In the Coronavirus Worldwide Crisis, the Brands that are Emerging as Leaders are Leaning Into Their Purpose and Driving Meaningful Impact

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, much of the conversation has been around the impact the pandemic will have on the way we live and do business not only in the short term but just as importantly into the future.  COVID-19 has eroded our routines and threatened the security of millions of people, businesses, and workers around the world.

The numbers are staggering and speak for themselves. The St. Louis Fed has released estimates that unemployment could hit 32%, beating the 24.9% peak during the Great Depression. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort survey recently slumped 11 percentage points, the sharpest retreat since October 2008; a survey from Datassential reported, unsurprisingly, that at least 49% of consumers were very concerned about their well-being. On the business front, PWC found that about half (54%) of CFOs say the outbreak has the potential for “significant” impact to their business operations, with 80% concerned for the potential global recession. We are living in a world which could not be imagined a few weeks ago. 

The looming fears and concerns are driving the public to find new ways to connect and stay engaged in the world from the confines of their home. It is not surprising that the public wants to hear from companies and brands that are providing essential services. However, it is also clear that the public wants to hear from brands that can help them find some sense of normalcy as they adapt to living with social distancing. How these brands engage is more important then ever.

One critical learning from history is that real change emerges out of crisis. Times like these give rise to true leaders – individuals, brands and companies – who demonstrate that the impossible is, in fact, doable, that innovative thinking can save lives and that business model innovations eventually will help bring the economy back to normalized levels.

In the few short weeks since this crisis began, we’ve already seen a wave of businesses take a leadership position by responding with rapid innovation and providing immediate real-time solutions. These leaders have creatively found ways to protect their employees, their consumers and the public at large. They have engaged authentically in ethical and meaningful ways. Now, more than ever, it has become abundantly clear that business can—and should—be a force for good.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about the need for every corporation to articulate its purpose. Larry Fink, in a letter to CEOs earlier this year, reinforced this point when he wrote, “The importance of serving stakeholders and embracing purpose is becoming increasingly central to the way that companies understand their role in society. As I have written in past letters, a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders.”

Businesses should see this moment as a critical turning point, and a significant moment of opportunity to lean into their purpose and values. How a business responds during these difficult times has the power to shift its reputation—for better or for worse. Now is the time to take bold action and respond with urgency and authenticity. Not doing so could erode trust, confidence, and support for your brand. Doing so could improve your brand reputation, increase consumer loyalty, and even spark growth.  

Here’s how we believe brands can lead in the face of the coronavirus epidemic:

Let Your Mission, Vision, Purpose Guide You. According to our partner CCOP, 78% of Americans think companies should take action on important issues facing society, and 52% of business leaders report that purpose has a strong link to customer loyalty. When determining your response to the crisis, remember that any actions you take should be authentic to your brand, and help build trust and equity behind your company vision, mission, purpose, and values.

All decision-making should go through this filter and lens—do what aligns with your brand essence and reason for being. Here are a few examples:

  • As the leading online food delivery marketplace with the largest network of restaurant partners and more than 22 million active diners, GrubHub responded with an imperative to support its partners, suspending collection of up to $100 million in commission payments from impacted independent restaurants nationwide. While this may have been a tough financial decision, GrubHub’s leadership team took a short-term loss for what will hopefully be a long-term gain—demonstrating their partnership and relentless commitment to independent restaurants around the nation, even during such a time of crisis and uncertainty, was an authentic action that’s sure to drive loyalty and trust from both consumers and restaurant owners.
  • Over 70 years, Dunkin’ Brands has stood apart for a heritage of serving those who serve, with store owners consistently giving back and providing for the people and organizations who keep us safe and make a difference in the community. To lean into that heritage during the pandemic, Dunkin’, through its Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, is bringing its sampling trucks to healthcare facilities and emergency sites throughout Massachusetts and New York. At each stop, Dunkin’ is serving hundreds of cups of free coffee and Munchkins to help keep the deserving healthcare providers running. The Foundation also activated $1.25 million in emergency funding to support health and hunger relief organizations on the frontlines of the coronavirus (COVID-19) response.

Communicate Consistently with Empathy and Authenticity. Do not continue to communicate like business is as usual—you will risk looking insensitive and out of touch with your customer and employee base. Customers and employees want to know you recognize their situation, are making adjustments to business as needed, and will support them in every way possible. According to the Institute of Public Relations, communicating to employees on COVID-19 was a “high” or “essential” priority to the communication function for 81% of respondents, 66% for customers and 35% for suppliers. Communicate often, ensuring the safety and security of all those that your business impacts (customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, etc.).

You should also get ahead of any potential risks or issues your business might face along this journey by proactively preparing statements and crisis plans, and ensuring your customer service team is ready to respond actively and rapidly to all possible issues. Don’t underestimate how important it is to sound “human” during this time—an authentic message right now could help bolster trust and strengthen your brand reputation unequivocally.

For instance, at the early onset of the crisis, TimeOut temporarily rebranded to TimeIn, sharing an encouraging e-mail update with readers, partners and employees that explained why the change was so imperative during this moment, and that there was fun to be had indoors, as well. In this case, the name “Time Out” itself became immediately irrelevant, and, worse, unsafe to New Yorkers—the shift was a strong recognition of the moment and their community’s new need state.

Not communicating during this time could actually pose greater business risk, and could result in customer loss or complaints. According to a study from Accenture, 42% of consumers walk away from brands in frustration, and nearly half of U.S. consumers who are disappointed by a brand’s words or actions on a social issue, complain about it.

Innovate Quickly to Support your Customers. Organizations all over the world—small and large—are making quick shifts to their business models to help accommodate customer needs. In fact, according to a recent Nielsen study, 67% of Chinese retailers said they would make efforts to expand online channels and accelerate home-based business. Fifty-three percent said they would change their product mix according to new shopping habits, and 43% will deeply work on their supply chains. Now is the time to get your brightest minds together, quickly evaluate the challenges your customers are facing, and determine how your business can help solve them through rapid innovation.

Innovation can take multiple forms during this time—technology, supply chain management, product development, activating donation programs, etc.—depending on your core offerings, customer needs, and value proposition. Within the first week of much of the world going under quarantine, we’ve seen multiple businesses innovate:

Figure out what innovation will have the most impact for your community and move on it, fast. These innovations will be critical to not only showing your commitment to current customers, but also help you to activate trial and consideration to a larger audience than ever before.

Be Part of the Solution. Above all, if your business has power to be part of the solution during this worldwide crisis, be part of it. Not only will this position you as a leader, innovator, and drive brand love and bolster you’re reputation, but it’s also the right thing to do. Businesses right now, more than ever, have the opportunity to drive societal impact and support in any way they can. Early leaders have already started this trend:

  • LVMH was one of the first of many to create hand sanitizer in response to France’s high demand and need
  • Christian Siriano, among others, have dedicated resources to creating more masks for healthcare workers.

Your stakeholders—customers, influencers, communities, employees—will remember this historic moment, and how brands acted during this time. If you successfully support these groups, it will be lauded for years to come. It could also drive loyalty, trial, and support; Kantar’s consumer survey showed that people will pay more to buy from socially responsible brands.

There’s never been a more important time for brands to lead and innovate with solutions that will help mitigate the spread of the virus and provide support to the many that need it during this time, from healthcare workers and first responders to grocery store clerks, small business owners, to those quarantined at home, the list is endless. Business leaders and brands have the power—and the responsibility—to make big decisions, shift their priorities, and begin initiatives to help mitigate the impact the virus has on our lives, the economy, and society at large. Be a responsible leader, and take action now to support your community.   

Looking for more support while leading your brand through the coronavirus pandemic? Our newly launched COVID-19 Advisory Team is here to help any business address challenges and opportunities emerging in this crisis. Learn more here.