'Marcomms must lead by example': how should brands be communicating during the pandemic?

As the world tackles the first truly global health emergency of the 21st century, what we say and do now will have long-term repercussions that open brands up to acclaim, ignominy and everything in between.

Brands can be a force for good or a source of discontent. As communicators, it is our categorical imperative to strike that fine balance.

In this era of everything, with content and information available round the clock, consumers have become savvier. They are looking for brands who embody their value system. If brands want to be a part of the conversation surrounding COVID-19, they will have to go beyond platitudes and start with real action.

In the pre COVID-19 era, people didn’t care if 74 per cent of the brands they use every day just disappeared, while 75 per cent expected brands to contribute more to our wellbeing and quality of life, according to the Global Advertising Federation’s “Meaningful Brands” study from 2017.

Now, according to research published this year by Kantar, the London-based data insights and consulting company, amid this global crisis, only 8 per cent of people think that brands should stop communicating, while 78 percent of consumers now believe that brands should proactively help us with our 'new normal'.

Given this new sentiment, hasty or ill-considered communications strategies, or even opting for the safe approach – to not communicate at all for fear of coming across disingenuous – could jeopardise a brand’s reputation.

Businesses and governments must seriously examine their resources, their strengths and assets and make selfless decisions about how they can help society – whether in the form of donations, diverting manufacturing towards healthcare or simply sending their employees to work from home for their own, and wider society’s, safety.

The world over, people’s lives and their milieus have been affected. Brands need to recognise the magnitude of these changes and respond accordingly. People are learning new habits, living with uncertainty and fear about the future as the crisis unravels. But a silver lining has been the increase of organic engagement and communication among people, from trans-national family video conferences to whole neighborhoods singing and clapping in solidarity.

The marcomms industry must lead by example, and that means rethinking what we offer to our clients and avoiding tone-deaf communication. Right now, communication needs to come from a place of empathy, compassion and humility. Brands need to show their human side and give back in response to a great humanitarian crisis.

Nimati Alemam is director, strategic advisory at APCO Worldwide, MENA


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