Surekha Ragavan
Mar 25, 2020

How brands are positioning their messages during COVID-19

Pushing out PR and marketing efforts during the time of a crisis isn't always bad. Here are some examples of brands that are nailing it, and others that should have held back.

Does this really help anyone? A Coca-Cola ad in New York's Times Square.
Does this really help anyone? A Coca-Cola ad in New York's Times Square.

As COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread around the globe, we’ve seen a pattern of brands—especially those that were badly hit—holding back when it comes to PR and marketing. While some experts say brands should not be shouting from the rooftops at this time; some say brands shouldn’t go dark as meaningful relationships can be built and maintained even during a crisis.

Either way, here are some ways brands have positioned their messaging.

Brands as PSA disseminators 

As governments and health organisations around the world preach about coronavirus etiquette, it makes sense for brands to echo or amplify their messages.

A good example is Nike, which put out a campaign encouraging people to ‘play inside’ as governments enforce social-distancing measures. As per Nike’s usual standards, the copy—by Weiden+Kennedy—was standup: “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance.”

The campaign was also reposted by Nike’s brand ambassadors including Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. Simple, effective, and a good accompaniment to the US$15 million the company donated towards COVID-19 efforts.  

Indian dairy brand Amul put out a series of messages encouraging people to wash their hands, greet others using the no-contact namaste method, and to work from home. The work featured the famed Amul girl.

Donate, donate, donate

It’s encouraging to see large corporations—such as Kraft-Heinz, KFC, and Bacardi—donating millions to recovery and research efforts.

Kopiko products being donated in Manila


It’s even more heartening to see smaller companies do their part by offering donations in kind. Coffee brand Kopiko is donating beverages including bottled water and iced coffee to cover six hospitals, 1,500 health workers, and 25,000 military personnel within the first week of community quarantine in Manila.

Singaporean telco company Starhub has organised three ground-up initiatives to contribute SG$300,000 to The Courage Fund, assemble 2,000 welfare care packs for lower-income beneficiaries, and help to defray one month of housing rental costs for 2,000 lower-income seniors.

Malaysian burger restaurant myBurgerLab is extending their staff to help the elderly and those with restricted mobility to shop and run their errands during this period of restricted movement. Because burger orders have dwindled and staff having more time on their hands, this small gesture not only alleviates burdens on the elderly, but also boosts the brand’s image in the long run.

Whatever they do, brands should not follow the footsteps of Amazon, whose CEO Jeff Bezos—one of the richest men in the world—faced backlash after publicising a public relief fund calling people to donate to Amazon’s contract employees. Plus, the company—which is arguably thriving in this climate—is donating a measly US$5 million to local businesses near its Seattle headquarters, compared with Facebook’s US$20 million and Apple’s US$15 million.

(For more examples, see "Brand-side reactions to the coronavirus crisis in Asia", where we've been compiling brand reactions to the crisis since early February.)

Tech doing its part

Google launched an educational site for users to get quick access to advisory information and live tallies. While it may be well-intentioned, the site is basic and US-centric at the moment. Much better is the company’s US$25 million donation of ad credits to WHO and government agencies and its collaboration with the Singapore government to implement an online chatbot to help citizens’ most common questions. Also good is free access to advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally.

WhatsApp—already a hotbed for misinformation and fake news—is trying to discourage people from spreading rumours at this time. To do its part, the chat platform partnered with WHO, Unicef, the UN Development Programme and the International Fact-Checking Network to develop a Coronavirus Hub which includes fact-checker information should users want to verify rumours spread via WhatsApp. The hub isn’t a gamechanger by any means, but it’s a start.

Yesterday, Facebook Messenger said it would launch a new programme to help government health organisations and UN health agencies team up with developers to use the messaging service to share accurate information and respond to people's questions. Faecbook developers will help these groups for free.

If you’re a tech giant, what you want to do at this time is avoid releasing new products. Apple churned out a new iPad Pro and MacBook Air at a time when many local economies are taking a beating, and rightfully, the media didn’t treat the brand kindly. Many headlines juxtaposed the release of a premium tech product against vulnerable commmunities struggling to sustain livelihoods. Maybe more deserving of a pat on the back is Apple updating Siri to answer queries about coronavirus as well as ensuring employees are paid during time off.  



Here's an example of a tech brand that jumped on the bandwagon to merely sell a product. Singaporean telco company Circles.Life launched an ad featuring a visual of a Dettol hand sanitiser with the word 'Dettol' replaced with 'Data'. Distasteful and opportunistic. 

Realigning product operations

We first saw it with the much talked-about Brewgel by independent brewer BrewDog. It may be a wacky idea, but less wacky is the commendable gesture of an independent company giving away hand sanitiser for free. LVMH too halted its usual production of Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy scents in place of hand sanitiser to be distributed for free to hospitals in France.

Diageo also pledged to provide Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS)—a 96% strength ethyl alcohol used primarily in production of vodka and gin—at no cost to hand sanitiser producers in multiple countries. The amount donated is said to be enough to produce 8 million bottles of hand sanitiser. 

Fashion brand Christian Siriano and swimwear brand Karla Coletto have reassigned factory and seamstress’ roles to develop face masks and other protective equipment for healthcare frontliners. Inditex,the parent company of fast-fashion brand Zara—what some reports say is the biggest fashion polluter in the world—is also producing masks and other equipment in its home country of Spain.

Temporarily changing logos in ‘solidarity’

McDonald’s Brazil ran an ad that showed its iconic golden arches being separated to indicate social distancing. After much backlash, the ad was taken down. Audi and Volkswagen also altered their logos to encourage social distancing. 

Coca-Cola bought an ad in New York City’s Times Square and extended the space between the letters that spelt its brand to also indicate social distancing. Not only is the choice to buy an out-of-home placement with a message that encourages people to stay home incredibly ironic, but campaigns like these are often slammed as opportunistic during a time where donations in kind and monies would be much better appreciated.

As COVID-19 rages on, what’s needed is awareness, action, funds, and supplies. So let’s maybe think about scaling back on the thousands of dollars spent on a billboard placement, and try something a little more grassroots-level.

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