Oct 15 • 5 min read

The current public health and economic crisis brings with it an unprecedented number of challenges for businesses. Given this cloud of uncertainty, one question that businesses face today is—what should brand communication look like? On Sept. 16, the Translational Research Center (TRC) brought together research and industry experts to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. 

Ceridwyn King, associate professor and Paul Anderson Research Fellow Chair in the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management (STHM), and Lee Peterson, executive vice president of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners, offered their perspectives. 

Branding is an anchor. 

Focusing on brand communication has never been more important. “Brand provides an organization with an anchor,” says King. This is especially important in a crisis situation when both employees and customers can feel directionless. 

We all look up to people we believe are authentic as anchors, and that’s true of brands as well. Peterson advises that companies avoid insincerity. “The consumer is the ultimate judge,” he says, “Transparency and honesty (in a brand) have to come through.” In fact, King points out that authenticity gives brands the space to make mistakes. In other words, customers are more willing to forgive brands that they perceive are genuine. 

Revisit your marketing research arsenal. 

Recent research suggests that brands, even big brands, have drastically cut their marketing budgets. While cutting costs is imperative, marketing research—focused on understanding the customer—is the cornerstone of any successful communication strategy. 

Marketers need to ensure that cost-cutting does not hurt marketing research. In these situations, companies should revisit their marketing research program and get creative. For example, while conducting field surveys might be expensive, social listening is a relatively inexpensive exercise that still allows companies to successfully keep in touch with their customers. Similarly, using the sales force as a research tool can be extremely effective, especially for B2B businesses. 

Challenging times call for innovative value delivery systems.  

A crisis situation makes companies risk-averse. This mindset can often hurt innovation, which is key to surviving any crisis situation. One of the primary tools of surviving, or even thriving in a crisis, is adopting innovative delivery tools. 

Take the hospitality industry, one of the areas of the economy hit hardest by COVID-19. King, an expert in hospitality branding, notes that many restaurants decided to adapt their delivery systems. “Some restaurants took to social media to share menus or cooking classes. They understood their relevance to their customers was through food, but it didn’t have to be in a restaurant establishment; they could create that relevance in a virtual world as well,” says King. 

Such examples of innovative thinking can be seen in other industries as well. Peterson points out that Best Buy now has a chief medical officer. 

Balancing the short- and the long-term.

During the current crisis, the number of sales-based promotions has drastically increased, especially in the retail industry. Brands should not forget that while sales promotions can help with immediate cash flow, there are long-term effects, too. This crisis is not everlasting, but brands should be. While innovative delivery systems can help build long-term revenue streams, too many promotions even in a crisis situation can hurt the brand in the long run.

Remember internal branding.

A company’s internal branding is possibly one of the most important, yet often ignored aspects in any organization. In a crisis situation, an organization cannot afford to lose sight of their employees’ perception. Without employees committed to a brand promise, the authenticity that customers seek becomes even more difficult to deliver. King identifies that employees are a substantial resource for knowledge; they know the customers and are a primary source for innovation.

Companies cannot ignore employee morale. Not only does low morale significantly impact productivity, but it could also lead to detractors. In times of crisis, Peterson believes that organizations should have an honest conversation with their employees and treat them as collaborators. 

Marketing, traditionally, has been the function that is focused on understanding the current and future needs of the customers. Unless a business understands and innovatively adapts to this changing landscape, they will find it hard to stay relevant and, therefore, profitable in the future. So, how a company responds today as a brand will decide whether it succeeds or fails tomorrow.

There are still many unanswered questions, and collaboration between researchers and industry experts is critical to answering them. One of the TRC’s main objectives is to connect researchers to business leaders and policymakers to ask and answer better research questions. Here are some questions for future research.

  • What makes customers perceive some brands as authentic? Would merely attempting to empathize with your customers make a brand be perceived as authentic? Or could this strategy backfire in some conditions? 
  • What is the effectiveness and efficiency of different marketing research tools to use during a crisis?
  • What characteristics make an innovative delivery system successful? 
  • What creative promotions increase sales by appealing to the reward centers of the brain, without hurting a brand image? 
  • What is the role of internal branding in a crisis situation? 

Learn more at fox.temple.edu/trc.

Monica Wadhwa is an associate professor in the Fox School’s Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Management. Her research focuses on understanding the motivational and affective determinants of consumer decisions making. She is also the research impact director for the Translational Research Center.

BrandingBudgetingCOVID-19HospitalityMarketingMarketing and Supply Chain ManagementMonica WadhwaResearch ImpactResearch RecognitionSchool of Sport, Tourism & Hospitality ManagementTranslational Research CenterWD Partners