The role of the brand in the pandemic

Amanda Ullman-Hammer

In uncertain times we tend to go with the stable and familiar,  turning to businesses and brands we know we can rely on.  It is also well-documented that brands with a strong customer affinity generally recover faster from a crisis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has truly challenged business strategies,  requiring leaders to reassess and adapt with speed to new market conditions.  It is not only the relationships with customers that have been put to the test,  but often to an even greater extent,  those with employees.

So how can leaders use the brand as an effective tool to navigate and create momentum with both customers and colleagues when business as usual is turned on its head?

Based on our extensive experience in brand building and transformation,  we have summarised our thinking into three principles on how to best leverage your brand in uncertain times:

  • Use your brand as a roadmap
  • Energise your employees with purpose
  • Take the opportunity to assess your brand health


Use brand as a roadmap – it’s designed to provide direction

Financial targets and business expansion plans are often created in times of prosperity.  When all of a sudden everything is in flux,  they offer little consolation and guidance. 

Enter purpose.

This is where the much talked about brand purpose should act as a stable North Star around which the organisation can unite,  refocus and embrace a longer-term reason for being.

Business strategies may have to be revised and sales goals adjusted – a good brand strategy should not.  It is not defined with the aim to be delivered and reassessed every quarter,  or even year,  but should ideally hold true over a longer period. 

Set up correctly,  the brand strategy and purpose should also provide more profound guidance on how to behave and respond,  as much in the day to day as in turbulent times.

It does so by not just defining what we want to say,  but who we want to be.  Stating the higher-order experience we commit to delivering,  what we as an organisation want to help our customers achieve,  our character and the standards we hold ourselves to. 

When defined in these actionable terms,  beyond marketing and comms,  the brand strategy is so much more than a set of well-chosen words.  It becomes a long-term road map for business development and innovation,  acting as an inspiration and filter for what to do and how to prioritise when products,  services and experiences needs to be changed and developed at speed. 

In response to the current situation,  some innovations will be one-off actions that reflect the true values and character of an organisation.  Others will be lasting commercial transformations,  likely to stay in place over time.  In both these cases brand and purpose should be there to help define an appropriate response. 


Examples – answering to a new customer need:

Nike with the long-standing purpose to Empower all athletes’  (and where  ‘athletes’  includes everyone with a body) has played precisely to this inclusivity and inspiration in response to COVID-19.  The initiative Play Inside,  Play for the world,  is all about providing unrestricted access for all to the brand’s training app and community platforms,  with top athletes and sport influencers sharing tips,  inspiration and running fitness classes for free.

Monzo with its purpose to  Make money work for everyone,  has the ambition to do banking differently and more importantly – for everyone.  In their response to the pandemic,  they have truly embraced and delivered on this promise by increasing the voice and visibility of their Vulnerable Customer Team (yes they have one!).  Speaking with empathy and understanding of the tough times that many of the people banking with them are experiencing.  Providing hands-on advice, someone to call and talk to as well as relief on payments for those struggling. 


Example – a response to support the community:

Through their  ‘Foot the bill’  program,  Vans have tapped into their purpose;  To enable creative expression and inspire youth culture’.

The initiative is designed to show solidarity with the independent creative community.  Using their platforms,  Vans puts a spotlight on a large number of smaller skate and surf shops,  local restaurants,  art galleries and music venues who,  as part of the venture,  customises Vans shoes from which they receive the sales proceeds.  A great demonstration of how to strengthen the brand whilst at the same time lending a hand to the community. 


Energise your employees with purpose – and see your customer experience improve

In a crisis it is easy to stay fixed at the bottom line,  desperately focused on surviving day to day.  As important as this is,  we know that it is not the way to boost our internal culture and it is easy to forget the power of employee pride and engagement as a means to finding new ways and emerging stronger once the crisis has subsided.

In uncertain times employees look for clarity, leadership and motivation.

Again,  we see the benefits of purpose and putting it to use as something everyone can stay committed to beyond making money,  to build pride and momentum.

Knowing why we do what we do is crucial for motivation,  especially in times like these. 

A positive  ‘side-effect’  to energising employees,  is that it inevitably leads to a better customer experience.  Engaged and empowered employees will deliver relevant, well-adapted and empathic experiences to customers.

We believe in brands that are created with the internal culture in mind.  A strong purpose should evoke pride and when properly implemented it should inspire and guide the day-to-day behaviour of employees.  This becomes especially important in times when we are faced with exceptional situations – employees who truly  ‘live the brand’  are able to respond well and with confidence in these situations.

At Grow, we include the employee perspective within the brand strategy from the start.  It is key to successful implementation and execution,  allowing the organisation to embody the brand from the inside and out.


Take the opportunity to assess your brand health

If you haven’t already,  it’s time to start using your brand as the strategic tool and roadmap it was designed to be.  Use it to energise and support your employees in this time of crisis,  inspire beyond marketing and innovate the experiences you deliver.

At the same time,  the current situation should serve as a time for reflection and an opportunity to plan for the future.

How strong is your brand purpose and how well has it served you?  Are there ways in which you could use it to better connect with your customers, reinforce your relationship with employees and perhaps respond in a broader way in solving a challenge felt by the community?

Take the opportunity to review and rate your brand strategy’s strength in terms of offering guidance – by assessing it on the following six levers:

1.  It’s aligned with business goals
2. It’s clear and understandable for everyone in the business
3. It’s actionable;  directing and inspiring both actions and words
4. It defines something that is truly uniquely to you
5. It’s ambitious and inspirational
6. Employees and leaders are on-board and engaged with it

We hope you see this as an opportunity to find new energy and direction in your brand strategy in order to stand stronger in the days and months ahead. 


If you need help or would like to discuss these topics further with regard to your specific context and challenges,  don’t hesitate to get in touch.

At Grow, we also have a Brand Health Assessment offer,  where we in a one-time creative session together review and evaluate your brand strategy and how to better put it to use to support and drive business goals.  The output includes ideas and analysis specific to your business,  along with recommendations and a visualised roadmap of actions and priorities.


Amanda Ullman-Hammer
Director Brand Strategy, Business Lead UK