A condensed version of this article appeared on MediaPost.
Last week, I found out who my (brand) friends were.
Note to readers: for the rest of this article, just substitute the word “brand” every time you read “friend.”
I was honestly shocked that I had so many friends to start with, and that so many I hadn’t heard from in forever still had my contact details (even if all they had was my email address, and I can’t think of a less effective method of getting my attention).
Nevertheless, friends started coming out of the woodwork to “touch base,” as all of us went into work-from-home isolation. At last count, over 350 friends had contacted me- and after seeing what they all had to say, I’ve noticed that there are basically three types of friend in a crisis.
The first type—I’d say the vast majority are in this bucket—wasted no time making this crisis all about themselves. These friends would have been better off posting a picture of themselves to Instagram along with a couple of trending hashtags than sending me junk mail.
They’ve told me what they were doing in response to the virus: my friend State Farm is very concerned and is doing their part; Enterprise Rent-a-Car is standing by to help doctors and nurses, and me, with my mobility needs (that means they’re standing by to rent cars); Uniqlo are closing their stores but I can still reach them via the web or their 1-800 number.
Other friends went farther—in addition to their COVID-19 information they suggested that I might buy something they were selling (CB2, one of the few friends to text me instead of email, suggested some “retail therapy” and offered a 20% discount. The next day they suggested I update my home office with a 30% discount. They helpfully followed up a day later to tell me my time was running out to take advantage of their offers. That was considerate.
But here’s the thing, I had never had more than a transactional, skin-deep relationship with any of these friends. What they were up to in response to COVID-19 hadn’t even crossed my mind. And yet here they were, clamoring to tell me how socially responsible they were, and jamming my inbox with clutter and noise at the exact time when space, calm and clarity were needed for frayed nerves. And these messages, honestly, weren’t required nor appreciated: I’d have expected any responsible person to take all these precautions. It was hard not to feel that they were using the occasion of a global pandemic to insert themselves into the story. If you were going to reach out to me after so long, why not make it about us, and not just you?
That brings me to the second type of friend. A handful of friends reached out to see if they couldn’t genuinely make my situation better, and didn’t ask for anything in return. Some have proactively offered help in adjusting to the new reality. Early on, Rhone—a friend of mine who is all about active and healthy living—sent me helpful, useful content, such as things I might want to read, in-home workout suggestions to keep active, suggestions on how to adapt to working at home, and even shows to watch when things get tedious. That was a note that I actually didn’t mind reading—and forwarding—to others.
Some of my friends have pointedly tried to reduce anxiety. Two that serve the community where I live—Berkshire Bank and Rhinebeck Bank—popped up to see what they could do, in the case I was feeling an economic pinch. No doubt seeing the economic and unemployment markers start to go south, they relaxed spending limits on cards, removed early withdrawal fees and penalties for CDs, and gave mortgage and loan customers postponement options if they need. This was a simple but meaningful move. That’ll relieve someone’s anxiety, and it probably gained them a lot of community goodwill.
But it’s the third type of friend that I’ve been thinking about most—these are the ones I typically count on, and now I’m seeing how they rely on me.
One message came from the barbershop down the street, where the same guy has been cutting my hair for four years, and another from the dog walking service that has taken care of my dog every day I’ve been away at work for the past five years. In the micro-economy of a New York neighborhood, my monthly expenses are someone else’s meal ticket. And these two came at me with a direct and heartfelt appeal: for their own survival as businesses, they need the people they’d taken care of for so long to step in and take care of them.
Both of them came right out and asked for financial help. In the case of the barber shop, it was a GoFundMe page to help the staff while they’re closed by state decree, and the walking service, with a request for pet owners to schedule ‘virtual walks’ to help their part-time walkers, given that their customer base is now all suddenly working from home and demand has dried up overnight.
I rely on them—and I realize they depend on me too. I’m happy that I can help them get through now, in the small ways that I can. What are friends for, after all?
So, take a look around and see who your brand friends are. Sort through the clutter, keep an eye out for the friends who are there to help, and be on the lookout for the friends you always count on, and who might need you for a change.
Britt Bulla is a Senior Strategy Director on the New York team.