luxury industry | crisis | 7 min read

COVID-19: What Role Should Brands Play During a Crisis

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To date, it's estimated that around 20% of the global population is now under coronavirus lockdown, including India's 1.3bn population. We’re experiencing the most unique crisis in modern history, and confinement for the majority means adapting to a limited and restrictive lifestyle. Our lives are now temporarily void of normal physical routine and human interaction as it immediately translated within stock markets, industries and economies across the globe. 

The pandemic has and will continue to disrupt levels of consumption, so how can brands effectively respond to disoriented consumers? How can they positively impact consumers at this time to lower the long term impact of the crisis on their brand? 

This historical moment will be marked by the reactivity of all global brands, so we’re going to talk you through some of the temporary emerging trends to understand the challenges facing us in the near future. This article is a part of our COVID-19 series and will explore the immediate changes in consumption and consequent brand responses.

It’s time to be flexible, responsive and united.

Offer more to your consumers

As we lack usual physical and social interactions during this time, omnichannel and e-commerce purchasing is providing a critical opportunity for brands to analyze consumer behavior and responsiveness during confinement.

At this very moment Gen Z, Millennials and Boomers are sharing more screen time than ever before. Virgin Media reported daytime usage in the UK to have more than doubled since enforcing lockdown. Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and YouTube were all forced to reduce streaming quality in Europe to mitigate the increased levels of consumption.

E-commerce takes the lead

While millions are collectively adapting to home study and work from home, the online world is our new reality for the upcoming months. E-commerce has emerged as one of the immediate winners in this crisis and serves to satisfy our consumption needs...but for how long?

China just announced an anticipated lift on Wuhan’s lockdown on April 8. As life very slowly returns to normality, it reminds the rest of the world that there is in fact life after COVID-19. E-commerce drove China’s “stay-at-home economy” according to an analysis released by the Chinese government and the likes of JD.com and Alibaba e-commerce giants. They reported a surge in fresh produce and consumer essentials that drove China’s online retail sales of physical goods by 3 percent in just 2 months. Consumers ordered more cleaning supplies and hygiene products, fewer fashion and discretionary items, and less takeout food. While sales of pajamas, yoga mats and kitchen utensils soared. Interestingly International Women’s day saw sales of lipsticks increase, driven by at home live streaming.

Digital brands across Europe and the US are reacting as quickly as possible to the current situation by offering, among other things, spontaneous promotions. The clothing retail site ASOS adapted its homepage and style feed to aid a population under confinement to pass their time in comfort. It also introduces an exclusive 20 percent discount on all items when purchased through the mobile application. Editor picks now conveniently display self-care products, home accessories, activewear, and group chat party looks - because staying in is the new going out. 

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To meet the increase in online shopping Amazon hired 100,000 new employees in its US warehouses and delivery workforce. Millions of people are turning to online shopping to purchase out of stock items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. But are also inadvertently aiding independent sellers and local businesses. Today they make up 58 percent of Amazon’s physical gross merchandise, keeping them afloat in this time of crisis.

The flexibility of e-commerce at this time is becoming increasingly uncertain as more and more areas of the world begin their lockdown phase. The strain on agriculture, manufacturing, supply chains, and delivery services is yet to be seen.

Evangelizing through 'freemium'

This destabilizing period has also been a profound moment for digital players to give back to audiences. Streaming companies are taking this opportunity to trial free online services for 30 days, with the goodwill gesture providing huge opportunities to evangelize new audiences in the wake of the outbreak.

Adult entertainment website Pornhub was quick to come to the aid of Italiens in lockdown by providing month-long premium access to their site, free of charge. A week later it proposed the same gesture to France and Spain before a global hand out starting March 24. The site created a special ‘stay home’ landing page, while scientists bid to ‘flatten the curve’ with an extensive campaign. In addition to helping audiences, Pornhub is donating $25,000 to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, 15,000 surgical masks for first responder emergency medical technicians and paramedics of the New York Fire Department and tens of thousands to other emergency responders. It also donated €50,000 to various European organizations to purchase additional masks. 

In the US, streaming company Sling TV launched the "Stay in & SLING!" initiative. It provides American families with free access to local news and entertainment. Airtime Media Inc, a social streaming platform innovated its offering for younger audiences, helping them to stay connected in confinement. It created a Chrome extension Netflix Watch Party, free of charge, allowing users to watch their favorite shows in unison with their friends with a sidebar chat.

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For the millions of employees and key workers still able to work, instant messaging and videoconferencing is a key component of their operations. While you expect those working from home to benefit most from communication platforms, Microsoft understood it could play a vital role in supporting health workers. On March 20 it provided NHS workers in England and Scotland, remote, in action and in self-isolation to use its instant messaging platform free of charge, for the duration of the crisis. It hopes that its integrated platform of workplace chat, video conferencing, file storage and collaboration will help to streamline communication between medical professionals, by efficiently and securely sharing information on patients with the virus. Facebook also offered its premium version of the Workplace chat service, to emergency and government services for the next 12 months, free of charge.

The freemium strategy itself is not a new concept and albeit corporate philanthropy, is a great way to maximize brand equity and create new customers in the long term. We’re seeing the terms purposeful brands and brand reassurance scrawled across the internet in this period, but the fact remains, amidst a global crisis brands will be remembered for their actions.

Addressing audiences with specific needs

As we’ve seen in the media, a crisis can play a positive and negative role in particular sectors. But it's also given rise to new and changing consumption habits. In the same way freemium targets new consumers, brands need to reach out to their existing customers in new ways since usual avenues are no longer available to them.

The vulnerable and elderly

Although it seems brands can offer the most to younger tech-savvy consumers, it's an extremely important period for brands to cater to their offline customers. The most at-risk community during this confinement are the elderly who solely rely on offline, physical shopping. In the United Kingdom, supermarket retailers created exclusive shopping hours for elderly and vulnerable shoppers to minimize their contact with the wider community, but also to alleviate the pressure of missing essential items since consumers began panic buying.

Asda, and Tesco among others are catering to the over-70s during the lockdown. Tesco every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for an hour, allow exclusive access to the elderly and the vulnerable. NHS workers are also given an hour ahead of usual opening hours. Sainburys adopted the same measures but also catered to elderly and vulnerable customers that can access online shopping. Online customers, with a disability and over 70 years, from March 23, can benefit from priority access to online delivery slots.

Our adoption of online services will play a vital role in restructuring the norms around purchasing for all generations and will open up new relationships with brands. As Sainburys demonstrated, there can be a way to integrate, empower and prioritize usually offline audiences by making their purchasing routes or access to services as easy as possible.

Your usual audiences cannot be addressed in the same way, while impacted by this new confined lifestyle. And one of the first to suffer are women.

Women on the front line

As in every crisis, women are carers, maternal figures, and key workers and will be uniquely affected by the pandemic. Today, women in the US make up 76 percent of healthcare jobs;  and 85 percent of nurses, who are simultaneously front line workers, are female. It’s also important to remember the domestic abuse sufferers currently confined with their partners. According to Axios, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the local police tripled in February compared to the previous year in China. It begs the question, can brands be doing more to support women?

Anxious consumers

There is only so much a brand or corporation can do to truly impact the suffering of groups through discounts and freemium services but any material, logistical or psychological support can help to alleviate pressure.

As this pandemic continues to be shrouded in uncertainty, the levels of stress and anxiety in our lives continue to mount. Health and wellness have addressed this need by providing free premium services. Popular meditation app Headspace offered its premium membership to all health care professionals in the US for the duration of 2020.

For people outside the health industry, the brand created a new collection of content to aid the management of stress and anxiety including sleep, meditation and movement exercises. 

Flexibility, solidarity, but above all an acute and reactive understanding of life in confinement

As in any new and unprecedented situation, companies will have to be authentic in the presentation of their offer, and flexible in the face of rapid change during this period. Beware of missteps, and remain customer centric during this unique confinement.

The biggest take away from this pandemic is listening to your consumers’ temporary shift and lifestyle and new emerging needs. Increase your understanding in real-time, by following day by day and even minute by minute evolutions across the globe.

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