Do brands have an obligation to fight the coronavirus?

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Apr 10, 2020
Tom Ryan

Actions more than words are wanted from brands amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new global survey from Edelman, the public relations firm.

According to a survey of 12,000 consumers taken between March 23 and 26:

  • Sixty-five percent said how brands respond to the pandemic will have a “huge impact” on their likelihood to buy their products;
  • Sixty-two percent agreed that their country would not make it through the crisis without brands playing a “critical role” in the fight against the coronavirus;
  • Ninety percent want brands to partner with government and relief agencies to address the crisis;
  • Eighty-nine percent said brands should shift to producing products that help people meet the new challenges presented by the virus, and/or offer free or lower-priced products to health workers or other high-risk individuals;
  • Fifty-two percent of said brands “must” foremost protect the well-being and financial security of their employees, even if it means suffering big financial losses. Thirty-eight percent “hoped” brands would do this.

The survey comes as scores of brands across many industries have reconfigured operations to manufacture masks, scrubs, hand sanitizers and respiratory devices for medical workers. Companies have also been providing free meals to healthcare personnel and first responders as well as making donations to food banks.

Edelman’s survey also found that consumers want to hear about COVID-19 responses. Eighty-nine percent want companies to keep the public fully informed regarding how the brand is supporting and protecting their employees and customers.

Other expectations for brands:

  • Eighty-four percent expect brands to be a reliable news source, keeping people informed about the virus and the progress being made in the fight against it;
  • Eighty-four percent want advertising to focus on how brands help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges;
  • Eighty-three expect brands to connect people and help them stay emotionally close.

“There is no rapid return to normal,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, in a statement. “The new world will have trust at its core, with the brand mandate expanded to solve problems for all, protect all, care for all, collaborate with all and innovate in the public interest.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How have consumer expectations for brands been altered by the coronavirus pandemic? Do you agree with Mr. Edelman that a brand’s mission is, among other things, to “solve problems for all, protect all, care for all, collaborate with all and innovate in the public interest”?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Literally serving 'all' might be a stretch, but 'all' are served when the right example is set. "
"Yes, I think brands have something to win by giving back here — whether that means manufacturing PPE, donating, etc."
"In times of crisis people revert to “safe spaces” and comfortable routines. For many consumers that translates into brands."

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22 Comments on "Do brands have an obligation to fight the coronavirus?"

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Richard Hernandez

I think consumers want to know that the brands they purchase are taking COVID-19 seriously and contributing to help mitigate and contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies have done well so far in communicating the changes they have made to keep their employees safe and working. I believe a lot of learning will come from discovering our blind spots, creating a plan of action as things keep changing and determining how to communicate this to our employees and customers.

David Naumann

Consumers’ expectations for brands and also every company and every person have changed to reflect the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. Many brands have stepped up to the challenge and pivoted their production lines to produce things they have never produced – hand sanitizers, mask, gowns and even ventilators (auto manufacturers). Consumers also expect all messaging to be sensitive to the current environment. When thing get back to “normal” consumers will remember the brands that did the right things and will consciously or subconsciously reward them with their loyalty.

Doug Garnett

Nicely said. I’d use a broad term to describe it: Consumers respect the brands which act responsibly. That especially means not dashing after “fads” or superficial ideas — but those things which we are quickly realizing matter most.

Jeff Sward

Brands have an obligation to protect employee and customer welfare and the future long term liquidity of the business. How a brand behaves and executes throughout this whole scenario quickly becomes part of their brand promise, for better or worse. It’s about both the actions they take and the example they set. Literally serving “all” might be a stretch, but “all” are served when the right example is set. Good examples are magnifiers and multipliers. Support can be contagious. Doing the next right thing can have different interpretations, but the market will ultimately evaluate how any given brand performed.

Suresh Chaganti
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
5 months 13 days ago

I think some of the biggest retailers in the business – Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft – have access and capabilities to do much more in terms of pulling out all the stops to help fight coronavirus. But their response is muted compared to what they could have been doing. So they have barely met expectations.

For the rest, most of them responded as expected – extending free offers for three to four months, not being tone deaf in marketing.

The front line retail grocers have done exceedingly well.

After all this is done, I don’t think anyone will get a lasting advantage based on their coronavirus response.

Art Suriano
This is not an easy question to answer. Some businesses are in better shape financially and can make products that can be helpful at this time. Other companies cannot. To say that every business should focus only on supporting the fight against coronavirus, I think is a little unfair. How does the small restaurant who is barely surviving with takeout only orders contribute? Okay, they can provide free food for healthcare workers, indeed a nice gesture, but wait a minute — they’re still paying their employees and haven’t furloughed anyone. So are they helping to fight the pandemic? Not really. Each business has to do what is right for them. Yes manufacturers capable of making masks and other equipment should be doing so provided they can and without risk to their survival. I want to point out that when this is all over, we are going to be looking at: what was done, was it the right thing to do, did we do enough, or did we do too much? We will see many companies… Read more »
Zel Bianco

The CEO of Pepsi was on MSNBC yesterday morning along with Lady Gaga and the CEO of IBM talking about the One World benefit concert that will be held on April 18th. This is a perfect example of how a CPG company and their enormous resources, IBM with plan to donate $20 million to coders that develop apps that are of value to society and Lady Gaga who is doing her part to get big names in music to perform, are coming together to do their part. Brands are always looking for ways to connect to consumers and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to show the world you truly care.

Harley Feldman

Most brands have been very good at communicating to their customers expectations altered by the pandemic. This important communication increases the trust consumers place in the brands they buy. However, I disagree with Mr. Edelman’s statement that brands should “solve problems for all, protect all and care for all.” As the pandemic winds down and business gets back to normal, consumers will return to features and price with less focus on solving problems for all.

Paula Rosenblum

I know that the American public has become short attention span theater, but I do think many of us will not forget.

It has surprised me to see the companies that have emerged as “good guys, ”like Walmart. Speaking as one consumer who felt she was “above”, it and Target are becoming my go-tos, with Amazon falling behind significantly. Values are important.

Dick Seesel

No amount of risk assessment would have prepared most consumer-facing companies for the impact of the pandemic, whether they are on the front lines like Amazon and Walmart or largely shut down like Macy’s or Kohl’s. But there is only so much an individual private-sector company can do without government coordination — even a company like Walmart used to dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters.

Doug McMillon from Walmart was asked pointedly this morning about all those testing sites touted at the White House a few weeks ago. He said that the company will have 20 sites in 10 states soon — hardly what the country needs right now, but Walmart seems powerless to do much about it when they are trying hard just to manage their own supply chain.

Gene Detroyer

I think I am having problems with the terminology. “Sixty-two percent agreed that their country would not make it through the crisis without brands playing a ‘critical role’ in the fight against the coronavirus.”

Brands, as I define them, have no role in the fight. Companies do. Their role is as follows. NUMBER 1: they should protect their workers. NUMBER 2: they should change production to meet the needs of the healthcare providers.

The last thing I want to see is an ad by Chevy telling how they converted to making ventilators or some apparel brand touting how they are making PPEs. Let the news media take care of that.

Craig Sundstrom

Yes: “doing right” without (being seen as) bragging about it is a challenge. During WWII this was handled by discrete ads imploring people to unite … (still) getting one’s name out without being obvious about it; of course that was over a much longer time frame (at least I hope it turns out to be!)

Steve Dennis

I like Seth Godin’s definition of a brand: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” A huge part of any brand’s asset value is the story we tell ourselves about it and that causes it to be–as I talk about in my new book–literally remarkable. Another big part of a brand’s value is trust.

Retailers that do things to create a better story for customers to tell themselves and others–that build trust–are not only doing the right thing, they are doing the smart thing.

Ryan Mathews
Consumer expectations about everything have been altered by the pandemic. We just naturally focus on brands. In times of crisis people revert to “safe spaces” and comfortable routines. For many consumers that translates into brands. While, with all due respect, Mr. Edelman’s comments — broad and majestic as they are — overshoot the mark a bit. I may love Crest toothpaste, and expect it to deliver on its promise of improved dental health, but I can’t realistically expect it to protect me or care for me as an individual. Better, I think, to focus on how brands actually engage with consumers, and focus on the slightly more tangible benefits they can deliver. I may well turn to Clorox for accurate cleaning and sanitation information, but I don’t expect the Clorox Wipes brand manager to come tuck me into bed or hold my hand. So what does that look like in practice? Let’s take Clorox, whose products are essentially unavailable where I live or online. Good for them for making sure their products are going where… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Brand messaging has not been this critical since probably 9/11. You must be sensitive to the crisis, show how you are helping and not be salesy.

Ed Rosenbaum

Consumers will remember those brands that resonate with them during this pandemic. They will support them after the problem has ended and allowed us to return to whatever the new normal will be.

John Karolefski

Many major CPG brands have contributed millions of dollars to those in need during the pandemic. Some have contributed food and drink to low-income families. Those receiving aid will not — and should not — forget which brands helped them when it mattered most.

Heidi Sax

Yes, I think brands have something to win by giving back here — whether that means manufacturing PPE, donating, etc.

That said, brands are one thing. For retailers to win right now, they have to be better able than peers to serve shoppers’ immediate needs. Creating stores environments or observing practices that shoppers perceive as safe/clean and making product available (in whatever capacity they can) will be what stays in consumers’ heads.

Joe Skorupa

Brands should only help fight the pandemic if they want to remain relevant with their customers. Here is a short list of retailer donations to pandemic causes: Walmart ($25 million), Lowe’s ($25 million), Amazon ($20 million), Ralph Lauren ($10 million), Target ($10 million), Ahold Delhaize ($10 million), and Kroger ($3 million). Many other retailers are pledging to match donations made by shoppers and donating face masks, sanitizing supplies, ventilators, sending meals to healthcare responders (Stop & Shop), and donating rubber shoes (Crocs) to healthcare workers.

Shep Hyken

A brand must participate in smart retailing, which includes keeping their employees and customers safe. Consumers expect the places they have done business with to be a safe place to do business. While consumers may have taken that for granted in the past, today it’s a recognized expectation. A negligent brand could find themselves in the middle of a PR crisis if they are not careful.

Craig Sundstrom

Honestly, what I get from this is not to place much faith in consumer surveys, particularly ones taken during the middle of a crisis … “brands ‘must’…even if they suffer big financial losses” How noble — and convenient! — to decide how the burden should be shared.

OK, rant over (was it actually a rant?) My advice to everyone, firm or individual: try to do the right thing — as you see it — and don’t worry about the PR spin.

Sterling Hawkins

It’s not an obligation for brands to help. There’s no government order or executive decree (for the majority, anyway). But how brands handle this will color them for the foreseeable future and they would be very wise to support their customers and community.

I had a personal example of this the other day. I haven’t thought twice about my car insurance (especially since I’m not driving nearly as much as I was). But I get an email from the CEO of Geico (I’m sure it was personal 😉 saying that they were giving all their customers a discount since traffic accidents and other car-related incidents are way down. I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t necessarily even need it. But the loyalty I now have to Geico is forever changed.

As brands can “solve problems for all, protect all, care for all, collaborate with all and innovate in the public interest” they certainly should. Not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

"Literally serving 'all' might be a stretch, but 'all' are served when the right example is set. "
"Yes, I think brands have something to win by giving back here — whether that means manufacturing PPE, donating, etc."
"In times of crisis people revert to “safe spaces” and comfortable routines. For many consumers that translates into brands."

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