Best Brand Moves During The Pandemic

The fallout from COVID-19 has ranged from tragic to merely awful, but the pandemic has also highlighted heroes – mostly first responders and other essential workers. It has also brought out the best in some companies and brands, with accompanying positive PR.

The abrupt shutdown of normal work and social life has caused many companies to pull back in their advertising and PR. Others have struggled to strike the right note in such a serious situation. But still others have stepped up. Here are my picks for best brand moves so far during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lowe’s builds its reputation

Last week, Lowe’s launched its #BuildThanks campaign, asking customers to post thank-you signs and other positive messages for COVID-dedicated medical professionals using the hashtag. The campaign doesn’t ask people to come to Lowe’s to buy materials; rather, it suggests using what they already have at home. But it does encourage participants to share their signs on social media, resulting in thousands of views and engaging local communities.

Coors Light lightens the mood 

Social media has been a tad depressing lately, with many expressing anxiety or sharing losses due to the pandemic. We can all use some levity, and this week we got it when 93-year-old Olive Veronesi of Seminole, Pa made a relatable request by holding up a sign reading, “I need more beer” while enjoying a Coors Light. Wouldn’t you know it, Molson Coors was listening.  It delivered 150 cans of Coors Light, and, of course, the social media coverage went viral. Olive’s plea – and the brand’s response – was even picked up by CNN. Talk about raising community spirits! I hope she shared.

P&G busts a move 

How do we persuade Gen Z-ers to follow social distancing guidelines? In March, P&G issued a challenge on TikTok for #DistanceDance to help do that in its home state of Ohio. The challenge generated billions of views and almost 2 million response videos, including from celebrities, college mascots and athletes. For every #PGpartner-tagged video, the company donates essential items to organizations like Feeding America.

Domino’s delivers 

Domino’s has given away 10 million slices of pizza as part of its “Feed the Need” campaign to thank essential workers at hospitals, medical centers, grocery stores, and more. Most of the franchises across the country are involved. They’ve even delivered 100 pies to my local hospital in NJ earlier this month! There’s no topping that move.

Hotels open their doors

My personal favorite move from an organization during this crisis is from the hotel industry. The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which includes hotel franchises Marriott, Hilton and Red Roof Inn, among others, has opened up beds free of charge to house health care workers and other first responders during the pandemic. The effort is called “Hotels for Hope” and is quite a meaningful step in keeping health care workers and their families safe.

When Brands Overreact To PR Problems

Social-media-fueled brand controversies are more common than ever in the digital age. But even in the current crisis-of-the-hour media environment, it’s natural for major brands to take slights very seriously. Where millions of dollars are spent and fat profit margins are at stake, overreactions are understandable. You can almost sense the confusion, conflicting advice, and panic beneath the surface.

Most businesses will back down in the face of controversy, even when the criticisms are groundless. Remember when Gap backpedaled as brand-watchers criticized its new logo? Admittedly, the new logo was bland and the backlash probably added color to its reputation, but it was a stunning reversal in such a short time.

Sometimes a brand will simply cave. Home center chain Lowe’s pulled its ads when threatened with a boycott over its support of a reality show called “All-American Muslim.” The decision was met with fresh outrage from progressives, so it was a true lose-lose for the chain. But word like “one million moms” have been known to trigger a hasty media planning redesign.

That’s why it was refreshing when Cheerios, assaulted by YouTube trolls over a charming ad featuring an interracial family, was so unfazed in its response to criticism. Not only did it refuse to back down (and why should it?) but the tone of the brand’s response made it clear that the ad would go on.

Of course, it’s easy to stand your ground when confronted with ugliness, but lots of companies would have quietly killed the ad. More importantly, most probably wouldn’t have produced it in the first place.

So, cheers to Cheerios for wanting to position its brand as inclusive and up-to-date. And even more for unapologetically disabling nasty comments and seeing the PR gold in letting the commercial’s actors speak for the brand.

By meeting its critics head-on instead of overreacting, Cheerios elevated the spot from a progressive commercial to a statement about brand values. And it reaped bowlfuls of good will in the process. Well done.

Isn’t It Ironic? Lowe’s Apology Triggers PR Damage

The backlash came in a flood, like a burst pipe. The move by Lowe’s to drop its ad support for the TLC show “All-American Muslim” after pressure from a conservative Christian group may leave its reputation in serious need of repair.

But, to me, it reads like an O. Henry story where good intentions go awry, and no one wins.

Certainly Lowe’s has its hands full. Muslim community leaders have spoken out against the move, as have boldfaced names in entertainment. Lowe’s Facebook page is rapidly filling with comments – over 10,000 at last count – from supporters to those crying bigotry.

There are so many ironies here.

Irony #1 – “All-American Muslim,” which depicts the everyday lives of  five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, was presumably created to show that Muslim Americans are just like everybody else. Instead, the show has been the catalyst for a firestorm of controversy where ugly names are exchanged on all sides.

Irony #2 – Lowe’s axed the ads after the Florida Family Association sent letters of protest. The company posted a Facebook statement that apologizes for making so many people “unhappy” and explains its intent to “respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.” (Huh?) But, in reversing itself to make one group happy, Lowe’s apparently failed to realize that others would then be unhappy. Such is the law of unintended consequences. Now, the company is stuck.

Irony #3 – Lowe’s was singled out for criticism because it tried to explain its decision. (Other companies, including archrival Home Depot, also dropped their support for the show, but more quietly.) That’s laudable, even though the language was a bit legalistic and ultimately inadequate. More importantly, the decision to give in to pressure in the first place was shortsighted. (see Irony #2)

Irony #4 –  “All-American Muslim” has garnered more PR than TLC could have ever dreamed, which just might boost ratings, leaving it more attractive to advertisers…..yet, they’ll need to be intrepid enough to wade into a PR mess.