How Brands Are Responding to COVID-19

The past couple of months have shown us that everything can change in the blink of an eye. Healthcare systems, private sectors, and governments worldwide are still struggling to...

Iss Bautista
Iss Bautista May 4, 2020

The past couple of months have shown us that everything can change in the blink of an eye. Healthcare systems, private sectors, and governments worldwide are still struggling to gain a foothold from the seemingly endless shockwaves brought on by COVID-19.

The business landscape, in particular, has shifted altogether as strict country-wide lockdowns alter buying behaviors. But if there’s anything worth celebrating, it’s that many businesses have shown incredible resilience in the face of adversity. In fact, if you tune in the news, governments and task groups are expressing their gratitude for the private sector’s active involvement in the fight against the pandemic.

Amid the forced downtimes, many local and global brands stay “on” to serve their customers. A smart maneuver, given that consumers want to hear how brands are responding to the crisis. Check out these key consumer insights and sentiments we’ve rounded up from various notable sources:

consumer behavior and sentiments during COVID-19

What this tells us is that a majority of consumers want businesses to prioritize public service over marketing, brand purpose over messaging, and public health over brand health. In the coming months, we can expect brands to shift their focus on these top priorities. 

If you’re headed in the same direction, it pays to navigate this new environment with the utmost care, especially when it comes to branding. Many brands have received backlash for poorly timed ads and “insensitive” messaging. However well-intentioned, brands will find themselves walking on a tightrope given the current sensitivities of the time. 

What you can do is find your bearings first and assess what other brands are doing and which efforts are acceptable, if not effective. 

The Coronavirus Brand Experience

Brands have their unique ways of responding to and coping with the crisis. Some have gone quiet, which is understandable given how delicate the situation is. Naturally, other brands prove to be more adaptable, while it’s a hit-or-miss situation for some. Based on what we’ve seen so far, brands that are seeing success during these times are those that focus on the triple bottom line of profit, people, and planet. Fall short of any of these three and the result is tragic. Take Amazon and Walmart as an example. These companies were initially at the forefront of response efforts, inspiring others in the private sector to follow suit. But its workers went on strike on Labor Day, raising their concerns about the companies’ lack of safety and relief measures for its employees. 

the coronavirus brand experience

The Best Brand Responses 

What we can learn from the best responses to COVID-19 is that brands should go beyond typical messaging and reassess the relevance of their value propositions. Translating the message into actual action clearly results in a positive image, and one that will make a mark on consumers. But it’s important for brands to really “walk the talk” and be genuine in their contributions. 

1. Nike 

Message: Nike masterfully crafted a campaign with the hashtags #playinside and #playfortheworld, an example of brand-based encouragement to help flatten the curve. It calls for athletes to inspire and innovate while they train or play at home. The message is simple, but it effectively taps into human emotions and provides hope, all while maintaining brand identity.

Action: Nike provides athletes and kids tools to fuel their mental and physical health. These can be accessed via the Nike app, the Nike Running Club app, the Nike Training Club app, as well as its website and social channels. Nike’s response efforts include manufacturing and donating PPE such as full-face shields and powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses to health care organizations across the US. The brand has committed over $17.5 million to the cause so far. Here’s a full list of their efforts.

2. Grab 

screenshot of Grab PH’s above-the-fold content

A screenshot of Grab PH’s above-the-fold content on the homepage.

Message: Grab quickly took action and realigned its brand purpose to become more relevant in this environment. The Grab PH app is now one of the most useful apps you can have, since it lets you order food to support local businesses, buy essentials via GrabMart, send money and goods, pay bills, donate to the cause, and get quick updates on anything coronavirus related.

Action: Grab called for its drivers in Singapore to volunteer to ferry healthcare workers to and from hospitals. Over 2000 drivers volunteered. In the Philippines, Grab leads a community-wide response though GrabBayanihan. This includes providing medical frontliners access to GrabWheels (e-scooters) round-the-clock and free of charge. Grab also offers financial assistance to its driver-partners who have lost their livelihood. Via Grab Rewards and Grab Pay, app users can donate to the cause. The app also includes localized updates. So if you live in Makati, for example, the app will show updates from Makati City Hall. 

Other efforts include:

3. Oatly

Screenshot from Oatly’s website homepage

Screenshot from Oatly’s website homepage above-the-fold.

Oatly’s COVID-19 response proves that injecting a bit of humor is welcome, especially during this time. It also shows us that donating millions of dollars is not the only way you can help. Not all businesses have private funds at their disposal, and many are struggling to stay afloat. But there are other effective ways you can engage your audience even with a limited budget. For Oatly, it’s putting content first. 

Message: Oatly shows that it cares about its customers by distracting them “from all the stuff we’re all trying to distract ourselves from these days” and helping them overcome lockdown boredom. 

Action: Oatly launched the Oatly Department of Distraction Services, an omnichannel campaign that involves a series of video tutorials on how to reuse Oat Milk boxes. These DIY projects range from nacho boats to pack puppets. However silly, each video taps into relatable experiences such as getting stuck at home and dealing with cabin fever. Each video is posted on Oatly’s social media feeds, which then link to a landing page on their website. Campaigns that are anchored on brilliant, engaging content could go a long way, even in serious times.  

4. Unilever

Screenshot from Unilever’s global website homepage

Screenshot from Unilever’s global website homepage.

Message: Unilever has taken a bold position to be a leader in the fight against COVID-19. As the world’s biggest soap company, the brand quickly realized that it has a big role to play in safeguarding its stakeholders (consumers, communities, partners, and workforce). In addition to providing aid, it also champions raising awareness and changing behavior to tackle the spread of the virus.

Action: Unilever has ramped up its corporate social responsibility by going straight to the frontlines. Apart from donating a hefty sum to the COVID Action Platform of the World Economic Forum, Unilever also plans to adapt its current manufacturing lines to produce sanitizer for use in hospitals, schools, and other institutional settings. It has committed to contribute over €100 million of donations in the form of soap, sanitizer, bleach, and food. Most of its efforts are targeted at developing nations, especially in areas with limited resources and fragile healthcare systems.

5. Google

Screenshot of Google’s COVID-19 alert in the SERPs

Screenshot of Google’s COVID-19 alert in the SERPs.

While most of the world was still coming to terms with the pandemic, Google took swift action by banning ads that mention the coronavirus to prevent profiteering and spreading misinformation. Instead, it focused on providing its users with the most accurate, up-to-date, and useful information about anything COVID-19 related. As people’s online behavior evolved, Google collected key insights from search terms and tailored its content to better resonate with people.

Message: Google’s main message is that its products can help people keep a sense of shared community, even when they’re physically apart. After all, the brand’s search engine, cloud computing and collaboration tools, and advanced tech products have become essential these days. Its suite of technologies has helped businesses stay afloat and people keep their jobs.   

Action: Google’s localized COVID-19 alerts have proven to be useful. It’s also made its premium video conferencing solution free for all. It has also launched an initiative to give SMBs over $340 million in free ads. Google has also partnered with Apple to develop a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app. Although the project has raised a few eyebrows, mainly due to privacy and security reasons, there is a huge possibility that the tool can help governments prevent new outbreaks.

6. Netflix

Message: Netflix, or its streaming service, at least, shows that it’s business as usual. Aware of the sensitivities of the time, the brand has been careful and subtle with its advertising campaigns. The brand came up with a clever way to “force” people to stay home, by filling billboards in gathering spaces with spoilers of popular Netflix shows.

Action: Netflix has seen a massive boost in viewing time over the past few months as governments impose stricter quarantine rules. But the media-services provider and production company is not exactly on cloud nine at the moment due to halted productions in studios. But instead of resorting to cost-cutting measures, Netflix has shown incredible compassion amid this uncertain time. Aware that the crisis is taking a huge toll on the industry, Netflix created a $100 million fund to support its tens of thousands of entertainment workers.

The Worst Brand Responses 

It pays to know what doesn’t work so you can avoid it altogether. What these controversial brand responses tell us is that, however well-meaning your campaigns may be, they can rub people the wrong way. And even the big names, brands we love, are no exception to this. After all, we’re faced with a very unique situation that even the best PR agencies and digital marketers are racking their brains trying to figure out their next move. 

1. Coca-cola

Coke Time Square Ad

Photo from The Coca Cola Company

In response to the growing concern over the spread of the virus, Coca-cola put up an ad in Time Square to send a social distancing message. The ad from Mercardo McCann immediately received backlash, with people calling it an attempt to capitalize on the crisis. While this ad doesn’t stray too far from Netflix’s Spoiler Billboard campaign or McDonalds Brazil’s similar logo campaign, Coke made the mistake of running the ad before announcing its response efforts. 

The beverage giant promptly responded by going “off-air” and halting product ads to fund COVID-19 efforts. They then launched efforts to support first responders, healthcare workers, and community organizations providing humanitarian aid. 


British fashion retailer ASOS also has come under fire after launching an ad unfortunately timed to the pandemic. The company launched ads promoting its line of £12 chainmail face masks, which was introduced in August 2019. The ads, however, kept running until March at the height of the pandemic, and people urged the company to shut down the ads. On top of that, there have been allegations that over 4000 workers are still working in ASOS’ warehouses where social distancing measures aren’t properly implemented. The company has since denied these allegations, but it’s clear that maintaining a positive, socially responsible image is not within the brand’s purview. 

3. KFC

KFC’s signature tagline “finger lickin good” isn’t going very well amid people’s growing awareness of hand hygiene and health. The company was forced to shut down a “finger lickin” video campaign for the simple reason that it is not the right time to air such ads. The good news is that KFC took these complaints to heart and immediately withdrew the ad.  

Final Thoughts

There is no denying that the business sector is bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has put travel, real estate, restaurant, automotive, retail, and service industries at a standstill. Small to midsize businesses face impending permanent shutdowns, and many more businesses anticipate bigger blows.

This makes advertising all the more tempting as a last-ditch effort to save the business, but you should be very careful and strategic with your message. What we know so far is that embracing the change and adapting quickly can increase your chances of success. Focusing on how you can assist your customers and workforce during this time and contribute to the cause may not improve your cash flow, but it may just be the only way your business can make it to the other side.

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