by Leigh Tayler (@LeighAnneTayler) Pandemic — novel coronavirus — covid-19 — these are the words that are front and centre of the almost every human being’s mind, conversation and newsfeed around the world. Nor are brands are excluded from this global disaster. But the age-old question of what, if any, right or role may brands play in these types of circumstances or issues rears its head: at what point does a brand’s engagement on an issue become exploitative?

Best answer

The best answer I may give is:

  1. When the promotion of the brand is the objective of the conversation or action.
  2. When the promotion of the brand seems more important than its contribution to solving the issue, and lastly
  3. When its contribution seems fairly anaemic within the context and magnitude of the issue.

Several brands have engaged during this time of global pandemic, panic and social distancing. Some brands have done so tastefully, with others less so. It’s really important that markets, ad agencies and anyone else responsible for being the voice of brands at this historic time have a responsibility to respond appropriately and use their influence and power for the collective good. First and foremost, the coronavirus isn’t just an opportunity for a brief to create award-winning tactical work; it’s a proper opportunity to help, support or even just comfort a world in crisis.

Here are what I believe are some of the key elements to brands’ engaging this topic appropriately and with consciousness — the ways in which brands prevent themselves from looking opportunistic vs altruistic.

#1. Opt for PR, not advertising

When information’s packaged as an advert, it tends to be treated with a certain amount of discretion (or scepticism) because we’ve been taught over decades to understand that an ad’s purpose is to sell us something.

PR’s role has been less about selling and more about providing information; PR’s more about telling than selling. So, when a brand decides to take steps to joining the fight against the spread or impact of a global pandemic — the worst most of us will have seen in our lifetime — rather leave it to the reporters to share the news than the brand releasing a brag ad.

A great example of this is LVHM (the owner of brands such as Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior) turning its high-end French perfume factories into hand sanitiser manufacturers. The hand sanitisers will be provided free of charge to health authorities in France as there’s a nationwide shortage of anti-viral products and country’s being hit hard by the virus. This has been done as a matter of course and the story has been told via the media, rather than a billboard announcing its actions.

Locally, Standard Bank has offered relief to small businesses and students as it offers debt holidays to ease the strain on vulnerable businesses and individuals. This has also been communicated via earned media and not paid media.

#2. Make it about the issue, not you

Some brands have opted to use the power of their brand voice to educate and highlight the seriousness of the pandemic and the actions that need to be taken to stop the spread of the virus.

Nando’s, true to form, has shared a very important message in a very memorable way — while sticking it to its competition (we would expect nothing less, although perhaps at this time a tad unnecessary).

And, not one to remain quiet, Nike, has used the might of its brand to inspire the world to all be heroes and play inside.

Nike: If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world...

I very much doubt that either of these brands have received any backlash or trolling from these pieces of communication. I suspect the reason for being positively received is that the brands haven’t made it about themselves. Yes, they do leverage their brand tonality and language but for something bigger than themselves.

#3. If you do something, make it count

I beg of all you brands out there that, if you’re going to contribute and then advertise your contribution, please make sure your contribution counts and doesn’t appear flimsy, stingy or token. If you’re a big brand and your contribution to this pandemic doesn’t hold a candle to what some individuals are doing, then rather don’t make much ado about nothing.

There are professional athletes around the world who’re personally paying the salaries of all the stadium workers until the shutdowns in their areas have passed. So, you donating 1000 medical masks when you earned millions in profits last year doesn’t seem so generous now, does it? (This is a figurative example, not an actual one.)

Coco-Cola: We'll be off air for a while...

Part of this comment also relates to “stunts”. If you, as a brand, want to make a statement, then by all means do so — but please don’t make it a stunt that just lives on social media for 24 hours. Make it meaningful, make it lasting and make an investment in its impact beyond your earned media KPIs.

Are these signs real or photoshopped for a post? Do they appear on more than one store? Has the logo changed everywhere, on packaging, communication etc? Because, if they are just once-off posts, would they make an impact beyond a few hundred likes? Is that the best brands of this size and stature can do?

To sum up

  • Think before you act
  • Consider the weight and longevity of your contribution
  • Don’t do anything unless your intentions are bigger than your brand’s metrics
  • Opt for newsworthy, not brag ads, and
  • If you want to say something, make it about the issue — not about your brand.

Most importantly, communicate in line with the magnitude of a historic event that’s going to result in the deaths of millions and hundreds of crippled economies.

As one tweet said, “It’s a pandemic. Not a brief.”


Just to end off on a positive note, look at how The New York Times has used its platform to not just talk about social distancing but demonstrate it in a wonderfully media-appropriate way. Who doesn’t love an ingenious use of typesetting?

See also


Leigh TaylerLeigh Tayler (@LeighAnneTayler) is the strategy director at Joe Public United. During her career of more than 12 years, she’s worked in just about every imaginable category and has fostered a well-rounded and instinctual approach to strategic thinking that she applies at every level, from big brand concepts to last-mile moments of truth. Leigh contributes the new monthly column, “WTF?!”, which highlights the things one might hear within an agency or be asked of in briefs, to

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