Brand-Building in the Time of COVID -19

(Hint: It’s about People — and Always
Has Been)

In these uncertain times, one thing remains certain: advertising. In fact, according to data from Nielsen, staying locked down in our homes can lead to a 60 percent increase in the amount of content we watch. Maybe that explains the tsunami of COVID-19-related ads that have come crashing into our news feeds. Brands as diverse as Guinness,, Perdue Chicken, IKEA, Tractor Supply Co. and Ford Motor Company have all released ads — in record time — that underscore both their facilitation of social distancing and their ongoing commitment to frontline heroes. While many of these ads warm the heart, they do raise a necessary, albeit cynical, question: are these brands being authentic? And more importantly, are their actions consistent with their message? How is branding in the time of Covid-19 different than in times prior?

These questions underscore a fundamental truth about branding. Building a brand is not about designing a logo or business cards or signage or color palettes or product packaging. It’s about human interaction — how your employees engage with each other and how they treat and respond to your customers. Everything else draws its meaning from those human interactions.

A logo can seem more sophisticated or profound because of the great work being done by the company it represents, but that transfer of value never works in the opposite direction. A company will not be perceived as doing great work, at least not sustainably, just because it has an attractive logo.

This is not to say that logos, taglines, and trade dress — the visual manifestations of a brand — are unimportant. They are only important as servants to the larger brand; they must reinforce, amplify and highlight the stories of the people who carry forth the mission behind the brand.

Leading by Example

The new virus-forward normal presents challenges to this fundamental truth of branding. For example, the Trader Joe’s brand is built on the power of human interaction. Its stores are relatively small, yet they’re packed with Crew Members at the registers and in the aisles. Why? They’re there to mingle with customers, answer questions and be available as a face and a voice for the company.

During this crisis, with so many of us avoiding crowds or resorting to curbside pickup, Trader Joe’s faces a 6-foot barrier to delivering on their brand — especially since they don’t offer delivery or pickup. Yet the grocery store chain is responding admirably. Here is a quick summary of its actions, all of which arise from and reinforce its people-first, community-focused approach to selling groceries, and enhance branding during COVID-19.

  • All Trader Joe’s stores now dedicate the first hour of operation every day to serve customers over the age of 60 and customers with disabilities. All stores now close at 7 p.m. to allow Crew Members more time with their families, neighbors and communities.
  • Stores have increased the frequency of cleanings, paying special attention to high-touch areas such as restrooms, registers, grocery carts and handbaskets.
  • To better support each Crew Member in making community-minded decisions, Trader Joe’s has begun providing up to two weeks of additional paid sick leave to Crew Members who have any symptoms of illness.
  • The grocery store chain is paying every Crew Member an additional $2/hour as a “thank you” wage.

But what about other brands? Are other companies taking a show-don’t-tell approach to branding during the COVID-19 pandemic? We’ve compiled a few examples of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

Hourly workers at Costco are getting a $2/hour pay bump through the duration of the pandemic. Starbucks will pay workers for 30 days — whether they come to work or not. Sneaker maker Allbirds has donated more than $500,000 worth of shoes to healthcare workers. Custom Ink, an online seller of custom apparel and accessories, reconfigured some of its manufacturing operations to produce and distribute cloth face masks to the public in order to ease demand on medical-grade masks needed by healthcare workers. And Uber is both encouraging people to stay at home — in direct opposition to a business model that cannot function without close human contact — and providing ten million free rides for coronavirus relief.

The Bad

In contrast, both Whole Foods and Instacart workers have staged walkouts over unsafe conditions, bringing attention to the fact that their employers are failing to provide them with proper PPE or hand sanitizer. Instacart employees have also complained about unfair tipping practices. GE workers at idle jet engine factories have launched a protest, demanding that they be used to make ventilators rather than be fired or laid off. All of this comes just after the company announced it would be laying off thousands of workers in a bid to save the company $500 million–$1 billion.

The Ugly

Zoom, the videoconferencing app that many small businesses relied on before COVID, saw its usage explode as more and more people found themselves locked at home. Unfortunately, the spike in users also exposed a growing list of security flaws, making it possible for Zoom bombers to intrude on private meetings and, worse, for hackers to gain root access to computers running the app. As a result, a number of businesses, including Google and NASA, have banned Zoom, whiplashing the online upstart from hero to zero in a nanosecond.

Amazon seems to be the only company thriving during the pandemic. But at what cost? According to a number of reports, the online retailer has failed to provide enough supplies like hand sanitizer to warehouse workers, while its anemic leave policy encourages people to come to work sick. Company spokespeople have tried to counter these stories, but it is challenging to overcome the narratives of frightened, frustrated employees and the angry ridicule of late-night TV hosts.

Being Human

This all brings us to a second fundamental truth about branding during COVID-19: perception is reality. So take note, brands. The world is watching. Be sure what we see is the (hu)man behind the curtain: the living, breathing brand behind the logo.




Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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