The Biggest Brand In the World

3 Main Branding Lessons from COVID-19

Illustration by: Nick Kumbari

ow often do you see the Pope telling the world about his fresh pair of Jordans or the President of the United States addressing the nation about how great new AirPods feel? The brands we used to know usually didn’t make it that far. However, around four months ago we got introduced to a new breed of a brand, far more superior and powerful than anything we’ve quite literally touched before.

COVID-19 has the most important people on the planet using the most privileged communication channels spreading the word about its every move. This unprecedented media phenomenon is fueling a never-ending stream of information we as humans/consumers are so enthusiastic to gobble up and reproduce.

COVID-19 has hijacked all communication around us, and that omnipresence alone is quite spectacular for people dealing in attention.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning — pandemic is truly a matter of life and death, and we are not trying to portray it as anything but. Although putting aside epidemiology and conspiracy theories involving lizard people snorting 5G chem-trails, we aim to take a look at the issue from a branding perspective to explore this new frontier of total communication.

By the way, applying branding terms and definitions to common topics, social constructs, and even pandemics is a great way to exercise your analytical mind and spend your weekends.

What can we learn from COVID-19 as a brand?

1. Coronavirus is different

Standing out is the most vital prerequisite for building a great brand, and gaining attention in a world full of shiny promises. Without being different (and we mean truly different) it’s hard to surprise people, especially those who have already made their choice, have a favorite brand they trust. Surprising them with new experiences could be the best bet for winning new followers over.

a. It doesn’t compete with other viruses.

“Creating uncontested marketplace” and giving birth to new categories to set up your own playing field, is an important turning point for a great brand, according to W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD. Their Blue Ocean Strategy dates back 16 years and blames blind competitive mindset for brand failures. Brands get carried away with bickering with competitors, forgetting their followers and jumping on a bandwagon they are not steering. To win means to end the war with other brands in the same category and define a new one, “capturing new demand and making the competition irrelevant”.

Some of us have been tempted to call the newly emerged infective agent “just another flu” in the beginning of the pandemic, but despite being a respiratory virus just like the regular flu, research has shown that the new coronavirus has started a category of its own. Unlike any other viruses before, COVID-19 keeps mutating and shapeshifting as soon as its category becomes a Red Ocean (reminder: MERS and SARS started out in the same family as Coronavirus, but we barely talk about them now). Coronavirus doesn’t compete with flu, they coexist, but quite independently.

b. It has a memorable name and visual identity.

To make its grip on the world more visible, Coronavirus has adopted a very accessible identity.

We hardly remember the visuals associated with the “swine” or “bird flu”, how they look under a microscope, while the fluffy Coronavirus microbe has already made history as the biggest symbol of 2020. Way bigger than the Olympics!

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Single photo of empty streets, face mask or the infamous red dots on the black and white version of the world map makes it instantly clear what the story or meme is about. COVID-19 is a name that most humans won’t find it easy to forget. Starting out as “the new coronavirus” in the inception phase, it has transcended the national boundaries (unlike the Spanish flu and many others) and has embraced the world as a whole, transforming into a virus for all.

c. It has a clearly defined tribe to serve.

At the first glance COVID-19 is for everyone: no national, religious or gender preferences have been observed so far. However, the virus has a core audience — seniors and people with pre-existing conditions. The rest of us are there to carry the virus or suffer mildly, but it’s pretty clear the new coronavirus hits its dedicated tribe really hard. Just like any other great brand it has chosen a specific audience to cater for. This doesn’t mean others won’t notice or get infected. On the contrary, Coronavirus is building up a culture around its core followers.

Lesson #1

1.1. Don’t be like other brands, create your own category, and stop competing with others.

1.2. Choose a memorable name for your brand and an easily recognizable visual identity (we don’t mean just the logo, every graphic element is important from photos to email signature). It should be clear who’s talking from a single glance.

1.3. Select people you want to engage with most. There are simply not enough resources to build a brand for everyone. Build your own cult and let it transform into culture attracting more and more followers as you grow.

2. Coronavirus feeds on our gut feeling

Brands exist in our perception. You or your company can’t entirely “own” a brand. The audience is the sole creator and master of brands. As Marty Neumeier puts it: “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is”. For people involved in communication and branding, reality perceived by the customer can be a different concept from actual reality. New coronavirus has widened this gap to the max. When research is in progress, there’s no real truth to outweigh the perceived harm of COVID-19. That’s why governments panic, lock countries down, and millions of people end up stressed over an issue nobody fully understands.

Freedom Square (Georgian: თავისუფლების მოედანი Tavisuplebis moedani, pronounced [tʰavisupʰlɛbis mɔɛdani]) in the very centre of Tbilisi, Georgia, has never been this empty before. Photo courtesy: Nina Yorke

Perception is a powerful weapon. What people think about you is the value your brand creates. If the perception of your product is negative, you can’t tell yourself the product is great and sleep at night peacefully. The problem might lie in communicating your benefits. Coca-cola could clean rusty sinks, but most of us don’t think about that when we drink it. Himalayan salt hasn’t exactly been proven to be 5 times more effective than regular salt, but we’re ready to pay 5 times more for it, and make it the cornerstone of our healthy diets (it’s all about that pink!).

Rationale takes a backseat, while the emotion linked with the rationale gets to drive the car.

Lesson #2

2.1. Survival and empowerment of the brand depends on how well you build its image inside the audience’s minds through your communication. How you cement it using your own words, symbols, and ideas.

2.2. When communicating your brand focus on the emotional side, rather than rational. Rationality leads straight to war with other brands equipped with the exact weapon.

3. Coronavirus is everywhere

Entire philosophy of integrated marketing communication stands on a sole principle: every message of the communication complex should be interconnected and integrated. This doesn’t mean every medium should preach the exact same message, word for word. The craft of the profession is molding the information for different audiences without diluting its singular meaning. COVID-19 has given us a stellar example of a total communication campaign.

Pope Francis delivers an extraordinary ‘Urbi et Orbi’ blessing — normally given only at Christmas and Easter — from an empty St. Peter’s Square, as a response to the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, March 27, 2020. EPA-EFE//YARA NARDI

The most important people from every profession — politicians, doctors, economists, comedians, religious leaders, and thousands of brands — have been busy producing COVID-19 branded content. Each using its own language to deliver the same message: we’re all in this together, so stay the fuck home.

Brands should always be talking to their customers, using every existing channel to maintain up the emotional link. Any extra room for interpreting what your brand stands for creates instability and could be a potential threat for loyalty.

Lesson #3

3.1. Never stop communicating with your audience.

3.2. Use as many channels and mediums as possible, but never step away from your core message or your tone.

To sum up

Brands possess a very rare superpower to change the world, and COVID-19 has exceeded every expectation in that department. It has changed human behavior. How we learn, play, work, and live together. How families and friends communicate. It has changed our outlook on life on Earth. How often does that happen outside Hollywood?

Seven-year old Sessili has only seen her classmates through Zoom since March. And that’s exactly how she drew them, as a screenshot out of a video stream. “Me and My Friends” is the title of the piece, Sharpie on paper. The last screen with static is an instant classic.

We keep wondering if such influence is reserved for destructive phenomena acting on our defensive instincts, or could the same universal acceptance be applied to all things pleasant: pursuit of personal and social happiness, education, technology, good health, nice taste in movies, and etc. Maybe the good comes with the bad when we see how much we need it. It’s all about perception, right?

Readers who are well-versed in branding could see even further how COVID-19 relates to modern brands. We’d be delighted to hear what you think about these connections in the comments, and before our screens are inundated with vaccine commercials, please stay home, stay hungry, stay foolish.

The article is prepared in collaboration with Giorgi Avaliani.

Strategic Branding Professional