value for the community, with immediate impact in helping to improve the situation
  • Understanding the market cultural context is important if brands are to know which role (inspiration, facilitation, celebration, and/or guidance) is most appreciated and effective.

Ri An Quek is a culture insights lead with Quantum Consumer Solutions.

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