Mitigating the customer impact of COVID-19 will require steady brand leadership and empathy – learn what it takes to weather the storm and come out ahead on the other side.

For brands and customers, we are living through an extraordinary moment of change and disruption. We all feel it, with our day-to-day lives and routines, relationships, and financial well-being upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing. Amidst all of these serious challenges, brands are facing an imperative to drive what business they are able to drive, while preserving and even growing their brand equity.

We all know how hard brands have worked to build meaningful relationships with their customers, but for many brands these relationships are fleeting. Customers are isolated in their homes; many are unemployed or fearful of the risk of being out of work. The simple truth is that while consumer spending certainly will not go to zero, how customers shop will change. Every business will feel a significant impact from this crisis no matter how well-insulated it may seem. So, what can brands do to maintain their relationships with customers during this time of disruption? And as customers’ lives are being upended, how can brands avoid ceding market share to competitors or losing their direct relationships with customers who are experiencing hardship? To weather this storm, it is vital for brands to put their customers’ safety and well-being first while continuing to provide the products and services they need and love. Part and parcel of this is the critical fact that brands must express, through their actions, policies, offerings, and pricing, that they understand what customers are currently experiencing. Brands must demonstrate empathy now more than ever.

As outlined in previous posts, crucial to managing the business curve of COVID-19 is understanding its three phases: Panic and Disruption, Fear and Isolation, and Recovery and The New Normal. Brands and their customers are facing the same trajectory and challenges. Below we’ve outlined how brands can respond and what they must deliver for their customers over the coming months in order to successfully make it through this crisis, with some examples of brands that are already taking steps to lead in these areas: 
 

Deliver flexibility and transparency.

In the Panic and Disruption phase, one of the most important things a brand can do is to be flexible, transparent, and fair with customers. Their lives are just as upside-down (if not more) than what your business is experiencing and demonstrating empathy does not have to come at the cost of your long-term business. In most cases, brands are not issuing refunds, and instead are allowing customers to reschedule for a later date. For example, all of the major U.S. air carriers have waived change and cancellation fees and are allowing their customers to use the value of their ticket for future travel. Staples, among many other retailers, dropped minimum online order requirements to address the transition of people working from home.
These types of changes inherently build trust between the brand and customer, and when the crisis subsides, the winners will be the companies that proactively built this trust and respect among all their stakeholders during this period of uncertainty. 


Educate your communities.

Early in this crisis, brands have by and large responded well and have done an excellent job of delivering timely, informative, and helpful information to customers around changes in policies or practices, hours, shortages, or service disruptions. During the Fear and Isolation phase, brands will need to continue to clearly communicate their efforts to conduct business as usual and to respond to COVID-19. Some of this can be delivered through alerts on the website, a content news hub, the brand’s social channels, and customer emails and communication from the CEO.

But this need to educate our community goes beyond sharing updates on what the brand is doing to respond to the difficult business climate. Brands can use their platforms to model good behavior and demonstrate leadership, reassurance, and even guidance to their customers during these difficult times. For example, Tik Tok, the definitive media channel for Gen Z, enabled a viral hand-washing dance challenge to teach kids how to protect themselves. Lush, a handmade cosmetics retailer, invited people into stores to wash their hands, with no obligation to purchase, as part of a wider public service effort to fight the transmission of the virus. Nike is providing free access to its Nike Training Club app so people stuck in their homes can take free fitness classes. This active engagement by brands serves another great purpose: in a time when so many customers feel isolated, brands are doing their best to drive a sense of togetherness and participation.


Demonstrate empathy for all.

Incorporate empathy as a core sentiment of your brand’s response to these challenging times. Empathy for your employees, your customers, your suppliers, your shareholders, and your communities. This challenge is a universal one. The truly successful brands during this period will be the ones that put this knowledge and mindset at the center of their actions. For example, Costco and Wholefoods are opening early for sensitive customer groups like senior citizens, while Serta Simmons Bedding, an ICF client, recently donated 10,000 beds to New York hospitals.

For employees, who will be at the center of your response and recovery, many brands are taking steps to keep these stakeholders safe and engaged. Clearly disseminate information about policy changes and procedures via your intranet and a letter from leadership. Offer relevant training to help educate front-line staff on what the CDC and other health authorities recommend regarding COVID-19 and empower them to help relieve customer anxiety. And make policy changes that are grounded only in your employees’ well-being. For example, REI modified its paid time off and sick policy to ensure that employees—including hourly retail employees—do not suffer loss of income or other benefits if they miss work due to illness or to take care of sick family members. These measures extend to and benefit your customers as well.


If you need it, ask for support.

Sometimes it is hard for a brand to admit that it is facing a challenge and to ask, humbly, for help. But in this time of crisis, it is absolutely okay to let your stakeholders know if the business, and more importantly, the business’ employees, have needs. This is especially true for small and midsize businesses, and it’s important to inform the community of the ways that it can help. For example, many smaller businesses and restaurants are encouraging customers to buy gift cards and order takeout. In some cases, that support can come from other stakeholders within your brand’s ecosystem. For example, DoorDash, the app-based door-to-door delivery company, launched the #OpenForDelivery movement to support local restaurants, featuring small business stories and education on food safety measures. 


The Customer Journey 2.0

The impact of COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on the customer journey. Consumer expectations will change, the implications of which we don’t yet fully understand. During the Recovery and The New Normal phase, consumer behaviors and inclinations will have shifted in subtle yet fundamental ways that will have far-reaching impacts on brand-to-consumer interactions that will reshape the customer journey—both temporarily and permanently. For example, in the short-term, post-COVID-19 pandemic, we will likely see a sustained uptick in online shopping behavior for essential items from online retailers and grocers, forcing brands that had previously resisted ecommerce to adapt. But will that trend continue for non-essential items as people return from a work-from-home world? More than ever, customers will expect brands to deliver consistently across channels, while brands that made investments in building trust, transparency, empathy, and appreciation will not be forgotten.

And when physical stores begin to once again open their doors, how will brands ensure that they are providing a safe and sterile in-store experience? Mitigating these concerns and placating these consumer fears by providing a shopping experience that is safe and sanitary to encourage foot traffic will be vital in instilling consumer confidence. Other changes can’t be predicted but brands that are agile, proactive, and thinking ahead will benefit from these short- and long-term shifts.


Emotional loyalty deepens.

When the dust settles and we begin the long recovery and emerge from isolation into the New Normal, customers will be ready to reinvest emotionally with brands. The meaning and depth of emotional loyalty before and after COVID-19 may be starkly different. After the crisis, there will be a prolonged and newfound emphasis on empathy resulting in deepened emotional ties that will shift customer preferences and brand affinity. The key drivers of emotional loyalty will be remapped and take on a different significance, and brands will need to continue to listen and learn acutely, identify opportunities, and reinvest in their customers as much as their customers did in them.

Ultimately, we’re all dealing with the challenge of COVID-19 together. We would be wise to remember that in a period of massive disruption, the brands that rise to the top are the ones that act selflessly during the challenging times and set themselves up for future success by using their brand as a platform for good and making their stakeholders’ ongoing challenges a bit easier. So, wash your hands, follow your local health guidelines, put your head down, and get to work.

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