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Team Chat: Brand Communication in the Time of Coronavirus, Go Quiet or Get Involved?

7 min read
Mar 24, 2020

In times of crisis, communicating as a brand gets tricky. The current coronavirus pandemic is perhaps even harder for brands to navigate. Say something and risk looking like profiteers. Say nothing and risk looking indifferent. Marta Kuźma and David Street, our in-house branding enthusiasts, chat about the topic in depth.

[Editor’s note: Lightly edited for clarity and correctness]

David: So, we're here to talk about branding and brand purpose at this weird coronavirus time. Why us? Because around the office, we're the two writers that talk the most about branding.

Marta: Also, because it’s an opportunity to turn our philosophical discussions into something useful, rather than just creating white noise at the office.

David: Fair point. And also because each of us thinks differently about branding.

Marta: We will let you know, dear reader, when the “useful” part begins.

David: That is to say, we agree on a lot, but have a different starting point, but anyway, that'll come out as we talk.

So, to start, what you think about this latest Nike ad?

Marta: I think social media is flooded with infographics that talk about coronavirus in a serious way. How to wash your hands or why you should stay home. But people usually scroll through serious stuff and instructions: It’s not why they are on social media anyway. Thanks to brand activities like this one, staying home gets a bit more heroic and romantic. I think it speaks to the emotional brain, and that’s what we need now. Understanding statistics is sometimes not enough to act wisely.

David: So, I think we can agree that it's on-brand. It sounds like Nike. It's well written.

Marta: Yeah, agreed.

David: I'm certainly not going to disagree that people need something light right now. I'm watching a lot more cute animal videos (penguins going down stairs anyone?), and it's definitely helped me cope better. But I think the debate is about who it's coming from, right?

Marta: I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Cat memes are one thing, but this is something else. This is a brand using the connection it has with people, using the voice it has earned throughout the years, to lead by example.

I believe that’s exactly what brands should do nowadays. One comment read, “Very nice, pithy lines are not what we need right now.” I disagree. We should leave medical advice to medical professionals and economy charts to the data people.

David: Wow hey now, penguins going down stairs was way cooler than a cat meme.

But it's a gigantic for-profit company that doesn't always treat people very well. Do we really need branding messages produced by large agencies in NYC right at this moment? I'm not saying they should publish COVID-19 warnings or data. I'm saying they should just be quiet.

Marta: The marketers standing behind the brands can use their voices to spread messages, and I think it’s not only a nice way to use the brand’s power, but it’s a responsibility to use their reach in a smart and helpful way.

Marta: They don’t sell anything here, apart from their image.

David: So, the message itself is fine. Again, my problem isn't with how it's written or anything like that. But that's the point: They don't have to sell anything right now. They could just be quiet.

Marta: I think some people will treat this message more seriously than advice from medical professionals repeated every day in the news. Why is being quiet better, David?

David: Because there is too much communication right now. It's all too loud.

Marta: There is a lot of miscommunication about the current situation. I think the most important thing now is to make people understand they should stay home and wash their hands frequently. Why not let a copywriter or a brand make it sound more interesting?

David: The last thing I need right now is Nike strengthening their brand image. I know who they are. And even if I didn't, it would be better if they wait a couple of months before they tell me who they are.

Marta: I agree, but I don’t think the focus is on Nike here. I think they simply used the power behind their previous communication to make people understand how important staying home is. 

And I love it!

David: From a copywriting perspective, I like it too!

Maybe that was their intention. But how am I supposed to know that? It feels and looks like an advertisement. 

Marta: To me, it doesn’t. It’s just words, it’s reusing an existing conception of heroism to make people understand.

David: Maybe it's just a difference in how you and I interact with advertisements. I expect there to be a commercial incentive. I don't expect brands to act in my best interest unless they have a long history of supporting some certain cause. Then maybe through that cause, they'll act in my interest.

Good advice during a pandemic is not what I expect from Nike. I really only expect them to maximize profits. Which is fine! But this feels like them maximizing profits and not at the best time.

Marta: In my opinion, brands can engage in communication for various reasons. So to me, it’s using their wide reach to support the world in hard times. It’s a form of real-time marketing, of course.

David: Feels dirty.

Marta: So you think brands should not engage with audiences at all? Apart from selling? Because, bear in mind, brands have always included bigger messages in anything they communicate, whether it’s Dove convincing women they are all beautiful or Starbucks trying to improve the local community.

David: Of course they have to engage with people in all sorts of different ways: That's what marketing and branding are. But they should choose the message and the context very carefully. Otherwise, they end up sending the wrong message. They might even end up hurting their brand and their sales.

Marta: I think a brand’s purpose is something more than improving sales and raising profits. Each brand has a mission connected with some social issue or challenge of everyday life.

David: Some do. Most don't. Most are companies that exist only to make money. And that's fine. But they shouldn't pretend to be more.

Marta: Most companies don’t have well thought-out brands. But if they do, I think there is more to it than just making money. In my opinion, branding is supposed to not only unify the image of a company but create a well-defined world for both the company and its audience.

Like an alternative reality. Emotions, feelings, desires, and hopes connected with a sense of community.

David: And that's all great, but it all needs to be consistent with how they actually act. So, let’s take an example you mentioned: Starbucks.

In general, they're also not so great about following their mission with action. They say they're all about community but aggressively avoided paying local taxes for years. [Starbucks pays UK corporation tax of £8.1m]

But in this crisis, they seem like they actually care, and they aren't trying to sell anything with their messages.

Marta: On the other hand, they claim their goal is, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit.”

Now they offer therapy to their employees and their families. It seems on point considering the spreading panic and confusion.

David: Not paying local taxes is not on point. Unless you're trying to maximize profit, which, again, is fine.

Marta: That’s true.

David: But in this case, they're just giving the facts. They're taking good care of employees. Or it seems that way so far. So here, maybe that "community" tagline actually means something. If they keep this up for the next 20 years, I might actually believe they are sincere.

Marta: What did these brands do to you?!?