5 June 2020
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David Benady explains why a brand based on solid values is now a business’s most powerful asset.

Forward: features are independent pieces written for Mewburn Ellis discussing and celebrating the best of innovation and exploration from the scientific and entrepreneurial worlds.

When a crisis strikes, brands must be ready to respond. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world and forcing much of humanity into lockdown, brands are sharpening their messages as they seek to stay relevant during the crisis and beyond. 

One of the early responses to the pandemic was a rush by top brands to alter their logos to educate consumers about the need for social distancing. For example, McDonald’s separated its golden arches for a social media campaign in Brazil to show that ‘we are separated for a moment so that we can always be together’.

Meanwhile, Audi moved its familiar rings apart and Volkswagen partitioned the V and W in its logo. Chiquita bananas went as far as to remove the Miss Chiquita figure from its logo, telling consumers she was now working from home to protect herself from infection. These temporary changes were attempts to show that the brands were abreast of the crisis and had a wider social purpose beyond simply supplying products, though they drew some criticism on the basis of alleged opportunism. 

Christian Polman, chief strategy officer at marketing consultancy Ebiquity, thinks these logo tweaks have created little brand equity and have minimal impact on consumers. ‘So, therefore, even if there is a bit of criticism, it's also easily forgotten,’ he says.

What’s going to matter more during this time of crisis and confusion, in his opinion: ‘is a much more holistic approach – how brands treat their employees, how they protect their customers, especially as they reopen because that’s going to be the focus now as we come out of lockdown: how are our businesses behaving? Are they protecting people moving forward as much as they can?’

The way brands respond during and after the crisis will have a significant impact on consumer perceptions and sales, believes Maria Garrido, chief insights officer at advertising group Havas. She says consumers don't only judge brands on their functionality – whether they clean whiter, get us from A to B, or quench our thirst – but also on their wider contributions to society. 

In this respect, ‘Brands need to make sure that they have that balance right between what they are functionally delivering for people and how they help them individually and what they are doing to contribute to the community,’ she says.

What consumers want

Garrido’s view is backed up by research from the Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted at the end of March. This found that 65% of consumers worldwide agree with the statement: ‘How well a brand responds to this crisis will have a huge impact on my likelihood to buy that brand in the future.’

What does it mean to respond well? The research offers some clues, and some stark warnings. A focus on advertising that shows how products and services can help with pandemic-related life challenges was either demanded (36%) or preferred (48%) by respondents. And perhaps think again if you are thinking of being funny. For 57% of those surveyed, taking a light-hearted tone was either absolutely off limits (22%) or not preferred (37%).

The survey of 12,000 consumers across 12 countries including China, the UK, Germany, and the US also found 71% of respondents agreeing that: ‘Brands and companies that I see placing their profits before people during this crisis will lose my trust forever.’

With such sentiments ringing in their ears, brand owners and their ad agencies have raced to create marketing campaigns and activities that show how they are helping during the crisis. For example, a well-received campaign in the UK is from commercial broadcaster ITV. The ‘Apart but never Alone’ campaign features celebrities asking people to talk openly about their mental well-being during the crisis. Meanwhile, US whiskey brand Jack Daniels has run the ‘With love, Jack’ ads showing activities people can undertake to keep themselves occupied during lockdown. 

Do don’t say

Laurence Green, a partner at ad agency MullenLowe Group UK, says brands should ‘do rather than say’ and find practical ways to help in the crisis rather than simply declaring good intentions. For instance, his agency persuaded its client Bayer to supply its nappy rash cream Bepanthen to front-line workers around the world to act as a mask rash emollient. He points also to grocery retailer Tesco – not one of his clients – which he says has ‘taught the nation how to shop’ both in its stores and through its ads educating the public on social distancing. ‘That is quite a profound thing for an organisation to do. Whereas just turning your logo upside down and tweeting it feels like trying to get attention without any soul,’ he says.

“Brands should ‘do rather than say’ and find practical ways to help in the crisis rather than simply declaring good intentions.”

Green believes that brands with long-term campaigns can more easily adapt to crisis situations. His agency works on laundry detergent Persil’s ‘Dirt is Good’ ad campaign, which encourages parents to let their kids get dirty in pursuit of outdoor play. For the lockdown, the slogan has been adapted to ‘Home is Good’ with an ad encouraging messy play indoors too.  

Historical lessons

While the COVID-19 pandemic is quite unlike any other modern crisis in its breadth and consequences, brands can learn lessons from previous emergencies. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, ads were deemed inappropriate for US TV channels and disappeared from schedules for days. In the months and years after, some brands responded with patriotic ads, such as General Motors’ ‘Keep America Rolling’ campaign, while Ford hired patriotic country singer Toby Keith to front some of its ads. 

In the wake of Japan’s 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami disaster, national brands Uniqlo, Sony and Toyota stepped up to donate help for the victims. Toyota curtailed air conditioning to save electricity and help the country’s damaged energy supply, while also asking its workers to help get the economy back on its feet. Sony encouraged gamers to make donations to victims through their PlayStation wallets while Uniqlo sent clothes for those affected.

The Havas Meaningful Brands Index, which scores brands on how they improve people’s lives and the role they play in society across a range of measures, found that the brands which stepped up to help through the tsunami crisis recorded high ‘brand attachment’ scores among the Japanese public. 

“Brands which stepped up to help through the 2011 tsunami crisis recorded high ‘brand attachment’ scores among the Japanese public.”

By contrast, following the great financial crash of 2008, many brands went ‘dark’ and stopped advertising, partly because of a public backlash against the perceived misbehaviour of the banks. That crisis had a huge long-term impact on public perceptions of corporations and the role of brands. The pressure on brands to be seen as good corporate citizens has ratcheted up. Over the past decade, brands have striven to position themselves as responsible, emphasising their ‘purpose’ and the wider contributions they make to society beyond simply creating profits for shareholders. 

As Brenda Trenowden, a partner at PwC commented in a recent podcast, even before this crisis: ‘Businesses have been thinking much more carefully about how do they interact with the communities that they are in, how do people view them – from their employees to their investors to their customers – and how do they really bring that to life?’

A lack of purpose, she warns, can lead to ‘short term, knee-jerk responses in a time of crisis’. Adding that: ‘This often leads to some decisions that are really going to come back to haunt you … We are already hearing about the businesses that people maybe don’t want to support because they haven’t been true to their purpose and they haven’t thought about their wider stakeholder group.’

If the image of many brands was battered by the financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic offers them a chance to become part of the solution. Brands that have stepped up and gained public support through good corporate citizenship should find that they weather the inevitable economic downturn that will follow unprecedented disruption with the help of public support.

This should also stand them in good stead for the future. The shock of this global pandemic has changed perceptions about the likelihood of other emergencies. Where they might once have dismissed the threats of a climate disaster, an antibiotic resistance emergency or an existential threat from artificial intelligence, following COVID-19, governments and businesses should be making serious contingency plans for a range of possible crises.

And for businesses, creating a strong brand based on powerful values is a good insurance policy against the disruption and dislocation that can be brought by such emergencies. Such brands are resilient, maintain long-term value and create a solid platform from which to respond in a meaningful way to world events.

Trade marks: Powerful brand messengers

Rebecca Anderson-Smith, Senior Associate and Chartered Trade Mark Attorney at Mewburn Ellis comments:

Trade marks are an extremely powerful and valuable part of a brand’s identity. While the traditional function of a trade mark is acting as a badge of origin, distinguishing the goods and services of one trader or company from those of another, they can be used for so much more than this. Whether it is a new slogan, or an adaptation to an existing logo, trade marks can send an instant message to consumers about a brand’s priorities, values and ethos. In times of crisis, brand owners need to think carefully and sensitively about what messages they want to send with their trade marks and how best to convey this. Their response may well have a lasting impact and they should ensure it is something they want to be remembered for.

Read more from Mewburn Ellis about the way in which brands have reacted to the Covid-19 and the practical implications for IP strategy.

Rebecca is a Partner and Chartered Trade Mark Attorney at Mewburn Ellis. She handles all aspects of trade mark work, with a particular focus on managing large trade mark portfolios, devising international filing and enforcement strategies, and negotiating settlements in trade mark disputes. Rebecca has extensive experience of trade mark opposition, revocation and invalidity proceedings before the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO), including very complex evidence based cases. Rebecca also has a strong track record in overcoming objections raised to trade mark applications.

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