This article originally appeared on ANA.
The news didn’t sit well with supermarket chain Publix: Footage of U.S. farmers destroying fields’ worth of produce and dumping thousands of gallons of milk that they could no longer sell due to the coronavirus.
“When we saw these visuals, the cross-functional teams got together and said, ‘Here’s the problem. How can we solve this?'” says Maria Brous, director of communications at Publix. “We knew we wanted to paint a different narrative.”
The narrative has changed for the better thanks to a Publix initiative to purchase fresh produce and milk from farmers affected by the pandemic and donate it to food banks throughout the Southeast, where the supermarket chain runs 1,242 stores.
As of early June, Publix had donated more than three million pounds of produce and 250,000 gallons of milk. The donations were made through Feeding America, which estimates that 17.1 million additional people will face food insecurity due to school closings and rising unemployment caused by the pandemic.
To get the word out, Publix deployed an earned media strategy, inviting local broadcast outlets to cover the delivery of supplies to various food banks. The company also promoted the donations through its social media platforms.
“We hope we will inspire others,” Brous says. “We’re not the only solution to this issue. We are part of the solution.”
Indeed, a number of inspiring brand stories have emerged over the past several months, with companies providing ample resources to both combat the deadly disease and make things easier for first responders.
After starting in March to spread like wildfire throughout the U.S., the coronavirus has caused undue hardship throughout the country, with no shortage of need. Publix’s relief efforts reflect just one way companies are responding to the virus. Many other brands and organizations have rallied to the call as well: Boston Dynamics is expanding the use of its robots to treat COVID-19 patients; Google and Apple teamed up to launch software that will allow governments to build apps that can alert users when they may have come in contact with an infected person; and Coca-Cola is using its social channels as platforms for charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and The Salvation Army.
Marketing trade organizations are banding together as well, working with the Ad Council to launch the nationwide campaign “#StayHome. Save Lives.” The organizations involved in the effort, including the ANA and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, along with Google and YouTube, are helping to distribute PSAs encouraging people to stay at home — a key component in the fight against COVID-19.
Driving Testing Efforts
Brands and organizations are addressing some of the most pressing needs in the nation’s battle against the virus. Hyundai Motor America, for example, has steered efforts to improve access to COVID-19 testing.
“Testing is the first line of defense, and we were able to leverage our existing relationships with the hospitals to quickly help in this area of urgent need,” says Angela Zepeda, CMO at Hyundai Motor America, who adds that the company is the only U.S. automaker providing COVID-19 testing capabilities.
As the virus started to spread out of China in early January, senior U.S. executives at Hyundai reached out to their colleagues in South Korea, where Hyundai is based, to ask how to get testing to the U.S. South Korea had jumped on the virus early and found that drive-thru testing was an efficient way of handling the distribution.
Hyundai Motor America was put in touch with Seegene Technologies, a South Korea–based leader in molecular diagnostics, to obtain testing supplies. As of mid-May, Hyundai has donated 65,000 tests for drive-thru testing to 22 hospitals nationwide, especially in hard-hit cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. The contribution, which was made through Hyundai Hope on Wheels, totaled $4.3 million in grants for COVID-19 testing.
The company is promoting its relief efforts in three separate ad campaigns: the company’s funding for drive-thru testing; its Hyundai Assurance programs, which offer deferred payments; and the company’s home delivery options.
“We didn’t want to make this about Hyundai,” Zepeda says, referring to the messaging strategy surrounding the company’s various relief efforts. “We wanted to make this about a car company sensitive to the fact that people would be looking for resources.”
In addition to providing assistance that directly benefits the public, brands are also responding to the outbreak by supporting healthcare workers and first responders.
Crocs, for example, known for its comfy and colorful shoes, sent thousands of free pairs of shoes a day to medical workers on the frontlines. The program, “A Free Pair for Healthcare,” ran for about 10 weeks and ended on May 29. In total, Crocs provided more than 860,000 pairs of shoes to healthcare workers globally, at a total retail value of nearly $40 million. The program was driven in part by healthcare workers and their families who reached out to Crocs.
“When COVID-19 hit the U.S., it was our fans who said, ‘We need your help, Crocs,'” says Heidi Cooley, head of global marketing. “So we started social listening and what we heard was that, in addition to needing added comfort for their feet for longer than usual shifts, they needed our easy-on/off and easy-to-clean shoes. Specifically, we were told that having the ability to easily clean their shoes before or after visiting patients, or when transitioning back to their home life, was essential.”
Cooley points out that the idea of providing comfort is seeded deep inside the Crocs brand. “When we realized there was a growing demand and need to provide for those on the frontlines against COVID-19, it made perfect sense to us,” she says.
Crocs introduced the program on its Instagram page, which, in turn, sparked a steady stream of user-generated content by both corporate partners and brand ambassadors — ranging from Shoe Carnival to Priyanka Chopra Jonas — promoting the relief effort.
“By doing the right thing and creating positive brand goodwill, we were pleased to find there were a lot of partners who wanted to help us spread the word and contribute to our efforts,” Cooley says.
The messaging strategy has also included a strong PR push, with Crocs President and CEO Andrew Rees appearing on several local and national media outlets to discuss the program.
Celebrating First Responders
Regardless of the marketing channel, brands have to treat the messaging tied to their relief efforts gingerly. Seventy-five percent of consumers said companies should not exploit the coronavirus situation to promote their brands, while 40 percent said brands should avoid humorous tones, according to a recent survey by Kantar. The survey, based on the responses of 25,000 people, also found that 75 percent of consumers feel brands should inform the public about their efforts to combat the situation.
“Contribute before you comment,” says David Srere, co-CEO and chief strategy officer at branding firm Siegel+Gale, whose clients include American Express, Bristol Myers Squibb, and CVS Health. “Many companies are leading with commentary that is well-intentioned but lacks specificity and, in general, sounds the same. Instead, I’d counsel clients to lead with real brand experiences that help the relief efforts — experiences that are crystal clear, reflect the context of the pandemic environment, and are consistent with their company’s business and brand values.”
Budweiser’s “One Team” ad, which channels the prolonged shutdown of professional sports leagues into a touching salute to first responders, provides an inspiring example.
The ad uses the names of dormant sports teams — like the Warriors, Giants, and Angels — to describe a healthcare worker scrubbing her hands, an American Red Cross staffer preparing for duty, first responders delivering medical supplies, and a police officer donating blood. Through the coronavirus, it suggests, “we’re all One Team.””
The ad campaign is part of a wide-ranging relief effort by Budweiser’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) that includes redirecting to the Red Cross the $5 million the company normally spends on sports and entertainment marketing.
“It’s a time to send a message of security and safety,” says Monica Rustgi, VP of marketing at Budweiser.
“We wanted to use our scale as a means to make a call to action to people to donate blood.”
As part of the $5 million donation, AB InBev is working with its sports partners to identify available arenas and stadiums to be used for temporary blood drive centers; as of mid-May, the company had lined up roughly 25 facilities to participate.
“About 7,000 Red Cross blood drives have been canceled across the country due to COVID-19 concerns, resulting in some 220,000 fewer blood donations,” Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, said in a statement.
“We are grateful to Anheuser-Busch and their sports partners for supporting new blood drives to help us to maintain a much-needed supply for patients counting on lifesaving blood in the weeks and months to come.”
AB InBev is also producing hand sanitizer that will be distributed at Red Cross blood donation centers and emergency shelters.
Few can predict how the virus will play out. But it will likely have a long-lasting impact on how brands communicate with their audiences — and how companies reflect on themselves.
“We’ve realized as a global brand that moments for consumers are happening globally now,” says Cooley of Crocs. “It’s important for us to be a unified brand and that’s something a lot of brands can learn from — leaning into what your vision is and being true to that moving forward.”