March 17, 2020

How to Act With Purpose During COVID-19: A Guide for Brands

By Laura Sutphen, Executive Vice President, Global Head of Social Purpose

As we make way through these uncertain times of COVID-19, we’ve had queries from brands asking for guidance on clients who want to try to do some social good, and how to navigate these waters so it’s not tone deaf.

The ways to engage and help are fluctuating day to day. Yesterday, a few brands were lauded for retrofitting their existing factories or R&D labs from making perfume to making hand sanitizer and masks. Today, a few celebrities are breaking through for donating significant funds to food pantries. But overall, this is not a time for your brand to be a purpose-driven hero and expect credit for their actions. Before engaging in a purpose-centered activity during the COVID pandemic, consider four initial questions:

  1. WHO can we help that is natural to the audiences we would engage with on a day-day basis? This ensures message and brand integrity.
  2. WHERE can we use our functional operations to be a part of the solution? More than a donation to an already overloaded system, think of transportation fleets, distribution centers, or other operational part of the business and consider how they can be reused, retrofitted or repurposed to help.
  3. HOW QUICKLY can we act? If your idea takes several partners and two months to set up, you may be overthinking it.
  4. WHY does your brand want to take action? If it’s for credit or accolades in a media channel – you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

Specific guidance as your clients think about how to engage:

  • Before any donation or purpose action your brand is wishing to take, ensure that they have started internally first by offering employees thorough communication about wellness resources, work from home policies, stipends or free product – whatever your brand can do to take care of its people.

Also consider whether any of your core customers are part of a vulnerable or high-risk population. If so—are you doing everything you can to support them? (Think of small businesses, hourly-wage-earners, delivery people, food service workers, shelf stockers, custodial workers, and bus/train/ride-share drivers)

ONLY take external action AFTER the brand has taken care of employees and vendors/partners – meaning, if a brand wants to give food to an organization, make sure that it’s also considered the needs of its own employees/vendors/partners and food shortages first.

  • Only take actions that are aligned to the brand’s purpose and double check that you’re not creating a new issue to manage. Example: if you are a candy or soft drink brand, steer clear of food product donations (aka – consumers will not look kindly on a candy brand trying to help address food insecurity) and instead, donate money that can be deployed meaningfully.
  • Don’t expect actions like this to generate earned media. Brands must be very careful with outreach right now, even if it’s ‘do good’ actions; this is not a time to try for gaining favor or traction through earned media.
  • Step up when you can if the state/local government officials in your HQ community ask for support or resources. This does not have to be a donation or contribution. It could be access to space, technology or expertise to support the public response or triage for the local health care community.
  • Unless your brand has significant money to give, look to act based on quality over quantity – meaning choose one organization to focus on and use funds/resources to go deep in helping vs trying to be everywhere with just a little bit of good.
  • If there’s any social media on the support/comfort/donation action, the tone of social posts on the topic need to be about where to get and find the resource vs the fact that the brand is doing it.

Brands could also consider reinforcing the CDC guidance via social channels—especially if your brand fans are reluctant to change behaviors or are in a vulnerable population. Good recent examples include: Guinness (STAY HOME, subtly) and the NBA here and here.

  • There will be both immediate needs and long-term needs as a result of this pandemic. Keep notes throughout the next several weeks to catalogue where your brand could engage in longer-term support, most likely around economic stability for vulnerable populations: health care, shelter, nutritional food, living-wage work.
  • If your brand is eager to do something now, WHO has established a COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Donations support WHO’s work to track and understand the spread of the virus; to ensure patients get the care they need and frontline workers get essential supplies and information; and to accelerate efforts to develop vaccines, tests, and treatments.

Several community foundations have established rapid response funds.

We’re living with enormous uncertainty, and it’s a new normal for brands when trying to be a part of the solution. When in doubt, think of the idiom measure twice, cut once: make sure that your brand has thought of all the things that could go wrong before acting or making a decision – even if it is with the best intentions.