Rashmi Berry
Guest Article

Brand communication beyond COVID washing

How can brands build relational communication that is relevant to the current situation, while being differentiated and authentic?

We call it COVID washing - the broad brush-strokes of ‘wash your hands, stay safe’ communication by brands across categories over the last few months. While this may have been effective in the first few weeks of the crisis, it may be time for brands to move beyond it, unless you’re operating in the health, hygiene or other related categories.

'To communicate or not to?' is the big challenge facing many brands today. Reeling under a huge revenue hit, budget cuts and an unpredictable year ahead, the business case for going media dark till consumption picks up is a strong one. However, an extended radio silence would put brands on the back foot once demand picks up. More so, if competing brands continue to be visible and engage with their consumers.

A focus on relational communication may be the best way forward. Which brings us to the next question. How can brands build relational communication that is relevant to the current situation, while being differentiated and authentic? There’s no doubt that brands need to navigate this space with caution, sensitivity, and consumer or community well-being in mind.

A recent Edelman survey on ‘Brand trust and the Coronovirus pandemic’ reveals 84 per cent of the respondents want brands to help them better cope with pandemic-related life challenges.

This is a time for brands to dig deep and focus on the higher order benefits they bring to consumers and communities, and relate these with current consumer needs and need gaps. There are numerous ways in which the crisis has impacted our physical and emotional states. Beyond the increased concern for health and hygiene, there is a growing environmental consciousness and appreciation for nature. Indians, across the board, have stepped up to champion social causes and support less privileged communities. Consumers are experiencing financial stress as a result of decreased incomes, salaries and lay-offs. They are grappling with the increased workload at home in the absence of domestic help. Many are indulging in or discovering hobbies and passions lost in the daily mayhem of work and life. They are faced with the daily challenge of keeping children active and engaged while out of school. The reliance on technology has increased exponentially, forming the backbone of how we live, work and play. A shared crisis, has brought families, friends and colleagues closer, staying more in touch via voice and video calls than ever before.

All these present numerous possibilities for brands to create meaningful and impactful relationships with their consumers. Relating these consumer needs with your brands' emotional or social benefits will help (brands) to develop differentiated and on-brand communication, with the intent of making a real and meaningful impact in their (consumers) life.

British Telecom (BT) public service education campaign ‘Beyond Limits: Top Tips on Tech’ is a great example. Informed by Google trends, the campaign provides daily tips to consumers on how to get the most from technology with themes ranging from using WhatsApp features to keeping children safe online. It's also very much in line with BT’s positioning as a ‘national enabler’.

Adidas’s hugely successful #HomeTeam initiative aimed at helping people to stay active while at home, gives free access to its running and training apps online, along with daily content presented by sports celebrities from across the globe. The campaign has accelerated the shift to online sales, as more stores shut down.

Closer home, Fevicreate and Momspresso’s user generated content campaign #IndiaCraftingMemories is built on the insight that people are looking for unique, fun ways to keep children engaged, and create fun memories for the family.

This is also a time for companies to put their brand purpose (higher order emotional or social benefits consumers derive from choosing your brand) into action. Whether your brand purpose is livelihood sustainability, education, poverty alleviation, environment, gender equality, health, protecting child rights, women’s safety... each of these are relevant in the context of the current pandemic. This would be the right time for a fashion brand to build a campaign around sustainability, with themes ranging from promoting sustainable fabrics to livelihood sustainability programs for crafts communities, or for an IT company to support initiatives and lifestyle changes for environmental protection.

Each of these programs offers the opportunity to engage and involve your consumers over the long-term through donations, volunteering, spreading the message, etc., making your consumer interactions richer and genuinely impactful.

Aligning the organisation or brand to a higher order purpose is not something new. Over the last decade, a number of organisations, from Unilever to Marico, have built impactful programs at scale around their brand purpose. The current crisis further strengthens the case for building an authentic brand purpose. Even as we begin the slow process of #unlocking from this crisis - caution, sensitivity, authenticity and a genuine interest in the well-being of your consumers and communities may be the guiding principles for brand communication for some time to come.

(The author is founder and managing partner at BrandStory Consult, a brand strategy and content marketing consultancy.)