During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding shutdown of many elements of the U.S. economy, several brands attempted to position themselves as leaders in a time of crisis. To identify which brands’ actions resonated with consumers, HawkPartners conducted a study to understand the importance of brand authenticity during a crisis. Respondents were asked about their perceptions and reactions to brands’ actions during the crisis and evaluated the authenticity of companies actively marketing in response to COVID-19.

As marketers consider how to define their roles during this time, our findings suggest consumers increasingly want brands to take stands and assert their values. Below, we detail some of the study’s key findings that are critical for brands.

Values that make a difference

Demonstrating authenticity is the best way to gain consumers’ trust, particularly in times of crisis. According to the study, 6 in 10 consumers said that authenticity is more important in the current COVID-19 environment than it was prior to the outbreak. We hypothesize that this is due to a combination of consumers paying more attention to brands generally and increased engagement and awareness with respect to current events.

There are key values in brand and strategic communications that enhance authenticity, which are vital for brands to be strong both during and after a crisis. In our inaugural Brand Authenticity Index, we identified these values as Brutal Honesty, Unapologetic Transparency, Constant Consistency, Values-Driven, Explicit Morality and Being an Expression of Who I Am.

In the current study, honesty was rated as the most important brand characteristic by a wide margin, followed by consistency and transparency. This suggests that in times of crisis, consumers are focused even more on the values that are building blocks of brand relationships.

Action matters

Meanwhile, 40 percent of consumers said that they are actively paying more attention to what brands are doing in the current environment than they were prior to the pandemic.  This demonstrates elevated expectations of, and attention to, brands in this crisis.

Time and again we’ve heard from clients who are hesitant to boast about actions they are taking, citing concerns that self-praise is not praise at all. However, our research shows that consumers want to hear about these actions, and brands shouldn’t be so shy or humble. It is incumbent on marketing leaders to highlight these actions and raise awareness of the tangible impact their brands are having on communities. Doing so significantly increases the likelihood that consumers will support the brand.

Indeed, after we shared with respondents examples of brand efforts to assist with COVID-19, the perceived authenticity of those brands jumped. This suggests that sharing/marketing the actions that companies are taking, which consumers tell us is even more important than usual, directly impacts their perceived authenticity and, accordingly, improves trust.

We also tested specific brand actions to see what concrete steps brands could take to increase perceived authenticity. We learned that respondents want to see brands contribute to the fight against COVID-19 by making moral and ethical decisions consistent with their brand’s values and ignoring what may be considered purely economic business decisions. With an audience looking for action, consumers expect brands to help in any of several ways, including cutting prices, supporting healthcare workers, re-purposing their supply chain, and/or donating money.

Changing perceptions

For the healthcare industry specifically, there is a substantial positive shift in perception when consumers learned about actions companies have taken in response to the pandemic. When shown this information, consumers’ perceptions of healthcare companies’ authenticity significantly improved.

For example, 36 percent of consumers perceived increased authenticity of healthcare companies after they were educated about specific actions taken due to COVID-19. In addition, due to the socially conscious actions that healthcare companies have taken in the wake of the pandemic, 68 percent of consumers now have a somewhat or very favorable opinion of the industry, a marked increase in favorability from past levels.

 

In this time where an initial crisis is shifting to a newly defined normal, consumers are paying more attention to what brands are doing and they reward brands that wear those values proudly. By taking actions that directly support these values, brands demonstrate their authenticity and better engage with and connect with consumers. As everything in our economy and our lives is re-shaped, so too are the connections brands and consumers create, and authenticity is one of the most important ways to create connections in the new normal.

For more on the 2019 Brand Authenticity Index findings, click here.