COVID-19 is forcing brands to think outside the box

Stefani Forster

Stefani Forster

Stefani is a multimedia content strategist with experience at some of Canada's top agencies and publications. She worked at Touché! Media and PHD Canada on various national brand campaigns before moving to the content side, serving as an editor and content manager at The Huffington Post Canada, Hello! Canada magazine and Corus Entertainment, writing articles, producing videos, and spearheading social growth.

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From landing pages, dashboards, and even personalized emails, the amount of pandemic-inspired content produced over the last few weeks has been nothing short of astonishing. Some of it has been good, some of it has been… uh, not so good.

No one has arguably covered the virus itself better than The New York Times. Although you have to create a (free) account to view the content, it’s very extensive. Dozens of up-to-date interactive maps and charts explain the pandemic’s spread. GIFS, videos, and guides teach you what you can do to help prevent the spread of the virus. Daily podcasts address the pandemic’s ongoing impact. Their newsroom is a case study in agility and creativity, producing informative, and frankly, gorgeous multimedia content. 

Of course, only the biggest players have the resources and budget for this scale of operation. For NYT, this kind of deft delivery is nothing new. Their raison d’etre is storytelling; they’ve been producing groundbreaking, multimedia pieces for years.

The New York Times COVID-19 map gives people the information they are looking for.

Brands, on the other hand, are a different story. 

Brands sell products and services. The New York Times does not. Yes, technically, the news is a commodity, and the Times sells physical papers, but no NYT journalist would tell you selling papers is their job. Their job is journalism, and a commitment to gathering and publishing information for the public good. On the other hand, brands are always considering their bottom line above all, often to their own detriment, which is why it’s been so remarkable to see them putting the audience first during this pandemic. 

Take a look at one of our clients, Nokia, which also launched a COVID-19 landing page in record time. As a telecommunications provider, it has a very different audience and direction than a news site. However, the same principles can apply. Most importantly, Nokia takes data from the pandemic and shows information that is relevant to the telecommunications industry. The up-to-the-minute graphics contain things like messaging traffic and video streaming usage that show how the networks are coping. This allows the brand to comment on the crisis in a wheelhouse where Nokia is super informed and experienced, meaning that they can provide genuine value as an authority in the industry. 

It’s a welcome change compared to some other industry-specific brands we’ve seen displaying false-hearted, meaningless content. There’s even an option to sign up for a weekly COVID-19 newsletter bulletin to keep telecommunications providers and consumers informed. 

Sports brand Nike temporarily closed its stores around the world, but at the same time has upped its content marketing efforts. It made its subscription to the Nike Training Club app free. Their new marketing campaign, called Play for the World, utilizes its athlete endorsers to show how they’re keeping in shape during the pandemic. This and donations to the effort of fighting COVID-19 has landed them in the good graces of many consumers. As studies have recently found, the actions that brands take during this pandemic will affect the buying habits of tomorrow’s consumers.

One of my favorite brand stories out of the pandemic so far has to be from DoubleTree, an American hotel chain owned by Hilton. On top of free changes and cancellations for new, individual reservations made through June 30, 2020, they’ve also embraced their community in a very sweet way. DoubleTree is well known for its chocolate chip cookies they serve guests at check-in, which have since have developed a cult following, as fans try (and fail) to replicate them with their own recipes. In a stroke of genius, DoubleTree decided to reveal its chocolate chip cookie recipe to the world during the pandemic. The video containing the recipe has been viewed more than 500,000 times. Since the cookies are not part of their primary business model, it doesn’t harm the brand to reveal the recipe. Although, I still imagine that stuffier companies would worry too much about ‘protecting the brand’ to reveal recipes like this.

Other brands have also offered their financial or manufacturing resources to the COVID-19 cause. Fried chicken giant, KFC is providing groceries to employees and is working with charities to prevent child hunger as schools first closed. Clothing retailer, Canada Goose is making and donating medical garbs. Ford & GE Healthcare have joined forces to produce ventilators for hospitals. Various breweries and distilleries have also shifted from making beers to producing hand sanitizer. The toy company, Mattel has created an online playroom to keep your kids occupied with online and offline activities. The list goes on and on.

No matter the industry, these brands all have one thing in common: they’re making themselves useful. Even in industries hardest hit by COVID-19, (like hospitality or retail) brands can stay relevant without pushing soppy advertisements.

In the pre-COVID-19 world, we often faced pushback with clients on pushing the envelope with projects – “it can’t be done,” “it goes against brand guidelines,” “we don’t have the capacity.” You name it, and there’s an excuse to avoid doing something new and innovative. The pandemic has changed all that. Brands have been forced to think and act outside the box. Lo and behold, we’re seeing some of them step up with great messaging, informative/engaging content, and other ways to serve their customers during the crisis. It’s brought out some of the most compelling and creative content I’ve seen in years – the kind that isn’t a thinly veiled ad or a hard sell, but actually serves the audience and provides value. It only took a global pandemic to get them to do it, jeez.

Here’s hoping they continue putting the customer first when things go back to “normal.”

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