What should we use our brand budget for during COVID-19?

‘Brands should find solutions instead of selling passion or image. They need to be tangible and fast, not impressionistic and conceptual.’ (Edelman, March 30 2020).

As my last blog reviewed the theory and evidence for HOW MUCH you should change your marketing budget, I was invited to go deeper into WHAT brands should spent this budget on. The four guidelines to distill from the many excellent pieces on this topic are:

  • Actions before words: help your employees, customers, suppliers and community
  • Differentiate: inform and use your imagination
  • Give people the stage
  • Innovate by challenging assumptions
  1. Actions before words:

Just as in previous crises, brand should foremost act on behalf of your employees, your customers and your suppliers. In a global survey of 20,000 people, Edelman found that respondents recognized the need for specific brand action to help address the societal challenges posed by Covid-19, from protecting the well-being of employees to shifting products and pricing to creating a sense of community. 90% of respondents said that people want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends. Brands are also being asked to shift to producing products that help consumers meet the challenges of today (89%). Fortunately, current examples abound, from LHMV switching to hand sanitizers and Amazon prioritizing essential items to HP donating 3-D printers to hospitals to produce masks. Over 100 brands and their helpful actions are listed here:


Previous crises show how brands can help, such as Western Union ‘no transfer fee’ and other programs to help get money to survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and ArcelorMittal’s success in looking after its people and bending the curve by donating vehicles for use as ambulances, providing medical supplies, and providing access to logistics, infrastructure and communications technology during the Ebola crisis in 2014 West Africa: https://allafrica.com/stories/201509210002.html

  1. If you do speak, inform and use your imagination!

By now we have all seen the blend ‘we care’ ads that all seem the same, as if ad agencies ‘have given up on creativity and on brand differentiation.

Sure, these ads avoid the risk of being inappropriate and ‘not reading the room’, but they also avoid being useful. Instead of ‘selling passion or image in an impressionistic and conceptual way’, marketing communication should be ‘tangible’ and inform (Edelman 2020). 84% of the surveyed 20K respondents globally said that they want brands to be a reliable news source that keeps people informed. In markets with high politicization and low trust in media (U.S., UK, Canada), email is the first choice. A brand’s website plays a critical role in developing markets, notably Brazil, China and India. Your brand communication can offer tangible solutions and motivate people to contribute: AB Inbev’s “One Team” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_t9niMNkdg may seem like another emotional ad but has action behind it: hosting American Red Cross drives at stadiums and arenas. In entertainment, the French DJ Bob Sinclar plays a free live gig every afternoon. Look for what you’re best at doing, then do it for us: https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/opinion-brands-should-not-stay-silent-during-pandemic-they-should-avoid-hero-trap/2249501. As to immediate ROI, ‘You can judge the real impact versus the media and advertising spend’. As to the long run, 65% of the Edelman respondents said that a brand’s response in the crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood of purchasing it in the future.

3) Give people the stage:

Instead of putting forward your brand and its cool products as the hero, give people ‘a stage, a microphone or a supporting pat on the shoulder’.

For instance, Volvo Trucks felt it was important to tell us how their trucks are still on the road and celebrated drivers in the commercial, “On the Road for Everyone”, but it felt more like the trucks were starring. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsBcDDpLiVk

4) Innovate by challenging assumptions: wisdom over genius


A wonderful ex-colleague of mine was working for an ad agency when a utility company asked him to come up with an advertising slogan to encourage people to pay their bills. He started by visiting the ‘target audience’ in their neighborhoods and homes and found out the electricity bill was the first or second they paid each month: they needed to keep the light on for their children to study and move up in life. However, they often could not pay online and were working two jobs with little time to pay offline: the local Walmart had huge lines after 5pm for their pop-up bill payment center. So he advised the utility company to save the money on advertising and spent it on making it easier for their customer to pay their bills, eg by setting up their own direct payment centers in the key neighborhoods. Unfortunately, his wisdom was not appreciated by the utility company, which went with a ‘genius’ ad idea instead. As JustinKirby (2020) quotes Christian Madsbjerg: ‘It’s hard, but certain people can do it and those people often gravitate towards ethnographic practices. It’s an ability to step back and observe without presupposition and preconceived notions, so you can deal with your own assumptions and challenge yourself not to conclude too fast.’ Innovation happens for Christian happens if you switch the assumptions and presuppositions about the market, and align that with the world. You suddenly start making things that are helpful. You start talking to your customers in ways that are meaningful and helpful. For instance, both the culture and the restaurant industry have to pivot now and in the future: on April 11th, Brooklyn music venue, nightclub and arts space Elsewhere will open in Minecraft. There are detailed instructions for how to listen to the audio stream and the hashtag, #NetherMeant, for sharing experience on Twitter; those who can’t join the game, can still watch the Twitch stream.


It is going to be up to us to – intentionally and laboriously – weave back together the social fabric of all the public places, restaurants, gyms, clubs, coffee shops, or churches that are closed right now. And it will be up to them to innovate to bring us back.

To arrive at such innovative insights, it is high time to combine big data with ‘thick data’ about what it means:

‘Big Data tracks actual behavior and that’s a big step forward. What it doesn’t do is give any insight in itself, but it’s better data and better quantitative data, so what’s need is a merger between the computer science and ethnographic practices to analyse the vast amount of data that’s being produced.’

In other words, it’s not the size of the data, it’s what you do with it. Here is to doing the best for our communities, our colleagues, our customers and to improve the world we all live in #Oneworldtogetherathome


5 thoughts on “What should we use our brand budget for during COVID-19?

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