Since the onset of the health and financial crisis, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there are two questions that our clients usually ask us:
To answer these questions, the article is structured around five sections:
In recent weeks, I lost count of the many articles that predict how different the cities in which we live, the way in which we work, and consumer habits will be after the coronavirus. However, as Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said, “it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
This is true now more than ever in an environment in which regulations, decrees, and government decisions change several times in a week or, sometimes, in a day. However, most big corporations are planning in three horizons. In particular, MarketingWeek has reported that Coca-Cola is planning their response to the pandemic in three phases: 1) strict social distancing, 2) a period of graduating, and, lastly, 3) a new “normal.”
We are also considering the pandemic and brands’ response in three phrases.
Phase 1: During the pandemic and the lockdown, we have witnessed undesirable hoarding behaviour (for example, with toilet paper, flour, and more recently, hair dye). We have also quickly adapted to remote working, online entertainment consumption, and online shopping. This situation has forced many corporations to internally accelerate digital transformation. However, the lockdown and slowdown of activity across sectors, with terminations and furloughs on the rise, consumers are retracting expenses, subsequently forcing corporations to adjust budgets. Many brands have either “gone dark” or fallen into the temptation of communicating in an indistinct and irrelevant way. Another risk for brands is the rise of the secondary market for falsifications, specifically in PPE equipment, which requires closer surveillance.
Phase 2: The gradual lifting of governmental restrictions will be followed by a profound recession, the duration of which remains unknown. It´s likely that brands will slowly re-engage during this stage and try to boost consumption through positive messages. It´s also likely that consumers will engage in which experts call “revenge consumption”, spending significantly during the first weeks and months of phase 2.
Phase 3: Once restrictions are fully lifted and the financial situation improves, consumers and brands will slowly go back to normal. Some thinkers , such as Harari, believe the post-pandemic world will be radically different to what it was like before, while others, like Dyer, think Covid-19 may change the world for a long time, but not forever.
Winston Churchill once said, “the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” It is key to understand that there are so many lessons buried in historic crises, which we should be aware of to avoid repeating the same mistakes that brands have made in the past.
We will review some publications and studies that illustrate the following two lessons:
According to Claessens and Kose (2009), there have been 122 recessions in 21 advanced economies between 1960—2007. This means that each of these economies has suffered an average of 1 recession per decade during this period. Perhaps due to this, companies tend to get carried away by fear and anxiety when there is a recession on the doorstep. According to research by IAB published in March 2020, 74% of buy-side decision makers think coronavirus will have a more negative impact on ad spend than the 2008 financial crisis.
Because of these negative expectations, fueled by fear and anxiety, many companies resort to systematic spend cuts, based on traditional or “reflex” responses, without considering the long-term consequences.
I remember that my University professors in Argentina (a country more than used to crises, recessions, hyperinflations, and other fascinating phenomena of the modern economy) used to teach me that during recessions, companies tend to cut the 5 "Cs":
These corporate attitudes and reactions happen in all crises, and the current crisis is no exception. According to the IAB survey (IAB, 2020), “nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents have paused all advertising spend for the rest of Q1 & Q2.”
However, what we are really interested in exploring is why companies systematically cut their investment in Communications at times like this. We can think of many reasons, but I think we can highlight five key reasons that explain this behaviour:
Despite this, academic and empirical evidence shows that crises represent the ideal time to take advantage of opportunities in a market in which all the competitors are cutting back.
Peter Field (2008) analysed 880 companies from the IPA database and showed that brands that increase their Share of Voice (during recessions and boom periods) are more likely to increase their market share. The short-term benefits of reducing budgets in a recession were offset by the drop in long-term profitability (which was most acute after the third year of reduction).
But while some companies cut down on their marketing spend, others have historically gone in for the kill and took the opportunity “steal market share” during financial crises. A.G. Lafley, ex CEO of Procter & Gamble, used to say that at P&G they had "a philosophy and a strategy: when times are tough, we build market share."
The Drum (Deighton, 2020) has recently reported that P&G have committed to continue investing in communications to retain the “mental availability” of its brands. Increased media consumption creates an opportunity to “double down” on brand visibility. At the same time, P&G is looking at optimize its brand portfolio post Covid-19, which in turn, will help focus the budget on a smaller group of stronger brands, increasing brand profitability in the long term.
This chart summarizes the first lesson learned from past crises: maintaining or increasing advertising investment during a recession increases market share during the recession and long-term profitability.
Brand Finance conducted an analysis of the brands that had been most affected during the 2008 crisis in terms of negative impact on brand value.
Within these sectors, not all brands performed equally. Our analysis reveals that, during past crises, stronger brands are consistent winners during a recession.
In addition to measuring overall brand value, and to understanding brand resilience through crises, Brand Finance also evaluates the relative strength of brands based on factors such as marketing investment, familiarity, loyalty, staff satisfaction, and corporate reputation. Alongside revenue forecasts, brand strength is a crucial driver of brand value. Brand Finance has tracked how brand values have fluctuated during the three major economic downturns experienced in 2009, 2012, and 2016.
The key takeaway of this long-term analysis is that strong brands, as measured by Brand Finance, perform better during crises, across all sectors. Considering brand strength, from 2008 to 2019, the Consistent 100 Fallers have average Brand Strength Index (B SI) scores of 66 while the Consistent 100 Winners have average BSI scores of 70.
This finding is in line with other research conducted by Brand Finance which correlates brand strength with overall stock market outperformance. Brands boasting the highest AAA+ brand rating by Brand Finance, consistently outperform the S&P 500.
In section two, we explore the link between brand investment, brand strength and business performance.
In this section, we will explore how the crisis is affecting brand value.
The pandemic affects a broad spectrum of brands, but not all are impacted in the same way. As the pandemic has triggered market crashes across the globe, analysts at Brand Finance estimate the Brand Value at risk for the world´s most valuable brands at US $1 trillion. Brand Finance has assessed the impact of COVID-19 based on the effect of the outbreak on enterprise value, compared to what it was on 1st January 2020.
But this risk is not uniform across all sectors and all brands - there are usually two types of risks that affect brands during a crisis:
As mentioned above, Brand Finance has assessed the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak based on the effect of the outbreak on Enterprise Value on 18th March 2020, compared to what it was on 1st January 2020.
Based on this impact on Business Value, Brand Finance estimated the likely impact on Brand Value for each sector. Each sector has been classified into 3 categories based on the severity of Business Value loss observed for the sector in the period between 1st Jan 2020 and 18th March 2020:
Among the sectors with limited impact, we find categories whose demand hasn’t diminished due to the lockdown, such as Utilities, Food & Drink, Household products, and Telecoms.
Among the highly impacted sectors, we find restaurants, travel, airlines, holidays, and other categories where delayed consumption is not possible. International lockdown has made consumption barely possible and consumption will not be made up for once restrictions are lifted. The following chart shows the sectors that fall in each one of the three categories.
But within categories and sectors, not all brands are impacted in the same way. This depends on their own risk. The following charts show how specific brands within limited, moderate, and high impact categories have fared in terms of Enterprise Value between January – March 2020.
As we observed these different individual responses, we analyzed these brands across sectors, we have identified 3 ways brands across categories have been impacted.
Some companies are now thriving: well placed to cater to our changed lifestyles but how they act now can shape future trajectory. Zoom, Vodafone, and Amazon are good examples of brands that fit into this category. But all of them are facing their own challenges:
To evaluate the impact on Amazon’s brand value, we relied on the evaluation of the full brand value chain in order to understand the links between marketing investment, brand-tracking data, and stakeholder behaviour.
This theoretical framework explains that investment in brand (not only in 4Ps, but also broader social action) will positively influence stakeholders’ perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours (brand equity). This, in turn, will impact the market and financial performance of the firm (through increased market share, Premium pricing, higher profitability, etc.).
The following chart summarises our indicative evaluation of the likely impact of Amazon’s reactions to Covid-19 on its brand equity and performance. Although revenues are growing, and this is positively impacting brand value, internal talent issues are offsetting this positive effect, resulting in a reduction of brand strength, which will have a negative impact on long-term profitability.
The surge won’t be forever, and these examples illustrate that managing brand reputation through scrutiny is key for optimal long-term profitability.
As Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, puts it: “the pandemic could reveal which companies truly embodied the stakeholder model, and which only paid lip service to it”.
A second group of brands are striving, adapting, and reacting rapidly, by either:
A third group of companies are merely surviving, as they are unable to transition online or have come to a standstill. Apparel and airline brands could lose up to 20% of their brand value and are good examples of companies in this third cluster:
So, we have reviewed with several examples, two types of risks that affect brands during a crisis: sectorial and own risks.
But, in a crisis of the nature we are living, we should consider a third type of risk: the association with the country of origin.
With regional or systemic crises like the one we are facing now, wars or international conflicts, this risk becomes apparent. Joseph Nye, the American political scientist, provides a good example of this effect: “[...] in the aftermath of the Iraq War, a number of Muslims boycotted Coca-Cola and turned to imitations such as Mecca Cola or Muslim Up as an alternative for all who boycott Zionist products and big American brands” (Nye, 2004).
This crisis is also a matter of public diplomacy. Headlines in newspapers have referred to the use of “mask diplomacy” by several countries as a tool to build soft power. The fact is that corporate brands will be impacted both by how their governments handle the crisis and diplomatic relations going forward.
The stronger the association with the country of origin, the harder will be the impact. In fact, at Brand Finance we have conducted extensive analysis of our Soft Power:
In section 3, we have reviewed the risks affecting brands during the pandemic. In this section, we will answer the question: What should we do now to mitigate those risks and leverage brand value in the long run?
There are 5 types of generic brand risk management strategies:
Avoid (communicating, unless you speak about relevant issues)
IAB (2020) has recently reported that a quarter of brands have gone dark during the past two months. Why are they doing this? Besides the obvious answer, which is that most likely their marketing budgets have been cut back, they are also avoiding communications to avoid offending the public by appearing tone-deaf.
This tactic rarely works. Avoiding marketing spend is not the solution, but rather carefully considering how to invest. The answer to this is: invest in brand in ways that improve the life of your clients or the situation for the society in general. This takes me to the next brand risk management strategy, “improving.”
Improve (and mitigate the impact for stakeholders)
The “how” is more important than “how much” you invest during times of crisis. Brands should review:
At the beginning of the pandemic, several brands jumped on the bandwagon of separating the elements of their logos to further support and spread the message of social distancing. This “movement” was coined as “social distancing branding” and was followed by Audi, Volkswagen, McDonald´s, Salesforce, and Coca-Cola. These initiatives have been met with criticism as they were perceived as tone-deaf, non-empathetic and opportunistic. When I first came up with these initiatives, the first thing that came to mind was: is separating the elements of the logo all that a leading brand can do or say in times like these?
Other brands continued to invest in advertising and released ads centred around the pandemic, such as Nike´s “Play for the World” and Dove´s “Courage is Beautiful.” Other brands used advertising to say “thank you”, “wash your hands”, “keep your distance”. Most of these messages are unnecessary and redundant as the general public is already well aware of the measures needed to protect themselves and those around them. But even more importantly, these messages are centred around the brand and its identity, when the question most brand leaders should be trying to answer now is: what can my brand do to improve the lives of clients and other stakeholders?
Zoom not only played with the “social distancing branding” but turned it around and launched a spot centred on its unique value proposition, which is today most relevant than ever. The letters of their logo were closer than usual and subscribed by the slogan “Shorten the distance” which speaks exactly to the benefit for the client. This is a good example of how ads should be during the Covid-19 crisis: relevant, speak to client needs or amplify new and innovative solutions that will simplify clients’ lives. It´s not the time to “educate”, “express gratitude” or “communicate hope”. If, as a brand, those are the only three messages you can communicate, you are better off writing a check which contributes to solving the huge challenge of Covid-19 or by investing in relevant and significant innovation. In other words, brands are faced with the option of doing or saying, and unless what they have to say supports or amplifies what they are doing for society, clients and employees, they are better off staying silent.
It was recently reported that Ford pulled all its US ads promoting its vehicles and swiftly replaced them with a campaign that described how it was responding with specific measures for clients during the coronavirus outbreak. This effort oriented to stay relevant and avoid sounding tone-deaf, includes two spots with the slogans “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now.” This communication initiative backs specific initiatives on payment relief for clients and donating money to support food programs for children not attending school, among others.
So, we have seen how some brands have just stuck to rather “empty” words with initiatives like “social distancing communications”, others have used advertising to amplify the specific actions undertook to benefit clients in these tough times (Ford with the “Built for right now” campaign), or the relevance of their value proposition (Zoom with their “Shorten the distance” campaign). Other brands, understanding brand investment in a much broader way that encompasses all stakeholders besides commercial audiences, have focused on social action over words.
There are many examples of these brands: Armani, Inditex, Dyson, LVMH, Seat, etc. Let me focus on how the way in which they either reconverted their plants to produce PPE or ventilators, or offer their logistic assets to help the government transport medical supplies when most needed, or donated funds to support social action at this juncture as paid off in terms of value creation.
The following chart indicates some examples which brands have opted to Actions, Words or a combination of both pathways to try to stay relevant during the pandemic.
When we look at the brands in the top left corners, we have probably read extensively about what they are doing in the press. These brands use PR tools to amplify the knowledge of their good deeds. The following chart illustrates the impact of these actions on media mentions.
Coca Cola eventually decided to put action over words and announced they will be off air in Philippines and Spain, putting on hold all commercial advertising and reallocating all their committed advertising space and budgets towards supporting COVID 19 relief and response effort for the most affected communities. Aligned with these local decisions, Marketing Week has recently reported that Coca-Cola has paused marketing spend given its “limited effectiveness during the lockdown” and refocused on communities and other priorities (Fleming, 2020). In the markets where Coca-Cola is investing, it´s mostly doing so in digital. These are, in our view, the right decisions in terms of managing brand risk amid the pandemic.
So, one of the main risk management strategies for brands now is answering the question: How to generate positive impact? And the answer is: placing action over words.
Adjust (product, price, place)
But also brand leaders should consider than there is so much more than just “Promotion” among the marketing mix tolos they could lever. A lot of brand directors and leaders equate brand investment with advertising investment, and this reduces their options to make a significant impact on brand value and the society in general. There are good examples of brands that are innovating and implementing changes to reduce the impact of the crisis and increase the earnings post-events, by actioning other elements of the marketing mix: adjusting their offer, prices or distribution in creative and innovative ways. Examples of these flexible and innovative solutions are:
Retain (brand strength and long-term profitability)
Besides, avoiding, improving and adjusting, brands can also absorb the loss now, with the view of compensating it for it later.
Absorbing losses now, in the middle of the pandemic, is a mandate for leading and profitable brands given the change in expectations from stakeholders. From the latest Edelman Trust Barometer (2020) on Brand and Coronavirus, we know that the public in general expects now that brands, above all, protect their employees. 90% of the respondents agree that brands must do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers, even if it means suffering big financial losses until the pandemic ends.
This is exactly what many of the most valuable brands have done: they have looked to protect their employees, long before governments confined them to their homes, putting their health above any economic consideration.
Twitter, EY or bank Santander were among the first to react and implemented home office or "smartworking" in an effort to protect the health of their employees.
Patagonia closed all its stores voluntarily and promised to continue paying the wages to its employees despite the losses in which it will incur.
All of these brands have put people over profits. This will surely destroy short term profitability, but will strengthen their brand and reputation, and this, in turn, will have a positive long-term effect on profitability, which will more than compensate for the short-term loss.
Share (the burden of the crisis)
We have seen that avoiding, improving, adjusting or retaining are possible strategies to manage brand risks. There is a fifth strategy that is now more important than ever and is exemplified by private-public collaboration: Sharing or redistributing the burden of the pandemic.
Why is this relevant? Because the expectations on the role of protection extend beyond employees to encompass the broader society. According to Edelman (2020), 90% of citizens now expect brands to partner with government and relief agencies to address the crisis and 86% expect them to be a safety net, stepping in where they are needed and able, to fillgaps in the government’s response to the virus. In short, citizens expect brands to put the collective over the individual interests.
Many of these corporate and public actions and initiatives will contribute, once the crisis is over, to generate a reputation for those brands that have acted in a quick, honest and compelling fashion. This is, for those brands whose decisions have not only contributed to protecting clients, employees and the public in general, but also the rest of the players in their environment, increasing their influence in the world and their community.
In the last few months, we have witnessed how public-private collaboration is key to mitigate the effects of the health, social and economic crisis we are living.
The French luxury group, LVMH, will dedicate its production plants for perfume and cosmetic brands in France to manufacture large quantities of hand sanitizers, which will be donated to hospitals.
Armani decided to reconvert part of its production capacity to put together PPE to support medical staff during the crisis. In an industry that has been among the hardest hit by the crisis, many other Italian fashion brands have also coordinated to produce millions of masks.
In Spain, Santander Bank and BBVA have donated financial resources to acquire medical equipment. The fashion giant, Inditex will dedicate part of its productive assets and logistic network to making and facilitating the acquisition of medical supplies.
These are all examples of brave brands, who have understood that leadership in the 21st century exceeds economic power and revolves around the ability to have a positive impact on the world.
In his work "The Diary of the Year of the Plague", Daniel Defoe wrote: "Another year of the plague (...)would end with animosities, and would make us see with other eyes the same things that we have seen before." The brands we mentioned have understood that leadership and influence today are about cooperation.
They have understood that leadership today depends more on collaboration than on unilateral decisions based on short-termism and a thin concept of "value creation" which does not consider the impact of their decisions on the larger ecosystem.
This is precisely the great opportunity that the pandemic represents for and brands in general: to generate value through proactive collaboration and cooperation with other relevant players and stakeholders, which will probably have a positive effect on their familiarity and reputation, and in turn, on their long-term profitability and brand value.
No universal recipes, but some ingredients must always be present in our “crisis mix”:
To manage the aforementioned risks, you should measure and track metrics linked to brand value creation
But let me back to the original questions we posed for our whitepaper. The questions that most of our clients are asking us now:
Those are not the right questions. The question that every smart and committed brand leader should be asking now is: Where do we want to be in 2021?
Gabriela is a Global Managing Director of the Brand Finance Institute. She has a broad international experience, having worked for clients such as Bank of America, Repsol, YPF, Telefónica, Terra Networks, Bausch & Lomb, Johnson & Johnson, Roca, GM, Great Eastern Life.
In addition to her everyday work, she lectures on Brand Valuation, Management and Strategy at several business schools in Europe and Latin America. Gabriela has written numerous academic articles and books on brand valuation, among others: “Brand Valuation: a review of approaches, providers and methodologies” (2007, Deusto, Spain), “Brand Valuation: measuring to create value” (2008, Deusto, Spain) and "The International Brand Valuation Manual" (2009, Wiley, United Kingdom).