Corporate COVID Response: Innovative Pivots
This year has been stressful, I think we can all agree. With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the public consciousness for months, daily life has become increasingly challenging. Additionally, the pandemic has presented some unique challenges for brands. Ever wonder what the pandemic has meant for your favorite restaurant or retailer? According to Marketing Dive, 56% of consumers are interested in the COVID-19 response strategies of brands relevant to them.
From an operational standpoint, many businesses have found it difficult to adapt the way they work to fit new hygiene and safety guidelines. Lack of steady funds has also caused drastic changes in employment and supply. The news of widespread layoffs and closures of small businesses has circulated for months, with 41.3% of businesses surveyed in this study experiencing temporary closures due to the pandemic. The internal impacts of COVID-19 for businesses have been numerous, and it has only been in the past couple of months that some brands have begun to regain their footing.
But, what about the brands that have survived? What did they do to keep ahead of the virus and keep their customers coming back? The major difference between dying and thriving brands lies in their ability to innovate and adapt. What a brand says to its customers, who may be looking for external sources of guidance or reassurance, matters. Ace Metrix determined that 75% of ad viewers think brands should talk about COVID19 and put out responsible and careful messaging. And, from what the public has seen so far, brands that do address the virus in their messaging find success in empathizing with their customers, giving back to healthcare organizations and healthcare workers, and encouraging safe behaviors. Positioning, for both offerings and messaging, has never been more impactful and more meaningful for consumers and brands alike.
Oat milk is a major underdog of the food retail industry that is now having its moment in the sun, and no one is doing oat milk better than Oatly. Oatly has a strong social media presence and a charmingly quirky brand image that sets them apart from more established competitors, like Alpro and Soylent.
When the pandemic hit, grocery store sales skyrocketed. While Oatly could have sat back and let their products fly off the shelves, the brand noticed the public’s uneasiness amid the throes of lockdown and decided to give something back to their loyal customers. Since all of their own employees were also stuck at home, the Oatly staff came up with the idea to form the (virtual) “Oatly Department of Distraction.”
The department has its own webpage where staff members post their own original content for customers to enjoy. Their goal- to find “ways to help eliminate any unwanted stress and reduce the negative impact associated with an increase in boredom at home.” The webpage consists of self-produced videos, web browser games, original artwork collections, and DIY craft ideas using empty Oatly product containers.
The webpage is funny and entertaining, as well as full of relatable content that is sure to help Oatly customers feel a little less lonely while self-isolating. All of their ODD (Oatly Department of Distractions) content can also be found on their Instagram page and want to know how to make a “nacho-boat” out of an old Oatly milk carton? You might want to check this out.
How we exercise has also changed as a result of COVID-19. Lockdowns and town mandates have forced gyms to close and have limited the viability of playing team sports. Potentially experiencing a decrease in demand for the typical outdoor sports gear and athletic wear, Nike turned their focus indoors. The brand began by taking a stance of solidarity with their customers by trending the hashtag #playinside on their Instagram. This message not only united their loyal customers in the interest of public health, but it also set the example for safety by encouraging their customers to stay inside and refrain from gathering.
Additionally, Nike invested more effort and resources into their app, Nike Training Club.The app’s premium content became free to all users, providing access to a larger library of exercise and training content. The app also began producing new content more frequently, and even created some training videos users could complete with their kids. This pivot encouraged app users to work out from home and supplied high quality resources and inspiration for staying fit during a time where being out and active is difficult.
Many brands have also taken a more philanthropic approach to marketing and production during COVID-19, and Nike is no exception. They adapted their production facilities to manufacture Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), like face shields and respirator lenses, which they donated to healthcare organizations across the country. They have also donated millions of dollars to organizations helping to handle the pandemic.
If you live in Blacksburg, you are likely aware of the severe effect COVID-19 has had on small businesses. As the area surrounding Virginia Tech is rural and largely reliant on the school and its ever-increasing student population to boost the local economy. According to the Wallstreet Journal, one in two jobs in Blacksburg derives support from the Virginia Tech campus. The lack of events at Virginia Tech- namely football games- and decreased student population have put a damper on the annual boom in traffic that many local businesses rely on. Some businesses found the lack of customers following campus closing in March to be so crippling that they have remained closed since the pandemic began.
However, downtown Blacksburg continues to stay busy, even during weekdays. How is this possible? Many businesses have had to limit or adapt their capabilities to fit new safety standards and customer demands. Restaurants with take-out and to go capabilities, like Zeppeli’s, have embraced the carry-out dining format and are still keeping afloat among a sea of cautious, but hungry students. Like many other eateries, Zeppeli’s owner Mr. Soriano has taken a more proactive and aggressive stance towards the pandemic. Soriano claims that although restaurant owners may worry over losing weekend crowds, those who want to survive “have to realize it’s not happening, and start adapting.”
Other types of businesses centered around socializing, such as movie theaters, have not been able to adjust in the same ways restaurants have. The Lyric Theatre- a longstanding local favorite- has fought to keep its doors open. The theater has revamped its operations by reducing showtimes to only one movie per night, with limited and socially distanced seating, and has established improved sanitary measures. Movie theaters have been hit especially hard by the pandemic due to their confined and communal nature, but it seems as if The Lyric has found a solution, however temporary.
The local specialty grocer, Eats Natural Foods, has altered the way they do business, as well. Its self-service bulk foods section has been roped off and is now only accessible with the aid of a store associate, and marked pathways throughout the store encourage distancing. Eats has also begun taking online grocery orders, a rare feat for a small grocer, but now common practice for bigger grocery chains.
What Have Brands Learned?
The way a business reacts to crisis can make or break its viability long-term, which has never been so apparent as in recent months. Whether it’s having backup funds for unprecedented occasions or building a flexible and creative marketing department, it is important to have measures in place to help rebound from a crisis.
The values a brand communicates to its customers in times of hardship can influence public perception forever, so brands must choose their words and their priorities wisely. But, talking-the-talk is only half the battle. Businesses have to back up their words with actions. They can provide their customers with timely and relevant offerings that help address the situation at hand or commit real time and money to causes that matter. Adapting to suit market demand can help any business establish itself as a relevant and integral part of their customers’ lives and can help make a positive impact on public wellbeing.
By: Lauren Miles