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How Brands Can Learn from Past Crises to Navigate the Wave of Covid-19

Advertising Agency
Prague, Czech Republic
McCann Prague’s Jaroslav Malina unearths fundamental principles to help brands and agencies in the weeks and months to come

2020. It was all mapped out. Cannes. The Olympics. The Euros. The annual cycle of festivities such as Ramadan, Diwali and Christmas. Sure, some things unexpectedly blow up, like the odd mouldy burger getting everyone in the industry talking, but more or less we knew what we were getting. But the emergence and global spread of Covid-19 has forced brands and agencies to slam a dramatic, screeching handbrake turn.

In so many ways, the situation is uncharted and new. We’re more connected via social media and tech and it’s a situation that will touch every part of the world. But that doesn’t mean that we have to address it blindly. A team of strategic thinkers at McCann Prague have pored over patterns and insights from previous global crises to make sense of the challenges that lie ahead, pulling together a helpful outline.

Their ‘Communications in Tough Times’ document identifies some fundamental universalities. Empathy to the fear people are facing is the overarching principle and brands should, in all instances, resist opportunism. To keep things simple, they’ve distilled six steps that apply to all marketers and agencies: review your communications; review your media; review the brand purpose; find partners and synergies; monitor the buzz; media space changes.

They’ve also mapped out a ‘pain journey’ that show the phased nature of people’s reactions to such global crises. It’s a useful way to understand both what’s to come but also to piece together the international picture – different markets are very much different places along this road. 

You can check out the whole report here. In the mean time, Jaroslav Malina, Chief Digital Officer, McCann Prague, tells us about the genesis of the research and the key insights.

LBB> This is such a big situation with far reaching consequences and much of it is so new to everyone. With so many potential directions to go in and so many different factors to consider. What was your starting point for pulling this project together?

Jaroslav> At first, we wanted to help our teams navigate the situation. But after we started putting together some insights for creative thinking, we realised that not only we find it difficult, but also that our clients have sometimes limited view on where to focus. We realised there’s lots of things we can learn from the past and the deck is actually just a brief mix of researches that have been done already. 

LBB> What do you think are the key take outs for this?

Jaroslav> One of the crucial thing is to understand that this will have multiple stages and we need to adapt in all of them. Uncertainty and volatility of the situation is what all stages have in common. My personal guess is that the world won’t be the same anymore. 

LBB> What is the situation in the Czech Republic at the moment and what is the public conversation like locally when it comes to what's happening and how the government is handling things?

Jaroslav> It seems the measures that were applied (quite early closure of schools, restaurants, ban of events, quarantine, strict travel ban etc.) are working well, although only time will show. And I’m not an expert to evaluate that anyway. 

In every government, there’s someone who wants to be seen as a hero, so we can see more or less evident steps in the let’s-gain-some-points direction. I personally would like to see more teamwork and unity in such circumstances.

LBB> Was there anything that came out in the process of doing this research that particularly surprised you?

Jaroslav> How similar to previous crises it is, even though the cause is completely new this time. People are afraid of losing jobs, maintaining current lives, skipping plans. What’s new is health and death (we have a public healthcare system in CZ, so it’s not really connected to whether you have a job or not). However, one of the research papers we’ve found said that people tend to look after their health more in these crises, even if the previous big one (2007-2008) had nothing to do with health. I assume we’re going to probably see much more of that now. 

LBB> The paper talks very seriously about brands needing to avoid opportunism at all costs - and yet there are undoubtedly opportunities to be had for certain kinds of brands to help or to pivot. How can brands tell the difference between 'opportunity' and 'opportunism'?

Jaroslav> The opportunism, for me, is just the plain short-term business perspective of finding a huge demand-supply gap (especially health-related) and generating profit on it, no matter what. The opportunities we see (and try to find) are for standing out and winning on the brand perception/salience level. We already see examples of both on our market.

LBB> There are six very clear steps you have identified, one of which is brand purpose - why is reviewing brand purpose so key?

Jaroslav> McCANN’s mission is helping brands play a Meaningful Role in people’s lives. When more than now should brands act when the whole world is affected? I think it’s an opportunity to build stronger relationships with customers. 

LBB> And you also mention the changing media landscape - suddenly people are inside and consuming a very different mix of media. What do you think are the key media changes we'll see over coming weeks?

Jaroslav> Social media substitute our contact with others and I’m sure Facebook and others already see massive spike in avg. time spent there. This also affects the whole online media space, as it’s all connected.

Also, the power of TV might rise. When you sit a whole day on your couch it doesn’t demand anything but occasional attention, so it’s the easiest channel to consume. On the contrary, suddenly some brands will have nothing to say, as you can’t buy their product.

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