Beth Thompson
27/04/20

The good, the bad and the ugly of brand comms during COVID-19

The good, the bad and the ugly of brand comms during COVID-19

It’s a tricky time for brands - companies of all kinds know they need to keep their products or services in the mind of the public for when things return to normal, but staying in touch is fraught with danger when so many consumers are going through the worst times of their lives, facing bereavement, illness, money worries and job loss, the stress of juggling childcare and work, or even just the loneliness of working from home with a social life on hold.

Consumers are savvy to the agendas of companies, and can spot insincere comms a mile off, and in the age of social media a miss-step can lead to a Twitter storm and a huge dent in brand loyalty. So how can we strike the balance?

The good

IKEA demonstrated that you can link your comms to the crisis without shoehorning, but still retain your fun brand persona, by releasing a “flatpack” set of instructions on how people can make its famous meatballs at home.

Lush, which has more than 100 stores across the UK, announced in the early days of coronavirus that passersby could enter any store to wash their hands. A very simple but inspired way of encouraging footfall into shops and helping to spread a key message about containment of the virus. The brand went a step further by creating a soap “record” that plays Happy Birthday, reminding people to wash their hands for the entirety of two renditions of the song.

The bad

The travel industry has been one of the most impacted by the spread of coronavirus, with over 40 carriers grounding their entire fleets and many airlines grounding up to 90% of all scheduled trips, so it’s understandable that there has been confusion - the situation is truly unprecedented.

However a quick Twitter scroll shows how much back and forth there has been over whether cancelled flights are being refunded, or customers are being given vouchers. Many airlines are on the receiving end of customer annoyance, and there are plenty of negatively framed press articles suggesting airlines are sitting on customer’s money at a time when many have been left out of work. Confusing messages are an absolute comms no no - customers just need to be given the right and most up to date info in all cases.

A number of airlines all still appear to be offering travel vouchers instead of cash refunds, attracting more disgruntled tweets from UK customers, and negative press, by the day.

The ugly

As consumers, sometimes we all receive or see comms from a brand and feel baffled as to how it made it past the ideas stage, but if you’re a consumer who works in PR or comms yourself the confusion is double as you are so aware of how vital it is to “read the room”, understand customer sentiment and ensure you’re not going against the grain.

A key positive of the corona crisis is a renewed sense of community, with people pitching in to help previously anonymous neighbours, whether in a practical sense or offering a listening ear. People are becoming more patient with each other, and understanding that we all have different pressures - basically, there’s a lot of love in the room.

Despite this, some brands are still unable to put an empathetic heart at the centre of their comms, still opting for corporate language and demonstrating no appreciation of the difficulties customers could be facing.

An example was an email received from a catalogue site. Consumers can purchase items on the modern-day equivalent of a store card/credit account, and pay each month towards the balance. The overly formal and cold email subject line was a bad start, and unfortunately, things didn’t improve.

After the token “we are here to help” it turned out that the main crux of the email was reminding people they still need to pay their monthly amount, and advising on other ways they can do so if they usually pay in person. The company is in fact offering payment freezes to particularly vulnerable customers, but doesn’t mention this in the email.

After a cold reminder of ways to pay, the email goes into corporate-speak overdrive. It’s unlikely that customers know or frankly care that the company is FCA regulated, and the robotic tone gives no reassurance or warmth.

Unsympathetic or overly corporate brand communication isn’t advisable at the best of times, but during a global pandemic, it’s a real customer loyalty killer. When everything goes back to normal and customers are spending again, will these customers feel like they want to reward the support they received, or will they move on to another company?

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