Edelman has just conducted a 12-market study on the critical role brands are expected to play during the coronavirus pandemic, completed on March 26. We interviewed 12,000 people in Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and U.S. This follows on a study that we released two weeks ago on the role of the private sector during the pandemic. If you were ever in doubt that brands matter, this new data reveals the power and necessity of brand as well as their urgent need to act. Brands should find solutions instead of selling passion or image. They need to be tangible and fast, not impressionistic and conceptual.

Expectation of Brands

Respondents recognized the need for specific brand action to help address the societal challenges posed by Covid-19, from protecting the well-being of employees to shifting products and pricing to creating a sense of community. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that their country will not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges. Fifty-five percent said that brands and companies are responding more quickly and effectively than government. At the same time, 71 percent agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever. About a year ago, our Edelman Trust Barometer special report on brands showed that brand trust is on par with quality, value, convenience and ingredients as a purchase consideration.

Protect and Partner

There is unanimity across markets (90 percent globally) that people want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends. Brands such as KFC have allowed sick leave to be taken and guaranteed wages for employees unable to work because retail locations are closed by government order. Brands are also being asked to shift to producing products that help consumers meet the challenges of today (89 percent) and to offer free or lower-priced products to health workers, people at high risk, and those whose jobs have been affected (89 percent). Finally, there is a clear desire that brands both partner with government (90 percent) and be a safety net stepping in to fill gaps in the government’s response to the virus (86 percent).

Inform and Empathize

Brands must focus their messaging on solutions, not selling. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they want brand advertising to focus on how brands help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges. Seventy-seven percent said they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives. There is deep desire for expertise, with 78 percent rating medical doctors as credible spokespeople for the brand’s virus-related actions, with celebrities (26 percent) and influencers deeply discounted (28 percent). More than half of the respondents (57 percent) want brands to stop any advertising or marketing that is humorous or light-hearted. Fifty-four percent said they are not paying attention to new products at present unless they are designed to help with their pandemic-related life challenges. In short, respondents believe that brands can and should make a difference throughout the coronavirus crisis. HP’s donation of 3-D printers to hospitals to produce masks is an important example.

Brands are a key source of information during the crisis. Eighty-four percent of respondents globally said that they want brands to be a reliable news source that keeps people informed. They want to receive this information from multiple sources, in part because they are skeptical about any individual medium given the epidemic of fake news. The most credible combination is mainstream media plus email. In markets with high politicization and low trust in media (U.S., UK, Canada), email is the first choice. A brand’s website plays a critical role in developing markets, notably Brazil, China and India. There is more belief in earned media (national media at 64 percent and local media at 62 percent) than in brand advertising (53 percent) and brand social media (51 percent).

Educate and Connect

People want brands to use their power to educate (85 percent). That means offering instructional information about how to protect themselves. An example of this is Microsoft’s Healthcare bot offered on the CDC website, which enables people to ask questions about their symptoms. People want to know that the brand is helping (89 percent) and how they can best access its product and services (88 percent).

Brands should bring us together at this difficult time. Club Med has done this by repurposing its talent to design sports fitness at home. Respondents told us that they want emotional connection, which means helping them stay close to people they are being forced to physically distance from (83 percent). They also want compassionate connection, including brand messaging that communicates empathy and support with the struggles they face (83 percent). They want brand social channels to facilitate a sense of community and offer support to those in need (84 percent). Hearing from brands they use about what they are doing in response to the pandemic is comforting and reassuring to them (65 percent).

Brands can build a new level of connection with consumers or lose the relationship forever. Sixty-five percent of respondents said that a brand’s response in the crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood of purchasing it in the future. Sixty percent said that they are turning to brands that they absolutely can trust. Over one-third of consumers (82 percent in China, 60 percent in India) said that they have started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way that it has responded. By contrast, there is great risk to brands that are perceived to be acting unsympathetically. One-third of respondents have already convinced other people to stop using a brand that was not acting appropriately (China 76 percent; India 60 percent).

A New Role for Brands

This global crisis will fundamentally change how we think, behave, and consume. There is no rapid return to normal. The new world will have trust at its core, with the brand mandate expanded to solve problems for all, protect all, care for all, collaborate with all and innovate in the public interest. At this moment of deepest global crisis, the public wants brands to step up, keep us safe, guide us and help us. Brands that act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large will reinforce their expertise, leadership and trust and immeasurably strengthen the bond they have with consumers.

This is a moment when brands can prove that they put people, not profits, first. Respond with compassion and make a difference; this is the true test for purpose-driven leaders. The people are counting on us to deliver.

Richard Edelman is CEO of Edelman.

Edelman is supporting businesses and organizations looking to better understand the COVID-19 pandemic and its public health implications; manage communications with employees and customers; and receive guidance on strategies and policies for effective preparedness and response efforts.

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