Coronavirus outbreak: Should brands flatten their curve on social media?

Fernando Polo

13 March 2020

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Media consumption (including social media or Netflix) and eCommerce usage is expected to rise sharply as more and more people quarantine at home amid the worst health crisis the world has experienced at a global scale as of late. At the same time, the economic impact of this unprecedented crisis is uncertain and could be massive. As I write these lines, the IBEX 35 is experiencing the worst one day drop in history, while the Dow Jones is down by 10%. McKinsey’s worst case scenario depicts a long term recession.

However, economic turmoil together with idle time from people provides an opportunity for communication as well. At Good Rebels, we’ve been diligently working with our clients to monitor, plan and take action on their communication strategies. Spain, the first of the markets in which we operate that has been shocked by the harshness of this situation, follows behind Italy, but ahead of the UK, US or Latin America, although yesterday’s New York Times editorial reflects that these countries might be awakening as fast as Spain did on Monday.

It is the first time in history that companies will face such a crisis on social media. They will have to respond to real-time inquiries, visible to everybody, and decide what to do with their continuous flow of brand and product digital content. And they will suffer. Here are some of the recommendations we are sharing with our clients.

1.- Listen, listen, listen … and monitor

Industry leaders in the monitoring software space, such as our partner Brandwatch, have already created dashboards for clients to follow the flow of conversations about CoronaVirus in real time, across different countries and languages. Combining these interactions with industry specifics is the best way to understand how brands, competitors and products are (or could be) affected by consumer perceptions. Traditional survey services are working hard to reflect people’s sentiment on brands, such as their preferences for delivery services shown in this YouGov survey.

As an example, we are creating dashboards related to this one, in order to closely review how conversations are linked in real time with open data shared by the EU, and how this could affect our clients’ products and brands. 

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2.- Be a Human-Centred brand

We are obsessed with inspiring organisations to become more human-centric: focused on their customer journeys, but also on the journeys of their employees’ and the citizens (wider society). All three are intertwined and in unprecedented moments like the one we are living it is crucial to demonstrate that we don’t only care about profit, but also about people and purpose. Companies that publicly applauded the Business Roundtable statement or the Davos manifesto as recently as last January must now walk the talk. Yes, most businesses will struggle financially but … people are worried, firstly about health, and then about financial insecurity (consider freelancers and self-employed workers, temporary workers in the travel and hospitality industry, even permanent workers). 

Some businesses are already offering true help, like Telefónica’s announcement to give free GB of data consumption to help families stay connected at home. Microsoft did something similar with their Teams tool. Difficult decisions will have to be faced by businesses with street presence like restaurants, fast food chains, big (or small) retailers. Should they close their premises and focus on eCommerce or home delivery before the Government forces them to do so? We think they should. Not only will society appreciate it, but economic recovery might be faster.  

What else can your company do for our society apart from try to keep the economy going?

3.- Act quickly, but according to your brand values

It’s been a hectic week at Good Rebels. Though accustomed to working remotely, we’ve been preparing to go 100% remote, as well as fine-tuning our monitoring queries, meeting with our clients to craft crisis guidelines and decide on specific messages. As we said above, this is not an awareness contest, but a true honest movement to help society. That said, brands are taking advantage of this opportunity by reacting quickly. Many of us have heard about the Microsoft offer, but we might have missed Google and Zoom doing something similar.

Cases like Uber Eats in Spain is an example of bad practice; of lack of context and greed. They are already expecting to be winners in this crisis, so why be pushy about it? Though Microsoft’s offer could be clearly perceived as a smart commercial move, the truth is that they are going to help many businesses to cope with the burden of 100% remote work. 

Airlines (one of the most affected sectors) are offering changes in bookings for free, to fight a debacle in sales but also to reassure the people that are willing (needing) to travel (and not just for pleasure). And Kike Sarasola, the founder of a Spanish hotel chain, offered two hotels to be used as hospitals on Twitter, with the government of the city of Madrid announcing yesterday that they were thinking of using these kinds of facilities to alleviate the upcoming scarcity of hospital beds.

4.- Keep calm and carry on

After the initial shock, people will go back to life. Watching movies, talking to friends on WhatsApp, playing online games. Screen time will rise everywhere, and digital channels will be more important than ever. Even if sales (affected by consumption, retail or manufacturing disruption) decline, brands must play now at the top end of the funnel. It is the time to focus on branding, awareness, and engagement. Digital content production and interactions matter more than ever. Advertising expenditure might take a hit, but it’s also about re-allocating along the funnel and across media channels.

Our customer experience (mostly digital nowadays) can be built or destroyed in these special times. Customer service online is crucial. Leadership, they say, is tested during crises, and our brands can be leaders, laggards or could even suffer unnecessarily from this situation.

For digital optimists like us, this might be an exceptional opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of eCommerce and the digital omnichannel experience. Direct to consumer is a huge opportunity for the CPG industry, yet, most companies stay focused on traditional trade relationships. Time (and data) will tell, but most probably new CPG digital brands will do better under these circumstances. The opportunity lies in front of us. Right now, and over the next few weeks. This is the positive message we are conveying to our clients; they are good rebels like us, trying to digitally transform their marketing and sales functions. And we’ll double our efforts to help them in these months.

Social (People) Media are helping, not misleading

We wrote a book on social media marketing in 2011 and called it Socialholic, to play with the incipient “addiction” to these platforms. But the title was pure clickbait. Our main thesis defended exactly the opposite, that social media provided individuals with superpowers to organise themselves in a decentralised, collective way, and to become better versions of themselves through better connections, access to knowledge and emotional support. Then came Cambridge Analytica and the tech backlash and now it is common to read about how social media is confusing people about the COVID-19 crisis. But we are here to challenge this assumption. Media and Governments might be the losers once the crisis fades out.

People are learning about this crisis through messages curated on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, mostly by data experts, virologists, independent journalists, and even some honest politicians. Influencers can have a role raising awareness or money, like Chiara Ferragni has done in Italy. Yes, disinformation is a risk, but the role of our relatives and close friends is also crucial right now to be conscious of the huge threat for vulnerable collectives as hospital capacity collapses. Grassroots movements like #StayTheFuckHome and others are pushing people to act independently from State measures and put pressure on indecisive public leaders (as we hit the publish button, Madrid’s government has announced the closing of bar terraces, thanks in part to social pressure) and misleading traditional media whose ties to political parties/ideologies and desperate search for traffic have stopped them from informing us about the true threat, instead writing empty alarmist headlines or articles trying to cover up the wrong decisions (or indecisions) of the Governments.

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As quarantining goes on, we’ll miss our social contacts and will rely on digital channels more than ever. This is a good opportunity for brands to do it right and be human-centric. To truly care about people, offer help, stay calm and flatten the curve, while building brand awareness and fostering engagement thanks to digital channels and routines. Will they be up to it?