Brand reputation and trust in our COVID-19 reality

The value of any organisation’s brand is translated through its (i) purpose, (ii) culture, and (iii) reputation.

Promote Safety First

The coronavirus has billions of people and millions of businesses across the globe fighting for survival. Within this current and doom context, any organisation’s first concern should for their communities and families. And at the same time, in our race to reopen the world, businesses must manage these processes responsibly. Failure to safeguard public health will generate lawsuits and other forms of backlash that could destroy businesses and livelihoods.  

Winston Churchill famously stated that in every crisis there is also an opportunity.  Thus, to turn this nightmare without end into an opportunity, brand management must project a tone of crisis communications to build relationships and to demonstrate reliability. The messaging must be built on the foundations of being responsible, responsive, relevant, trustworthy and extremely proactive.  This foundation and translation of actions will speak louder than any spoken or printed words. 

A business as usual approach may tarnish business leaders who failed to cultivate a compassionate leadership with its customers and consumers. A lack of cultivating such a compassionate approach will also tarnish brands that fail to communicate appropriate messages with consumers, employees and other stakeholders. At worst, corporations may face a gauntlet of lawsuits for negligence. The fallout is far from over, which means that there is still an opportunity to emerge from the pandemic as a compassionate leader driven by and a voice of reason. 

The Value of Brand Loyalty: Wellness of Customers and Employees

Building loyalty in a time of crisis can make or break a brand. Organisations must apply creative solutions to improvise and make difficult decisions that will ultimately have lasting effects on their brands. When asked what factors make consumers trust brands more, the top three responses focused on the wellbeing of customers, the wellbeing of employees, and not taking advantage of the crisis to maximise profits. Consumers do not want platitudes embedded in messages of hope, optimism, nostalgia or even statements about strong moral principles. What consumers want brands to clearly and responsibly demonstrate leadership and action by taking care of customers and employees. Brands that fail to take these actions put their reputations and trustworthiness at risk. 

Data from KPMG International and McKinsey & Company shows that organisations that stand behind their employees is one of the top reasons’ consumers trust their brands. The data also shows that during uncertainty, workers are looking to employers and managers to lead even more than they are looking to governments and other organisations. Fifty-four percent of consumers consulted stated they are concerned with how employers are treating their employees in this time of crisis. Better treatment fuels brand trust, with 48 percent indicating they trust brands more when they take care of their employees. 

Clear and frequent communications from the company will increase brand loyalty among employees. But not all companies are doing it. Only about half of employees say they are satisfied with their employers’ COVID-19 response, and less than 60 percent believe their employers are communicating well during this crisis. Among those who are satisfied with their employers’ COVID-19 actions, 90 percent believe their employers are communicating well, resulting in significantly higher levels of trust. But too many employers are letting their employees down. Employers who are communicating poorly during this crisis are experiencing significant distrust with 63 percent indicating they trust their employer less. 

As consumers continue to adjust to the new world and start engaging in more comfort-seeking behaviours, 65 percent of consumers indicated that during this crisis a brands’ actions have a significant or major impact on their trust in that brand. A study from Morning
Consult shows that consumer attitudes about brands have evolved during the coronavirus crisis. Fewer than half of Americans (41 percent) trust large corporations to guide them through these anxiety-inducing times. 

The 34-page report examines how brands can still drive situation-sensitive and purpose-led growth during this pandemic. Research for “Weathering the Storm: Brand Management in the COVID-19 Erawas conducted among 2,200 adult Americans on March 28-29 in 2020. The findings highlight the urgency of brands to employ practices that serve consumer needs and do not sacrifice quality, while also delicately approaching the situation with humanity. According to Victoria Sakal at Morning Consult, key actions now can define how organisations emerge under the new normal. 

“The goal is not to just hang on and weather the storm with your existing customers, but to look to the future,” said Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence at Morning Consult. 

In order for large companies to fortify consumer affinity and loyalty, Morning Consult’s research suggests that they should values into practice. A majority of those surveyed (over 75 percent) answered that they think it is either very or somewhat important that brands take care of their employees and treat them well, have products available when they need them, care about society, contribute to society, stand for something beyond just profit and show sensitivity and empathy. 

Americans’ top five considerations when deciding whether to buy from a company right now are largely rooted in the basic, fundamental needs of consumers: product availability, safety and cleanliness, financial accessibility and compliant solutions. Boomers were most likely to buy from companies that stand for something beyond making a profit and for companies that are providing flexibility (87 percent). 

“To that end, what this research shows is that older generations are definitely more appreciative of the efforts that companies can make,” Sakal explained. 

Amid this unprecedented environment this much is clear: what companies communicate to consumers, through both their actions and their advertising, will have lasting
effects. Participants of the Morning Consult special coronavirus report noted that messaging should be centred around informing and improving the situation, helping stakeholders rather than selling to them, all while remaining practical and sensitive. The consumers surveyed indicated an interest in not only how brands are taking care of and providing for them, but also how they are managing and protecting their employees by complying with safety and health measures. Consumers also want to be provided with useful updates on business operations and the availability of products and services, which can have real implications on their day-to-day lives. 

So far, only 13 percent of Americans polled strongly felt that companies shouldn’t be advertising during the pandemic. For the majority of Americans that do want companies to say something rather than nothing, messaging perceived as explicitly self-serving, situation-insensitive or situation-impractical should be avoided. Instead, brand messaging should be comforting and optimistic, demonstrating how team members are being treated and accentuating how company products and services can be used to combat the spread of the coronavirus and improve customer wellbeing. 

Three-quarters of those surveyed desired brand advertising with tones that are empathetic, safety-focused, honest and transparent, or were compassionate and kind. Results show that consumers are far more likely to be attracted to messaging that shows how the company’s products and services could be used to tackle the spread of coronavirus (DoorDash), or those that show how the company’s products and services could improve customers’ happiness and well-being during the pandemic (Hyundai, Ford), versus advertisements that do not address the pandemic at all (Seventh Generation). 

According to a survey from Advertiser Perceptions, nearly half of advertisers have either pulled a campaign or delayed the launch of a campaign because of the novel coronavirus. A third say they completely canceled a campaign pre-launch. Brands that build a solid foundation for long-term equity gains by managing business in a favorable way and engaging with customers compassionately will also position themselves as reliable. In a new report from Edelman, based on interviews with 12,000 people in several countries, 71 percent of respondents said that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever and 77 percent want brands to explain that they are aware of the crisis and the dramatic impact on people around the world. 

As you continue refining your crisis communications plan and stakeholder engagement activities, here are several tips for your consideration. 

Recommended Strategies for Branding, Positioning and Messaging

  1. Safeguard public health. Don’t allow an opportunity for a negligence accusation or lawsuit. Identify all possible pathways that the virus can spread and expose stakeholders. Manage those pathways aggressively to prevent/minimise exposure. 
  2. Build relationships with stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, allies, regulators and elected leaders. Listen, don’t be tone deaf and avoid humor. Be human. Be relevant and responsive. Survey stakeholders to find out what they need, what they think and what they are doing to evolve.
  3. Be a leader. Aimbridge Hospitality, which operates Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotels, is making rooms available to house and quarantine healthcare workers; New York City is paying. Embattled cruise companies like the Carnival Corporation have offered up ships as makeshift hospitals. Leaders develop solutions, offer resources, issue awards, produce best practices, and offer ongoing career education. This might be the right time to initiate some of those tactics. Leaders also earn media coverage that is relevant and meaningful. Don’t forget to monitor your competition during these times just to stay in tune and in step. In fact, there might be an opportunity or need for cooperation to help save lives.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, corporate and non-governmental organisational brands must figure out how they can help and what actions can be taken to help solve the crises. They must find ways to help stakeholders survive. Brands have an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of trust with employees, customers, and communities. The goal is to refocus individuals away from trauma and toward a better future for themselves and the business as well.

This article is part of a series of articles contributed by board members of WCFA.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Jon-Hans Coetzer
Dr. Jon-Hans Coetzer works as an independent consult specialising in Communication, Security Studies, Conflict Management, and Mediation. Some of his current projects include serving as the Chair of the International Development Group of the World Humanitarian Forum based in London, being the focal point for creating and delivering a series of Master Programmes in Peace, Conflict, and Security studies on behalf of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Geneva, in partnership with universities in Poland, Spain, France, Portugal, France, United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa.

Previous work includes managing several institutions of higher education across Europe. Facilitating Crisis Management training projects in collaboration with governments in Africa and Europe. Creating and delivering capacity development training initiatives and programmes for businesses and organisations focusing on Brand Reputation and Consumer Trust.

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