The Crucible of Authenticity

A Guide for Brand Action During the COVID-19 Crisis

April 16, 2020

By Scott Farrell, President, Global Corporate Communications

During the past several weeks, the daily count of news articles on the Coronavirus published in English language media has surged to 600,000 or more. Add a multiple of that in social media posts and you can appreciate the urgency companies and brands are feeling when it comes to their ambitions to burnish their reputation and to remain visible and relevant with their stakeholders.

There is no question that there are some companies and brands that have an inherently rightful role when it comes to linking themselves to the fight against COVID-19. A medical scrubs company donating $1 million in product to front-line healthcare workers makes perfect sense. But a fast-food company offering its Netflix username and password in exchange for social media posts showing people enjoying the company’s food along with the company’s name in the hashtag? Well, not so much.

No company or brand should be criticized for its desire to be involved. We’re all being told we’re in this together and in that light, it’s hard to imagine a Zoom call over the past few weeks among corporate and brand leaders where the question, “What should we be doing?” isn’t being asked with a profound note of urgency.

But companies and brands need to think carefully and critically before launching a COVID-19-linked act, campaign or partnership. That’s because skeptics and critics are out in force and can instantly weaponize social media to trigger a torrent of criticism that can create an immense amount of reputational and business damage in a short amount of time.

Now more than ever, every decision about a brand’s actions and its partnerships has to be made in the crucible of authenticity. Brands who ignore their DNA and stray from who they are at their core risk alienating the loyal customers who have helped build and sustain the business over time. There’s an old saying: “Dance with the one who brung ya.” Brands should remember the fans they have and who have supported them over the years. Now is a good time to reward that loyalty. Not go out cruising for a new date.

What else can companies and brands do to make sure they get it right?

  1. Challenge the motivation behind the action. Is the primary goal merely grabbing headlines or generating social media chatter? Or, based on what you do, sell or make, does the brand have a rightful role to engage in a way that others will see as authentically meaningful? If gaining attention is the primary driver for an act or a campaign, go back to square one and think again. Especially now, consumers are valuing the acts of brands who are serving the greater good rather than themselves and putting people ahead of profits.
  2. Choose partners carefully. Often the goodness and reach of a brand’s actions in times like these can be amplified by working with a partner, like an NGO or a charity. Unfortunately, the urgency and at times even the desperation of getting into the field as quickly as possible can lead to both poor process and poor choices. The need to move quickly is never an excuse for not properly vetting a partner. Aside from the obvious check to make sure the organization doesn’t bring reputational baggage to the partnership, look to make sure the partner’s purpose directly aligns with task at hand and with mission and values of the brand. And think about the long-term consequences of a partnership born out of an urgent need. Remember the well-known quote from the movie “Speed” with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves: “Relationships based on intense experiences never work.” Be prepared for the fact that the partnership forged under pressure today may require significant reworking down the road. Or even abandonment.
  3. Finally, resist the “one-and-done” thinking that is all too common in times like this. Or put differently, embrace the value that can come from an action that is sustained over time. The one-and-done approach may be a good way for a day’s worth of headlines and social media chatter. But the true value of a brand’s actions now is not in tomorrow’s headlines, Tweets and Facebook posts. It’s in the relationships that are cemented now and the equity that grows over time.

Yes, this is a challenging time for companies and brands. And there’s a good bit of research that shows that brands that spend more than their peers during times like this emerge faster and in better shape than their competitors. But today, dollars alone won’t retain the loyalty of your fans and bring others to the brand. Dollars spent the right way that reflect the authenticity of the brand, that are done for the right reasons and with the right partners over time – that’s what will separate the leaders from the pack when the Coronavirus is finally in our rearview mirror.

* If you have questions or are seeking counsel, please reach out to Scott at sfarrell@golin.com.