Moment to moment, the global impact of COVID-19 presents unprecedented change, touching every corner of the world and altering daily life in ways that may become permanent in our post-pandemic society.

While no one can be certain about what lies ahead, we can learn from recent crises to inform how brands should react and adapt to the current environment. Using past recessions and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as historical guides, here are six strategic behaviors to help your brand navigate a yet-to-be-defined future.

Think people-first, starting with your employees

Everyone’s COVID-19 experience has and will continue to be uniquely personal. Whether you are directly impacted by the disease in your immediate family, working from home while balancing homeschooling your children or living alone in isolation from face-to-face interactions with loved ones, the ripple effect of the disease is truly incalculable.

Taking the extra time to understand the morale of your teams, communicating openly at a regular cadence, and, above all else, prioritizing the safety of your people can and will, as Mark Cuban claims, impact how your brand is defined for decades.

Rally behind your values

The world may be changing, but the truism that “actions speak louder than words” is not. We all may be doing some soul searching right now, and brands have the opportunity to do the same. Use your company values as your guideposts for how your brand will respond to the evolving local and global environments.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Victorinox, the parent company of the Swiss Army Knife, was able to keep their workforce employed and strategically diversified their portfolio by staying true to their family-centric values and commitment to quality—despite losing more than 40% of their business due to stricter safety guidelines for travelers.

Today, we see brands using their values to pivot and support where society needs their expertise or influence:

Dyson is leaning into their culture of innovation to design and build much-needed ventilators for hospitals.

Nike is issuing call-to-actions that are rooted in the company’s mission to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” However, the CTAs are tailored for the new role “everybody” has to play in mitigating the impact of COVID-19.

If you are finding that your values are not providing the guidance you need, now is also an excellent time to re-imagine them to ensure they align with your organization’s beliefs and provide directional support in both prosperous and trying times.

Redefine your audience segments around new emotional needs

People change as the world around them changes. Brands who invest in understanding the evolving needs of their consumers will be a step ahead of those who rely on previous habits or standardized demographic trends to guide their decisions. Think creatively about where you can double-down on your consumer insights efforts, such as social listening, to keep a finger on the pulse of their evolving emotional needs and create new audience segments that align with emerging behaviors and trends.

During difficult times empathy can be a new form of currency. Investing additional time to know and be known by your current consumers as they’re adapting to the current reality can solidify your brand as a long-term partner and help you identify new opportunities to evolve those relationships.

Practice precision, not panic 

Making strategic decisions that reinforce what’s working and realigning around new needs will reap bigger benefits in the long run rather than making significant changes or broad cuts in the short term. After you’ve taken the time to reacquaint yourself with the emotional shifts of your target audiences, take what you do best, and tailor it to align with their unmet and evolving needs. Today, we see many restaurants adapting quickly to new “shelter in place” government regulations, while also solving for the unmet supply needs of their customers, by transitioning into local corner markets.

Innovate where you can provide the most value

Are there ideas or projects your brand has had on hold due to time or resource restraints? What an opportune time to start tackling them! Some of today’s biggest companies and most novel ideas (think Disney, Microsoft, Airbnb) were a result of combining a unique understanding of the evolving needs of the world with an unanticipated lull in economic activity. Crises and recessions tend to illuminate broken systems and ignored segments of society. Clearly define where and how your company creates the most value, and do what you can to help empower your brand (and your people) to emerge stronger.

Take action when the time is right

The world will be different, but it will also move forward. Brands can play a unique role in providing the support and services consumers and communities need during this unprecedented time while also building a vision for the new future.

Finding their products in high demand during COVID-19 quarantines, Slack is rising to the occasion with resources and tools to help ease the transition to a new way of working.

Following their playbook from previous recessions, GM has announced a comprehensive program to encourage economic growth and support consumers during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

And back in October 2001, Apple introduced the first iPod, just six weeks after 9/11, setting the stage for a new digital way of living.

We are at the beginning of what will likely be seismic shifts in the way we experience life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brands have the opportunity to evolve alongside society, or risk becoming irrelevant in the “new normal.” It is a strange yet vital time to solidify what you stand for, and reconnect with your employees and consumers as we all adjust and, ultimately, emerge from this time of uncertainty.


Kaitlin Smith is a Strategist in our Los Angeles office