Recently, HawkPartners undertook an informal review of personal brand experiences during the pandemic. The results of this survey were illustrative and provide key lessons with respect to managing your brand experience during a prolonged crisis. In a nutshell, both positive and negative experiences point to two key elements for brands to consider during both the current crisis and future crises – authentic empathy and action.
While almost all brands have, in some manner, told us that they feel our pain in these uncertain times (a message so uniform and ubiquitous that it can be difficult to tell many ads apart), the brands that stood out the most are the ones that authentically reflected empathy of the difficulties of living in the present moment.
For some, airlines have reflected a sensitivity to the perils of routine travel (such as limited seating and stringent mask enforcement) that had largely been absent from their brand-building before the pandemic. As one colleague put it, “it’s almost as if they’ve been forced to care” resulting in empathy that feels inauthentic. For other brands, the pandemic has helped them to refocus on a single core attribute that, while epitomizing the brand, had tended to get lost in the shuffle over the years. For example, Dominos has focused on being delivery experts at a time when efficient, safe delivery has become the lifeblood of the economy. For these and other brands, the impact is one of authentic empathy.
On the flip side, certain hotel chains seem to be more tone-deaf during this time. One colleague (a long-time reward member) received an offer of a free night for multiple stays – with absolutely no indication of what the hotel chain would be doing to make them feel comfortable about staying in a hotel during a pandemic. Brands that communicate as if nothing has changed during a time of monumental upheaval, fear, and uncertainty fail to show empathy for the customer during this difficult time.
In short, empathy, particularly when it is authentic, goes a long way when brands are communicating with their target audiences by demonstrating how they understand critical pain points in our new normal.
"Empathy, particularly when it is authentic, goes a long way when brands are communicating with their target audiences by demonstrating how they understand critical pain points in our new normal."
The most striking example of brands that have stood out since the onset of the pandemic are those that have taken concrete action. These actions have cut across a wide variety of areas:
Brands such as Trader Joe’s and CVS show that they are taking the pandemic seriously by taking concrete steps to keep their customers safe – social distancing guidelines and in-store policies that are simple and enforceable stood out. These basic, yet important steps showed a level of care for customers that helps foster even greater loyalty.
Evolving the business:
Many brands have been forced to adapt their business models due to the pandemic, and those that have done so in a value-add way have stood out. Retailers such as Target, Safeway, and Best Buy have optimized the curbside pickup experience, the Sundance festival has shifted completely online while still commanding a premium, Netflix has developed features like Watch Party to enable the communal experience while apart. These brands and others have quickly evolved and adapted to show grit and ingenuity that engenders loyalty.
Brands such as Amazon, Frito Lay, and others have communicated their ability to hire during the highest unemployment rate in our lifetimes. Similarly, Walmart shows not only that employment now can lead to long-term security, but also that its executives know the business from the ground up (back to empathy). In fact, many restaurants, while struggling to maintain regular staff, have set up entirely new logistics for takeout and curbside processes that have resulted in either hiring new employees or keeping existing employees on the payroll.
Brands that have focused on meaningful charities have stood out as being particularly sensitive to the unique needs created by the pandemic. For example, retailers like Banana Republic have given away clothes for job interviews. This type of action engenders customer loyalty.
"The most striking example of brands that have stood out since the onset of the pandemic are those that have taken concrete action."
Ultimately, the strongest brands during the pandemic have been those that demonstrated their authentic empathy through their actions in a way that solidified their bond, not only with their target audiences, but also with the wider communities in which they operate. If the opinions of our team are any indication, these authentic, empathic actions can have an incredible impact.