BITE Focus

How brands are positively reacting to the coronavirus pandemic

While the World Health Organisation is advising people to limit their news intake during these unsettling times, many brands and businesses are stepping up, offering advice, reassurance and empathy for their consumers around the world.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into unprecedented circumstances. As the virus spreads, offices are closing down and employees are setting up working stations from kitchen tables, beds or, if you’re lucky, an actual at-home desk. While other businesses are closing with employees unsure as to what their futures will look like. Meanwhile the staff on the front-line of our essential services continue to show up to keep the country moving.

While the news headlines spiral from bad to worse, there are brands and businesses aiming to do more, to step up and step in. To engage with their customers and offer messages of reassurance, compassion and clarity. Indeed, a recent survey from Business Insider revealed that 93% of employees are more likely to stay with an employer that demonstrates empathy.

It is an empathy which starts with brands not talking about their purpose and values but putting them into action. Employers like Levi’s, Lush and Apple who have all made moves to reassure staff that they will still be paid, even though many stores around the world will close. Amazon has announced plans to hire 10,000 new warehouse and delivery workers in the US amid a surge in demand, while Morrisons in the UK have announced plans to recruit 3,500 new members of staff as well as reframing their core purpose to be “feeding the nation.” Ford has also stepped in to be an ally to its customers offering support and advice.

This is not a marketing opportunity

Twitter has set out a blog post to advise brands how to operate during these unsettled times. Top of the list? “This is not a marketing opportunity.” Because that’s the reality of situational changes or major crises; there will always be people looking to capitalise on them. Twitter’s advice is that, to be helpful to consumers, brands should only speak about Covid-19 if they have valuable information to impart. Now is not the time to attempt to leverage the situation; rather help customers navigate their way through it.

The key to successful communications centre on not exploiting the situation or offer messaging that feels insincere or inconsistent. Consumers are smarter than that; they can, and have always been able to, tell when a brand is merely purpose washing rather than being genuine in its approach.

Because the reality is that in amongst the devastation and fear are moments of happiness, of kindness and of positivity. Moments to make the industry proud. With that in mind, we have chosen to celebrate here those brands and businesses aiming to offer positive solutions during this difficult time.

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LVMH announced it is now producing hand sanitisers in its factories to service local hospitals ©LVMH

Changing your offering

The world is changing, and changing fast, so businesses are having to adapt to accommodate those changes. Particularly when it comes to production and the shortage of products, principally within the healthcare sector. 

In February 2020, UK sales of hand sanitiser saw a year-on-year increase of 255% according to data from Kantar. In response to the crisis in France, LVMH announced that it is now producing hand sanitiser at three of its largest perfume factories to service local public hospitals and health services. An estimated 12 tonnes of product will be released within the first week at no extra cost to the French public authorities. All production of perfume and other make-up usually produced in those factories is being halted as a result.

BrewDog have also announced they will be producing their own Punk Sanitiser at their Aberdeen factory, giving it away for free to local charities and those in need. Chinese battery and automaker BVD has pivoted from making batteries and electric cars to manufacturing face masks and medical grade hand sanitisers. At full capacity, the company is able to produce five million masks and 300,000 bottles of disinfectant daily, making it the world’s largest manufacturer of masks.

Supporting those in need

Besides production comes the pressure placed on the UK’s health service itself. Best Western Great Britain, one of the UK’s largest budget hotel chains has said it will offer up its properties as temporary hospitals if the NHS needs extra bed space. This could provide an extra 15,000 beds across 260 properties while the company will aim to partner with others to provide the right medical equipment and supplies. The group is owned by Best Western International which owns 4,000 properties across 80 countries; this UK move could snowball globally.

Former Manchester United teammates Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs have also announced that the two hotels they co-own in Manchester will temporarily close and be available for NHS health workers to stay in free of charge. Chelsea Football Club have done the same with the hotel they own in Stamford Bridge, making it available for medics in north-west London.

And while bars and restaurants around the world are forced to close, restaurant owner and chef José Andrés has converted some of his shuttered restaurants in the US into Community Kitchens to provide food for those in need, citing the safety of employees and guests as his top priority. People will be able to take the food home, pick up from a takeout window in the restaurants or eat on tables on the outside terraces. Closing the restaurants makes the group part of the solution rather than the problem, says Andrés: “In this moment, loving each other means staying away from each other.”

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Independent art museum M Woods offers A Hypothetical Show for a Closed Museum

Digitising connection

The challenge of staying apart while remaining connected is also being tackled by brands. Social distancing is paramount to protecting both ourselves and those members of the community who are most vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect digitally. Companies are offering the tools for people to both work from home, and also stay inspired and creative from home. Microsoft and Google are both offering corporate customers extended access to online tools like Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Meet while Adobe is offering 60 days free use of its Creative Cloud software. These sorts of tools will help us to build better, stronger online communities, through video conferences, virtual group workouts, live streaming events and other sharing capabilities.

Many of these connected communities are being built around culture and education, encouraging people to stay informed but also inspired. Fancy reading one of those books that frequently top best of lists? Visit the New York Public Library’s Instagram Stories to find yourself a classic work of fiction. Or, since people can’t make it to the cinema, Universal have made a number of its films still on cinematic release available for home renting.

China’s public-facing institutions turned to digital tools to help engage audiences maintaining their physical social distance, from developing games to providing 360 degree tours and bespoke exhibitions. The Louvre museum in France and the MoMA in New York are both offering home virtual tours, while the Royal Academy of Arts in London has said it will, despite closing its doors, still be aiming to inspire people to enjoy art and embrace their creativity. While the RA have offered refunds for exhibition tickets, they have also invited people to give their ticket price as a much needed donation to the facility.

Media connections 

With self-isolation and an increased time indoors, traditional forms of media will triumph, including both radio and TV. The BBC has laid out its plans to continue to inform, educate and entertain their audience during the crisis, from new programmes to educational shows for kids across all its channels. The Director-General Tony Hall said of the announcement, “We also will do everything from using our airwaves for exercise classes for older people, religious services, recipes and advice on food for older people and low-income families, and should schools close, education programming for different age groups. We will also be launching a whole new iPlayer experience for children. And of course there will be entertainment - with the ambition of giving people some escapism and hopefully the odd smile.” The BBC are also set to delay TV licence fee changes for the over 75s until at least August 2020.

As our beloved theatres and cinemas close their doors; the opportunity is there for brands and media agencies to step in with creative, branded live events. If we want our creative industries to weather this storm, there has arguably never been a better time to step up your game on branded digital events and screenings.

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Sainsbury's offers an on-shelf note of compassion to its shoppers

Show some empathy

In the face of crisis it is the moments of random kindness and empathy that are capturing people’s hearts. From younger generations offering to grocery shop for their elderly neighbours to musicians performing live concerts on their social media or illustrators offering drawing sessions for kids, we can all learn something from a little bit of kindness, particularly towards those more vulnerable than ourselves.

Witness how UK supermarkets joined forces to run an ad in national newspapers urging shoppers to stop panic buying and show consideration for others, with many reacting accordingly. The supermarket Iceland are offering priority shopping hours for the over 70s as are Lidl stores in Ireland, with Lidl asking the public to respect these time slots to allow more vulnerable people to visit stores. Morrisons are showing compassion by setting up a dedicated customer call centre so that people who aren’t online can still order their groceries, as well as developing a new range of simple-to-order food parcels. They too are having dedicated shopping hours for the elderly who will be given a free hot drink on their way out. Both Pret and Leon are increasing their discount for NHS workers to 50% with Leon offering to support those working in hospitals near Leon stores by offering free food deliveries and Pret providing free hot drinks for those workers too.

Compassion extends beyond just external messaging with Sainsbury’s offering an on-shelf note of compassion to its shoppers, advising people not to panic and stockpile, which could cause issues for those more vulnerable in the community. Signs read “Please think before you buy”. The supermarket’s CEO Mike Coupe outlined several measures the brand is taking during these times. They too are reserving the first hour of shopping time at every store for elderly and vulnerable customers while online customers over the age of 70 or who have a disability will also be given priority access to online delivery slots. Sainsbury’s is also expanding its Click and Collect service, offering more locations and the option to pick ordered groceries up from store car parks for those in self isolation. The supermarket, alongside others, has placed restrictions on the number of products people can buy; no more than three of any grocery and two of more popular products like loo paper, UHT milk and soap. The message Coupe sent in an email emphasised the importance of looking out for one another, to remember that there’s enough to go round if we’re considerate about the way we shop.

Supporting small businesses

During these difficult times, the businesses that will typically be hardest hit are the smaller ones, the ones that are self-sufficient, entrepreneur-run or independently owned. As people become more confined to their homes and social contact limited, how we shop and spend our money will drastically shift. While supermarkets will continue to serve, if you can, look to local businesses for deliveries, whether you’re lucky enough to have a milk man or a bakery near you that will deliver.

Acknowledging this, Facebook has pledged a $100 million grant programme in support of small businesses, aimed at backing 30,000 small businesses in 30 countries around the world. It is setting up new virtual training programmes to help business owners handle the new normal of business operations. Facebook has also made its Business Hub, a resource for Facebook employees and health experts, available to everyone to offer help, training and support from the Facebook teams.

From a company built on encouraging people to go out, Time Out has now shifted to Time In, encouraging people to adhere to expert advice to lay low and stay in. The company has also launched a Love Local campaign to ask people “to show empathy and support” towards independent businesses, something that the agency Lucky Generals has done by putting £1,000 behind the bar at their local pub in London, The Betsey Trotwood, not to drink their way through right now but to show their support for a local business in need.

In an email from The Dots Founder Pip Jamieson, she outlined ways the platform is aiming to support its community of creatives and how we can best support one another. This includes launching a coronavirus support feed online, encouraging people to get in touch with the mentors available and inviting people to sign up to live webinars and virtual events. While We Are Social in the US are offering free tutorials and marketing services to small and medium-sized businesses in America.

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The World Health Organisation joins video sharing platform TikTok to combat misinformation

Protect your health, both physical and mental

While many of us are priviledged enough to work from home, what’s vital is that we keep moving, whether that be through a daily walk outside, where allowed, to living room stretches, meditative sessions or YouTube workouts. Exercise provides a stress-release outlet, vital during these trying times as the National Trust recognise. The organisation is currently keeping all parks open for free so people can get a much needed change of scenery.

Many sports companies are making their workouts available for free online through either YouTube or social media, bridging the access gap, both monetary and social. ClassPass is letting credits run over until June while Nike Training Club partnered with Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, in February to live-stream group workout classes, building up both muscles and a sense of community with participants.

While it’s vital to keep your body moving, it’s also important to support your mental health. Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised caution when consuming news stories, encouraging people to minimise listening to, reading or watching news that makes them anxious. It’s important to stay informed but not at the expense of your mental health. As WHO has advised, “Get the facts; not the rumours and misinformation.” They’ve even set up an account on video sharing app TikTok to combat misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak. In partnership with WHO, Unicef and UNDP, WhatsApp have also stepped in with plans to work with governments to create an information hub to provide simple and actionable guidance for communicating on the platform during the crisis. And LadBible's 'Cutting Through' campaign features advice from WHO experts, directing the media company's young audience to facts, vital in a time of crisis. 

The mindfulness subscription app Headspace has developed a special series of free-to-access mediation sessions and guided walking sessions. Meanwhile, Havas are bringing their internal meditation and yoga sessions to the masses via their Creative Consciousness programming on Instagram. The sessions will be taking place on their Instagram Live channel with meditation on Mondays from 4pm – 5pm and kundalini yoga sessions at the same time on Tuesdays. And Snapchat has released its mental health tool, Here For You, early to British and American consumers.

Now more than ever, smart marketers realise that meeting your consumers' need where they are, mentally and physically, is more important than ever. As the industry finds its pace in this new normal, expect to see more brands stepping up.