Outform’s Simon Hathaway: brands in the pandemic – the good, the bad and the ugly

What a difference a quarter makes. While 2019 remained gloomy for the high street, some positives still reared their heads – there were record Black Friday sales and consumer sentiment improved.

Then in one fell swoop, nearly all marketing plans were shelved thanks to coronavirus. In their stead, brands have rushed back to the drawing board. The result? Brand awareness campaigns. Lots of them.

This period is unquestionably a tempest through which brands must delicately sail. And staying relevant in a time of wholesale upheaval is no small feat, but no less important for businesses hoping to stay afloat.

Understandably several brands have opted for short-term gestures to tide themselves over; some have hit the right tone while others have missed the mark entirely. But there have also been some standout performances.

Here’s my take on the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

LVMH, normally associated with high-end fashion, posh spirits drinks and distinctive scent, nailed it by being quick off the mark to convert its perfume production lines to start making hand sanitiser gels.

Adorning Lush’s shop windows with guidance on hand sanitation guidelines as advised by the NHS also deserves a special mention. It shows an excellent use of its physical destination to meaningfully support its customers.

WH Smith partnered with Sainsbury’s to stock 90 more of the latter’s ‘essential’ products across its in-hospital stores – including toilet rolls and long-life products.

All clearly on-brand, striking the right tone and proactive in using their assets to get stuck in. Lovely.

The Bad

McDonald’s Brazil, Coca-Cola, Audi, Mastercard and many more have reimagined their visual brand assets to convey social distancing messages. McDonald’s’ golden arches conforming to the 2m rule still makes me feel uncomfortable, even weeks after the fact.

It could be worse, though, had brands adopted the idea of one creative director in Slovenia, who played around with the names of famous brands like LinkedIn (‘Locked In’), Good Year (‘Bad Year’) and Nike (‘Just Don’t Do It’).

Opportunistic, tone deaf and with little tangible outcome for people who are really struggling. Not so lovely.

The Ugly

We also cannot ignore the things brands aren’t doing or didn’t do.

There’s no question Mike Ashley is the retail equivalent of Marmite: in some quarters, he’s a genius; in others, he’s the figurehead of all that’s wrong with business. Sports Direct refusing to close will only serve to generate more anti-Ashley converts.

Meanwhile, online fashion chain Asos’ refusal to stop operations at its warehouses was particularly bad – some employees complained of insufficient space to socially distance and others, alarmingly, were forced to work despite underlying health conditions.

Burger King refusing to pay rent hasn’t gone down well with the public either. Less because there is support for landlords, more because of allegations that Burger King doesn’t pay its taxes.

The challenge in this crisis is there’s no playbook to refer back to.

The uncertainty around how long this period may endure leaves us with not much more than simple guesswork. But there are clearly some dos and don’ts that matter.

A salutary lesson: M&S was warmly remembered after its efforts during the Second World War to keep the nation fed and dressed. It’s a textbook case study showing that people really do remember the humanity – or lack thereof – you show in times of crisis. It seems in 2020, we’re creating more case studies.

Simon Hathaway is MD EMEA at retail agency Outform.

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