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How to brand in the face of Coronavirus (and other crises).

by James Needham

7 min read

Today it’s Coronavirus, last month it was the bushfires and tomorrow lays in wait. When ‘Cancel Culture’ is the norm and fortunes can falter in the space of a tweet, how do brands stay ahead of a crisis?

From Dreamworld to VW to ScoMo and the bushfires — the world is littered with the fallen that failed to harness the mood of the times and respond accordingly.

Too slow. Too Insincere.

Too quick to deny, distract or grandstand.

All are found in the wreckage of brands that crashed and burned responding to a crisis.

Despite a well established rule book, brands and those that manage them have been caught out time and time again.

The Ritson Rules.

For those in the firing line, the three golden rules are well established as outlined by Mark Ritson after the VW defeat device scandal:

  1. Act fast.
  2. Take responsibility (even if it’s later proven you were not to blame).
  3. Declare the crisis over and use your successful response to rebuild trust and brand equity as quickly as possible.

Then there are those brands caught in the crossfire, that aren’t to blame but welcome ignominy based on how they react to the crisis.


Let’s take a look at the Coronavirus.

As one of the most lethal pandemics in recent memory, there have been a few howlers from team Australia and our cousins across the ditch.

Google searches for Corona lager increased by 1100 per cent last month with people looking for “beer virus” and “Corona beer virus”. The rise in media mentions also contributed to this as well as #CoronaBeerVirus meme culture which has had over 1.5million impressions since the beginning of the year.

Despite one poorly timed campaign, Corona wisely stayed away from anything deemed to be self-serving and has been quick to respond to reports that sales are tanking.

A relatively muted and measured response which can’t be said for some the establishments that serve the ill-fated beer.

Fitzgerald’s Irish Bar in Bunbury, Australia, wanted to promote a coronavirus themed party by handing out free face masks for a party named “sickest night of the year” touting AU$6 Coronas all night.

Similarly a bar in Hamilton NZ promoted cheap Coronas with the promise “there are worse things you can catch in Hamilton.”

Only their relative obscurity saves them from being more publicised faux pas.

Not so for Harvey Norman after this handwritten sign in their Albury store quickly made its way to Twitter.

Responding not reacting.

So how do smart modern brands map the right course?

The first thing any strategic response needs is a cultural temperature check to quickly assess and understand what type of dynamite it’s playing with.

Then it needs a well thought through strategy that unpacks what (if any) action would be useful to people, to the situation and to the brand.

Australia often wears the moniker of a casually racist culture, but the Coronavirus outbreak has fuelled misinformation and created further divisions in our society.

47% of Australians agree the virus has made Australians more racist, as attacks on Asians in Australia intensify according to a culture_check poll commissioned by Untangld.

So a natural angle would be to find ways to foster belonging, mateship and inclusiveness.

Values Aussie love to champion as we’ve seen with the bushfires and the incredible support that tragedy inspired.

Fast forward to Coronavirus where we’re seeing the exact opposite. An issue that’s tearing at the fabric of humanity as we distance ourselves from each other and look at who’s to blame.

With a spate of recent attacks on Asian Australians, this is a moment for brands to step forward and play an active role in helping bring us together in understanding both the risks and repercussions of panic responses.

The poll also revealed nearly 40% of Australians want brands to innovate around products and solutions in helping to combat the spread of both the disease and the misinformation surrounding it.

So there’s power in positive storytelling like celebrating people who recovered from the virus or did not get the infection despite facing similar risks.

Positive stories show leadership and help people make smarter decisions, calm panic responses and nudge things towards returning to normal.

When donations have become table stakes what’s the meaningful action a brand can take?

FaceID created masks to help people unlock their phones in virus prone areas:

A small but smart response to the issue of safe communication.

So what?

In times of crisis, it’s brands that can move at the speed of culture, respond with contrition when required and contribute through actions not ads that will map the right course.

Note: All survey data collected via culture_check, in partnership with Lightspeed research.

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James Needham

→ Over 20 years experience across APAC and the UK helping redefine some of the world’s most iconic and effective brands, and leading complex research and segmentation projects from Budget Direct, Big4, Crime Stoppers, RACV and CommBank.

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