Past couple of months during this COVID-19 outbreak, the world has seen an unprecedented shift in the way people live, interact and carry on their daily activities. The change has been sudden, leaving many anxious and confused. The situation is made worse by the lack of certainty regarding the time frame or magnitude of this crisis.

Businesses have seen the direct impact of all this with most of the businesses becoming seriously hard-pressed and at the same time a few digital businesses picking up drastically. Given the unpredictability and speed with which the situation is changing, it has become really tricky for the brands to communicate.

How have some of the top brands across the world coped up with this crisis so far to stay relevant yet sensitive to their consumers? And, more importantly, has it worked? What should be the brand narrative going forward? How can they ensure they maintain the top of mind recall without sounding brash?

A deep dive into campaigns executed by many global brands during this time reveals that there have been 3 distinct phases in which the brand narrative evolved during the COVID times. This article captures these phases in detail and also tries to address the question of what approach should brands follow to build long term salience in the mind of the consumer.

Illustration of how brand narrative has and is evolving globally during COVID-19 outbreak.
Illustration of brand narrative evolution during COVID-19 outbreak.

Phase 1: The Education Phase

1.1 Hi-fi to Hygiene

On 30th of January this year, when many people in countries apart from China just knew Corona as the name of the beer brand, WHO declared Coronavirus as a global health emergency. Just one day after that, Lifebuoy released the print ad in India with a simple guide that FIGHTS the coronavirus and soon after that it released ‘Six step Hand Washing Dance’ in Vietnam. Though it was one of the first ads released on this topic and very timely, it wasn’t sufficient enough to generate conversations around the deadly virus.

Over the next few weeks, disasters followed:

  • On Feb 4, Amul released a digital ad showcasing evacuated Indians with the copy ‘Wuhan se yahan le aaye’ with a pun on word ‘Wuhan’ (which when translated means – ‘brought them from there to here’). Though it is Amul’s signature style to cover both good and bad events, it wasn’t seen in good taste by many as people believed humour in this context was very insensitive.
  • Then in late Feb, KFC London released an extension of its tagline ‘Finger-licking good’ with multiple shots of people sucking every last nibble of their food, suggesting it was simply not cognizant of what is coming forth. (The ad was soon pulled down, but not before Nandos South Africa had its share of laughter with an ad ‘Turns out finger licking isn’t good’)
How brands stepped up to promote awareness and hygiene around COVID-19
1.1 Brands promote awareness regarding coronavirus and the methods to maintain hygiene.

But all was not bad. There was some quick thinking by brands. Vietnam, which was one of the first countries to impose localized lockdown, released public information video which soon became a globally viral Tik Tok handwash dance challenge.

By early march, people in other parts of the world also started realizing that something strange is happening around and it can get serious. Cold and flu medicine brand Mucinex released multiple print ads regarding do’s and don’ts and urged people to ‘Spread facts. Not fear’. Of late, Spotify tweaked part of its logo and made it look like a mask conveying a message ‘Wear your essentials’.

In India, Amul released another topical ad focusing on basic hygiene which said ‘Better Saaf than Sorry’ (‘Stay clean than be sorry’). Few other agile brands like Dettol, in partnership with Tik Tok, launched another viral #HandWashChallenge and Zomato with its microscopic text post on social media, were quick to respond and played their role in spreading the hygiene related awareness messages.

1.2 Stay Apart but stay connected

Around mid-March, we were introduced to a completely new concept of ‘Social Distancing’ and we saw many major brands distancing parts of their logo to help spread the message – stay apart but stay connected.

There were brands which used outdoor medium like McDonald’s which separated its gold arches in one of its store in Brazil and Coca Cola which distanced its letters on several billboards in US. Also there were brands which took the message on social media like Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, etc.

How brands spread the message of Social Distancing
1.2 Brands helped spread the message of Social Distancing.

Some other brands took a more creative approach –

  • South Australia Tourism commission put up signs across the country to be atleast 1.5 meter apart using its iconic animals – kangaroos and koalas.
  • Israel’s chocolate bar brand Keef-Kef (‘Keef’ meaning high-five and ‘Kef’ meaning fun) deleted ‘Keef’ from its brand name.
  • Latin America’s biggest e-commerce giant Mercado Libre changed its logo from handshake to elbow bump.
  • India’s brand Fevicol which stands for the ultimate bond, split the two elephants in its logo, Italian sportswear brand Kappa separated the girl and boy and clothing brand Brothers Brazil separated the fists.

But even though social distancing was popularized, many brands across the world kept releasing their planned campaigns.

1.3 Stay Home. Stay Safe.

As virus spread and world experienced devastating effects of COVID-19 in Italy, that was the time when the sudden realization dawned on most parts of the world that this needs to be taken seriously and it is not going to be normal for a while. The world also witnessed major on-ground events around the world getting cancelled/ postponed and brands could no longer latch on to their pre-planned marketing calendar. Learning from the previous phases, brands had now realized that it is a better to be quiet than say what is not appropriate.

However, there were many brands that were quick again and came forward to motivate people to stay indoors. Even though businesses were badly hit, brands like Nissan Middle East (‘Ode to empty roads’), Jeep with print ad in Australia (‘It’s time to explore the great indoors’) and Peru (‘Off Road, In House’), Uber (‘Thank You for not riding’), Mercedes-Benz (‘Another Mercedes that stands for safety’) and Ikea Spain (‘Stay Home’) continued to spread the message.

How brands urged people to stay home during lockdown
1.3 Brands urged people to stay home during lockdown.

Some stand-outs:

  • Burger King added ‘Stay’ and crossed ‘of the whopper’ from its original tagline ‘Home of the whopper’ in one of its store in Belgium. While Burger King France, through a social media post, taught us how to make our own Whopper using store ingredients.
  • Netflix Germany released The Spoiler Billboards which contained spoilers from Netflix Originals to motivate people to stay indoors. Similar concept was adopted by Sky, a pay television platform in Spain.
  • Asian Paints in India brought back its 2007 ad film ‘Har Ghar Chup Chap se Kuch Kehta Hai’ (‘Every Home silently has a story to tell’) and Vodafone brought back the pug and zoozoos.
  • Spotify used words from most famous artists around the world to convey the message of staying at home.
  • Tata Pravesh communicated the message by crowdsourcing images of doors posted by people on social media to converting it into a fast-paced film showing montage of closed doors.
  • WHO Turkey released COVID-19 tales which highlighted dark tales of what could happen to people if they don’t follow instructions.
  • In India, Parle G girl requested people to stay indoors by disappearing from the biscuit cover. Similarly, Starbucks India removed Starbuck’s Siren in one of its digital post saying ‘Don’t worry, your beloved Siren is at home practicing social distancing’.

Phase 2: The Solidarity Phase

By end March 2020, people grew extremely apprehensive as they saw increasing number of COVID-19 cases in their countries and effects of what it can do if it goes out of control. At the same time, many were anxious with the new way of life – people globally had to adopt a new work from home culture, many got laid off and the worst hit were the daily wage earners who suddenly had no source of income and no certainty of their next meal.

During this time, when there was havoc all around, what was required was solidarity. The world had to be brought together to be a part of a movement. What was needed more than ever was inspiration, hope and being grateful and helpful to others.

And what did brands do? They enabled it.

Below are primary themes that brands revolved their narrative around in this phase.

2.1 Together we can fight corona

Was just a few messages around Social Distancing and the need for staying at home, sufficient for making people stay indoors. In parts yes, since it was a scary situation around. But it wasn’t sufficient. People needed assurance and motivation that everyone is in this together and with contribution of each one of us, we will be able to win the war against the deadly virus.

Budweiser told us we are ‘One Team’. Marvel told that we don’t need Spiderman, Iron man, Thor or Captain to save the world. Just stay home. Nike said if you ever dreamed of playing for millions, here is the chance. Just ‘Play inside, play for the world’. Google (‘Where there’s help, there’s hope’) told us that more than ever before, the world searched ‘How to help?’. Bajaj Allianz General Insurance India (‘Care will overcome’) reminded us Mahatma Gandhi’s quote that ‘future depends on what you do today’.

Brands inspired us. They urged us to do whatever we can in light of this pandemic – follow the home quarantine rules if we had too, volunteer if possible, help the elderly, spend time with our kids, contribute to family work, or just do our bit by staying indoors and spreading positivity.

How brands spread solidarity messages and brought us together in fight against COVID-19 outbreak
2.1 Brands spread solidarity messages and brought us together in fight against the coronavirus.

2.2 Hail The Heroes

During the same time, brands also persuaded us to be grateful. While we are safe inside in the comfort of our homes, there are people like doctors, nurses, hospital staff, scientists, security guards, truck drivers, shop keepers, food delivery guys, sanitation workers, journalists, etc. who are working tirelessly to make sure we are safe and have all what is required during these times.

World over, we saw Volkswagen which told us to ‘Respect’ the people working out there for us. Dove thanked these frontline workers and said their ‘courage is beautiful’. Barilla, Italian multinational food company, though #ResilentItaly campaign expressed special gratitude to all those who were contributing to keeping the country running in times of difficulty. SulAmérica, Brazil’s life and health insurance company, thanked the doctors and nurses. Coca Cola launched a beautiful film thanking the human race for filling the glass with kindness and hope.

Among the earliest ad seen in India was Mankind pharma which paid tribute to the medical fraternity. Other brands followed – Tide thanked the ‘Angles in White’, Vivo India released a beautiful film with poem which said heroes do wear capes – white, blue and green. Mahindra and Mahindra acknowledged the ‘warriors on wheels’ and said ‘ye desh abhi ruka nhi hai’ (which means ‘This nation hasn’t stopped yet’). Castrol Activ saluted those who are doing their bit while staying at home with #HangYourKeys and saluted the India’s entrepreneurs.

How brands saluted the front-line workers during COVID-19
2.2 Brands saluted the front-line workers supporting us during COVID-19 outbreak

2.3 Routine in Quarantine

Lockdown brought a complete change in lifestyles for people staying at or working from home. Some found that they had more time in hand while others found themselves hard-pressed on time since work stretched far beyond the office hours. Most of us found that home responsibilities increase suddenly since there was no house help now. It was uneasy for people who loved to hang out and troubled for the athletes or fitness lovers since gyms had closed.

What people needed was routine. And brands narrative steered in this direction.

Facebook mentioned ‘We are not lost, if we can find each other’. Jack Daniel’s whisky brand urged people to ‘Make social distancing, social’ and Ikea Singapore said that it has never been more important to ‘Make home count’. Vodafone Italy in a TVC highlighted ‘even when we can’t be close, we can be Together’. Zoom in its print ad did a logo play like other brands previously and said ‘Shorten the Distance’.

How brands spread solidarity message and taught us to follow routine in quarantine
2.3 Brands spread solidarity message and taught us to follow routine in quarantine.

In India, Titan asked citizens to ‘Make every moment’ count by utilizing the time in things that often got missed in our previously fast paced lives, Godrej appliances featured its male employees at senior positions helping out in family work with a tagline ‘Hum sab hai homemakers’ (‘We all are homemakers’), Tata Sky said ‘Ghar Baithe baithe kuch Seekhein’ (‘Learn something while at home’), Future Generali urged Indians to ‘Cover the Distance’ with our loved ones in this time, ID Fresh foods encouraged us to reach out to our elderly neighbours and ask them ‘khana khaya kya?’ (‘Did you eat anything?’).

Sadly, even during this time when most of the world was talking about essential services, there were brands like One Plus which launched highly non-contextual Hypetaskers ad introducing One Plus 8 series. Since country was in lockdown and there was no way to purchase it, brand brought itself some negative reactions.

2.4 Beyond campaigns to action

Brands also showed their solidarity by moving beyond campaigns and directly contributing to the cause. Most of the organization’s PR and media stories revolved around these. Some examples in which brands contributed include:

  • Meeting demand for essential goods

Many companies leveraged their production to manufacture and supply essential products like hand sanitizers, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE)and ventilators.

Emami, L’Oreal, Nivea, Cipla Health, Dabur, Estee Launder made new forays in hand sanitizer segment. ITC and LVMH transformed their perfume plant to a sanitizer manufacturing plant. Alcobev firms like Pernod-Ricard (with brands – Absolut vodka and Jameson Whiskey), Bacardi Limited, AB InBev (brand – Budweiser), Diageo (with brands Smirnoff, Johnie Walker, etc.), Brew Dog, etc. made a quick move from spirits to sanitizers.

At the same time, fashion, sportswear and apparel brands stepped up to answer the call for increased demand for masks and PPEs. Gap, H&M, Zara, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Eddie Baucer, Nike, Uniglo, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Prada, Brooks Brothers, Carhartt, New Balance and many others adapted their production and supply chains to meet the demand-supply gap. 3M doubled its production of N95 respirator masks and Crocs pledged to donate footwear to healthcare professionals.

As hospitals dealt with influx of patients, many medical device and electronic devices manufacturers (Medtronic, Philips, Siemens, GE, Dyson, etc.) and automobile giants (Rolls-Royce, Ford, GM, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Ferrari NV, Nissan Motor, Tesla, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Maruti Suzuki, etc.) tried to fill the void through collaborations, increased production or donation of ventilators.

  • Delivering essential goods

In US, major food delivery apps including DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub, Uber Eats initiated contactless deliveries. Lyft donated tens of thousands of rides to those with essential transportation needs. In India, ITC Foods partnered with Domino’s Pizza and Uber partnered with Big Basket to provide a last-mile delivery option of essential services. Also, Swiggy launched its new service ‘Genie’ in some cities to pick and drop any product from one place to another while Zomato on-boarded local vendors and started delivery of groceries.

How brands extended their products, services and funds in the fight against COVID-19
2.4 Brands extended their products, services and funds in the fight against COVID-19.
  • Free services/ fee-waivers:

Many hospitality brands like The Four Seasons in New York and Tata Group Hotels in India and Claridge’s Hotel in London opened its doors for medical fraternity offering them free stay and meals. Oyo Rooms offered its hotels and Airbnb requested hosts to convert rooms into quarantine centers. Starbucks offered free coffee for healthcare workers. ITC Hotels supported distribution of food across cities in India.

As gyms across the world closed down, many sports and fitness brands made their services free during lockdown to encourage people to workout-from-home. This included Nike Training Club, Decathlon coach, PUMATRAC, ClassPass and MyFitnessPal in New York, Curefit in India, among many others.

Many e-learning platforms like coursera, linkedin, skillshare, upgrad, udemy, etc. made some of their courses free while some Indian online ed-tech firms (like Byju’s, Unacademy, Vedantu, etc.) started live classes to enable learning from home. Loom made its video recording and sharing services free for teachers and students. Audible made a collection of educational kids’ books free to listen and Scribd opened up access to its digital library for 30 days. Many museums in Europe offered free virtual visits. Cambridge Publishing UK offered online reading editions of some of its books while broadway in US offered free online operas.

Many brands like Salesforce and Adobe not only made their largest events virtual but also free to attend regardless of location or budget. Cisco Webex, Google GSuit and Microsoft Teams made their videoconferencing products free to ensure business continuity during crisis.

  • Committing funds for the cause

Apart from this, globally, brands pledged monetary commitments to support research and relief efforts. As on date, the biggest pledges made includes Google and Alphabet ($800 mn), Cisco ($225mn), Gates Foundation ($250mn), Tata Sons and Tata Trust (INR 1,500 cr ~ $198.5 mn), Wells Fargo & Company’s charitable foundation (175mn), Wipro and Azim Premji Foundation ($154 mn), Facebook ($100mn), Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey ($100mn), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ($100 mn), Bank of America ($100mn), Netflix ($100mn) and many others.

Phase 3: The New Normal

Over past two months, COVID-19 has drastically altered the way we operate. Now it is a known fact that this situation will continue for a while now and this is ‘The New Normal’ – be it social distancing, avoiding mass gatherings, steering clear of handshakes, video conferencing, working from home, online learning, increased usage of digital platforms, etc.

Brands have started incorporating these nuances in the way they communicate. We are seeing prevalence of communication around the following two themes:

3.1 Real-time marketing in these seemingly unreal times

There are few brands which excused themselves when loads of other brands were focusing on situational messages. Two recent campaigns – Surf Excel Ramazan 2020 and Cadbuary Dairy Milk ‘Every Home tells a sweet story’ are the ads made for this new normal world. They are not directly related to COVID-19 but use storytelling to restate their brand purpose. They used real time marketing to remind users of their higher order association with the brand – Surf Excel’s ‘Daag ache hai’ (‘Dirt is good’) and Dairy Milk’s ‘Kuch acha ho jaye, kuch meetha ho jaye’ (‘If something good happens, have some sweet).

How brands adjusted to the new normal and carried real time and storytelling campaigns
3.1 Brands adjusted to the new normal and carried real time and storytelling campaigns.

3.2 New Times, New challenges

The national-wide and region-wise lockdown in many countries, brought in some good and some bad news from social perspective.

Good news was that nature could breathe again. Dish TV leveraged this in its campaign ‘Desh recharge ho raha hai’ (Nation is getting recharged) giving users extension if they aren’t able to recharge their connection because of some reason.

However, there are multiple issues also that this lockdown brought. Below mentioned are some of the issues and how some brands are helping to spread the message.

  • Fake news is spreading faster than the virus itself: Nigeria Center for Disease Control warned people that fake news can put their friends in danger and hence, ‘Don’t Spread It!’. Miami Ad School, Germany started the ‘Spread The Truth Project’ by which they used fake news to redirect them to actual news. UN released print ads on ‘Disinformation is Contagious’.
  • Domestic violence cases have increased drastically: Anais Association in Romania started #IsolateViolence initiative by twisting the COVID-19 imagery to reflect the increased domestic violence. UN Women released a digital post mentioning Staying Home is not equal to Giving consent. In India, famous personalities were roped in to convey #LockdownOnDomesticViolence.
  • Water is being wasted while washing hands: Tata Steel in India urged people to Save Water through its campaign ‘The Washout’.
  • People are hoarding stuff: Pick n Pay, second largest supermarket chain store in South Africa, created a song encouraging people to shop thoughtfully.
  • Pets are being abandoned: Fresh Pet US encouraged people to take good care of their pets. Senim-Meirim in Kazakhstan rearranged logos of some global brands to signify ‘Keep distance with Humans, not pets’. Misu, pet food company in Venezuela, insisted people to adopt the pets.
  • Small and medium businesses are being shut down: Postmates US urged people to ‘Order local’ so that their businesses are sustained.
  • Kids are getting bored since they couldn’t go out and play: Ikea Israel launched “Stay Home” catalog – family boredom solution. Nature Bakery in US created Snack Sized Adventure with 100+ activities that they can do with kids.
How brands addressed social issues that emerged due to COVID-19 outbreak
3.2 Brands addressed the new social issues that emerged during COVID-19 outbreak.

What should be the brand narrative going forward to build long-term salience in the new normal world?

As we have seen in the detailed analysis of brand messaging so far, many brands have been agile and have quickly tweaked their narrative to communicate what was the need of the hour. They played their part to spread the awareness, brought in the positive message and helped us cope up with the difficult times.

However, as seen in examples above, albeit few, the brand narrative has been more or less same across brands. The big question that arises is that are the brands getting lost in sea of sameness? Would the consumers be able to differentiate one ad piece from other or even recall which brand was the campaign for?

To avoid getting lost, how should the brands communicate in the New Normal world so that it is not just meaningful but effective as well?

Below are 5 guiding principles for brands to communicate in the times to come:

  1. Don’t go into hibernation mode: COVID-19 outbreak has definitely overthrown all the marketing plans out of window. Many businesses have been hit. But we know that situation will slowly improve and we will be back to our regular activities. If brands don’t want themselves to go down the consumer’s top-of-mind recall and start afresh, they need to keep the engagement going. Let’s learn from the automobile brands, which were among the worst impacted but still encouraged the consumers to follow the rules.
  2. Sense Plan Act: For the next few months, restrictions will be pulled on and off, new guidelines will be imposed and market will be dynamic. As has been seen in past few weeks, media consumption habits will also change drastically according to the situation. Brands need to be agile and quick to sense the changing market uncertainties. Also, brands might need to do geography-wise planning since situation in one city might not be same as other. A single creative approach might not work anymore. What is needed is to pre-empt rather than react. Let’s learn from the disaster which happened when KFC London released extension of ‘Finger Licking Good’ without thinking through the implications during these times.
  3. Creative ‘creative strategy’: Since social distancing will be there for some time, brands need to innovate in ways in which they can execute the campaign and tell the story. Visuals should be contextual and should incorporate the new normal way of life. From using old footage to shutterstock/getty image, brands have moved to shot-from-home videos. But brands need to be creative in what else can be done. Let’s learn from Tata Pravesh’s campaign which created entire film through internet crowdsourced pictures of locked doors or Netflix ‘The Spoiler Billboard’ campaign which involved creative use of outdoor media.
  4. Bring Brand Purpose to life: As seen in many examples above, every brand is communicating on similar lines. Now, more than ever before, brands need to restate and marry their brand purpose with their day to day communication. This is what will differentiate them from their competitors and make them stand-out. But just restating brand purpose through a video won’t do any good. Brands need to make the purpose come alive through its brand assets/properties. Nike’s brand purpose is ‘to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.’ Nike didn’t just say ‘Play Inside, play for the world’, they made premium programming on Nike Training Club App accessible to users free of charge during this time.
  5. Generate solutions, not just campaigns: In the last two months’ brands have been quick to empathize and inspire us in times of crisis. But that will not be enough anymore. It is easy to do campaigns but unless they bring solutions to consumer’s problems in these changed times, they would be lost in a whiff. Zomato in India said ‘Stay Home’ but they didn’t just end there. They started delivery of groceries and will soon launch contactless dining in light of the scenario.

In coming times, we will witness forms of creativity like never before. What will matter is how brands stick to their values which are so deeply ingrained in them and live upto their core purpose. If done right, brands will have an opportunity to come alive and gain consumer salience and loyalty like never before.