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Helping Is the New Selling - #CORONA At Core

Advertising Agency
Milan, Italy
VMLY&R Italy's Simona Maggini, Francesco Poletti and Luigi Accordino share three golden rules for brands during the Covid-19 pandemic

The latest coronavirus outbreak has forced us into social distancing, thus drastically reducing our person-to-person contacts. Yet it looks like customers are closer than ever to their to-go brands.

Still, with the exception of specific industries that were crippled by default by the new lockdown standards, well summed up by the hashtag #STAYATHOME, consumables appear to be holding their own; they even increase in some cases. 

Just in these last few days, a study conducted by Kantar reveals that consumers expecting brands to stop advertising are but a meagre 8%. The same study further shows that even as many companies are effectively considering 'blackout silence' as a cost-saving option for the time being, it’s clear that even 'a six month withdrawal from TV alone could cause a staggering 39% drop in brand awareness. Such damage would only lead to further delay in time of post-emergency recovery'.

This tells us that the best way to go for brands during the coronavirus pandemic is to keep their presence strong. That’s what customers want. And it doesn’t end there: it’s becoming clear that, once the storm is over, those same customers are going to penalise the brands who opted for silence. To the surprise of exactly no one. 

Covid: Social Plague vs. Social Purpose

Up to the very day before Covid-19 hit Italy, the hottest topic for brands had been purpose. Specifically, 'Social Purpose'.

Studies conducted worldwide by the biggest institutes and international monitors have been highlighting the sharing of social values as a new main driver leading to the purchase of any brand’s products for quite some time now. In other words, choosing to nurture the brand’s reputation as a positive role model pays off. 

Covid-19 showed up together with the birth of a sort of new age in the consumption world: in a scenario where trust in institutions is mostly in a free-fall, brands, the companies owing them and their managers, have repositioned themselves as public and political benchmarks in the consumers’ eyes.

As Covid-19 showed up, and shortly after turned into a literal pandemic by crossing the Chinese border, the world was bombarded with campaigns calling for 'social activism'. 

It’s nowhere beyond explanation that, today, as we spend our time self-quarantined and home-sheltered, we would start wondering how reliable our institutions and governments are. Everybody is on the lookout for the best reference point as we cope with a crippled social reality and brands seem to come as a perfect fit for the job. 

While brands can unquestionably play a key role through their products, they can do even more with action.

To confirm just how deeper a social impact brands are expected to bring than ever before, even more data by Kantar warns “brands… should not exploit the crisis situation to promote their brand -75% of respondents... ".

One might say the best new motto for all brands at this time could be 'Helping is the New Selling'. 

But let's explore the specifics of how brands can go about 'helping' save the day in real life.

Learning by Doing, to a Degree...

Over the last four weeks, all of us at VMLY&R found ourselves facing a tsunami. A storm that hit fiercely and unannounced, affecting our day-to-day and the relationships with our brands. It caught us by surprise, but not totally off guard. In fact, we had been monitoring the evolution of the sociologic relationship between people and brands. Our interest and vigilance enabled us to react right away, responding to the urgency of the situation. This response, instinctive as you will, was strongly rooted in expertise and skills which we had been honing for quite some time.

As the world’s biggest and widest trend-setting cultures such as the US and UK joined the emergency status and began crisis management, we watched them closely, paying particular attention to the consumers’ early reactions.

By comparing what we are currently doing in Italy for our clients against the first big global case studies, our goal is to come to a rationalised synthesis of three golden rules for brands in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is the first, as figured by Simona Maggini. Stay tuned for parts two and three. 

1. #CORONA At Core - Simona Maggini, CEO VMLY&R Italy

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” J.F. Kennedy famously said when addressing the American nation.

No other words ring as true today, as brands look to illustrate what their main contribute to society could be. The outline looks as follows: recalibrate/reconvert core business focusing on products/services intended to mainly or even exclusively support the war on coronavirus.

According to Simona Maggini, CEO of VMLY&R Italy, this is to some extent a radical choice. And one that’s potentially risky in terms of short-run business profile and even harder to achieve in real time. On the other hand, amongst the multiple steps a brand can take to deliver real social impact, this is by far the most solid and realistic. In hindsight, it’s going to prove an incredibly valuable investment to any brand who dares to take it.

To spearhead the reconversion - as this strong approach is called - a couple of weeks ago, the French group Lvmh, known to the public for fashion brands as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi, took action. As per their public announcement, they set to devote their perfumes and cosmetics units to exclusively produce sanitiser gel to be distributed throughout the French territory.

In the same way, numerous Italian textile SMEs have been known to make virtue out of necessity, reconverting their production lines to manufacture face masks and other pieces of clothing intended to be used by healthcare professionals.

Armani recently announced that it is going to reconvert all its Italian production plants to manufacture disposable gowns for the health workers fighting every day to crush the virus.

Right after came a similar communication from Ralph Lauren announcing production of face masks and health gowns in the United States was about to begin.

To add to the aforementioned cases, a number of other businesses have started recalibrating their core business operations to meet the evolving needs of consumers. Some examples below:

“These are strategic steps that, even with all the difficulties and barriers, we’re evaluating together with some of our most important clients,” says Simona Maggini. “For instance that’s what we’re doing with Danone Group, on the market with multi-functional products, like Activia, Actimel and Danacol, aimed at the immune system boosting and overall Wellness and Healthcare. Generally speaking, we need to evaluate reconversion and recalibration cautiously, basing the decision on an effective feasibility that takes into account the company's long-term sustainability-profit”.

In other words, the time has undoubtedly come for brands to make themselves useful to society and take an active role in the fight on Covid-19. Just keep in mind, this is not and never will be a time for 'heroisms', as any reckless action could compromise economic future.

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