Coronavirus ‑ From brand management to reputation management

By Paul Griffin

Your brand is the promise that you make, and your reputation depends on how well you fulfil that promise. How well businesses fulfil that promise now will have a lasting impact on employees, customers and partners when we have moved on from this crisis phase and into the recovery phase.  

 “The sober, well-crafted email that underlined the new reality for me came from Arnotts,” were the words from Laura Slattery of The Irish Times, highlighting a very fitting note from Donald McDonald CEO of Brown Thomas Arnotts to the company’s customers last week, in an article that has captured the zeitgeist of brand communications. With more time to digest and more emails than ever, people are now highly attuned to the language and communications they are receiving from the organisations and brands they associate themselves with.

In unusual times, the usual approach does not work and at ReputationInc, we are supporting our clients across a range of industries such as retail, technology, healthcare and finance to view all of their communications - from customer facing marketing channels to internal and corporate messaging, through a reputation lens. So how can businesses, large and small, manage their reputation through this crisis?

Don’t be silent:

For many businesses, the temptation during this ever-changing environment, will be to adopt a risk-adverse strategy and become silent as operations slow down. However, it is more important than ever that these channels are used to represent the voice of the entire business, and its response to this crisis to reassure customers and staff and re-establish the key values of the organisation and brand.

Communicators have a crucial role to play in explaining the company position in order to manage the reputation of the business long-term. That said, there’s a balance to be struck and a need to refrain from band-wagon communications and distilling messages for the sake of it. Keeping communications meaningful and substantial will help businesses cut through the noise.

Be creative with your marketing approach to engage customers:

However, adapting communications is only one piece of the puzzle. Real substantive communications are best driven by a shift in the business marketing strategy and evolving the business proposition to the current climate. Without this reaction, businesses will quickly become limited to communicating well wishes alongside a ‘pretty picture’ with a first-rate logo and the kind of tokenistic emails we’ve all received in our inbox from well-meaning brands. Eventually, people stop paying attention, and in some cases, become resentful.

As part of our work with clients, particularly those heavily consumer focused companies and frontline retail organisations, we have seen some fantastic examples of how marketers have 1) re-negotiated their pricing positions to support suppliers and customers in this period 2) changed their distribution models to be more inclusive to their vulnerable customers or 3) created significant reputation equity through a meaningful CSR/ sustainability approach or initiative to support staff.

This will create longevity to communications and will help the business develop reputation equity for when we emerge from this global crisis.

Establish the right tone:

In the last number of weeks, we have seen a rapid shift in the language and tone coming from the business community. One thing that has emerged is the rise in open, honest and heartfelt messages coming from boardrooms from every industry. It is unprecedented and there’s a reason for this - the current crisis is affecting us all, no one is untouched by this. This has stripped back the element of fear that usually constrains business communications and has landed us all on a level playing field, allowing us to talk more openly. Businesses needs to go beyond the traditional corporate narrative and capture the right tone of voice for them in this crisis - it’s critical that they come across honest and humane. Otherwise, they will stand out from the herd - and not in a positive way.

It is imperative that as we navigate our way through these unprecedented times, there is a shift in business strategy from brand management - that is a customer centric approach focused on products and services, to a reputation management approach - focused on the credibility and respect that an organisation has among a broad set of stakeholders such as employees, investors, partners and regulatory and government organisations.

It is no longer enough to rely on the business offering, which for many companies, may be forever altered as a result of COVID 19. Instead there is a need to establish legitimacy by fulfilling the promises and values of the entire company as an employer and a socially responsible, sustainable business. Having a strong reputation will undoubtedly be the lifeline companies will rely on to position themselves securely for the future business climate – whatever that may bring.

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