People have been obsessed with the end of the world since its beginning. For ages, we’ve churned out dystopian fiction and monster movies—think Godzilla stomping across Tokyo or post-societal collapse classics like Mad Max. From a young age, we’re trained to believe that those who survive will have to rely on their individual strength, wit, and grit. But, as Laurie Penny notes in a recent article for WIRED, COVID-19 is not the apocalypse you were looking for. In fact, during times of crisis, people are more—not less—likely to put aside their differences and unite in unprecedented ways. And they’re looking for that same sense of unity and social commitment in the brands they support. 

The biological basis of altruism

Recent studies have shown that we might be hard-wired to give back. In 2006, one study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) found that when participants donated to causes they cared about the brain’s reward center lit up. We’re programmed to give. But why does giving back feel so good

According to some experts, it triggers our empathy response. As Tracy Asamoah M.D. writes for Psychology Today, “We connect with other people who we see suffering with an understanding that at another point in time, we could be the ones confronting a tragedy or crisis.” 

Plus, the experience of a collective crisis keeps us connected. This is a theory put forth by Charles E. Fritz, a giant of modern disaster studies. The “merging of individual and societal needs” during a disaster, Fritz argued, “provides a feeling of belonging and a sense of unity rarely achieved under normal circumstances.”

But is that what’s happening?

But, you might ask, What about the empty toilet paper aisles and need for senior-only shopping hours? If we’re wired for altruism, how do you account for supply hoarding? It’s easy to look around and speculate that COVID-19 has brought out the worst in people. But, as Bill Taylor writes for the Harvard Business Review, these instances are the exception to the rule. “In every moment of darkness, it seems, there are countless moments of light,” He notes. “Small gestures of compassion and connection that allow people to show who they are, how they want to live, and what matters to them.”

For every headline about empty shelves or price-gouging on hand sanitizer, there’s a humanitarian counterpoint. Or, as Rutger Bregman notes for TED, “For every antisocial jerk out there, there are thousands of doctors, cleaners and nurses working around the clock on our behalf. For every panicky hoarder shoving entire supermarket shelves into their cart, there are 10,000 people doing their best to prevent the virus from spreading further.” 

And brands are at the frontlines of social good

This positive change isn’t just occurring at the individual or organizational level. Brands around the world are stepping up to do their part. From monetary donations to manufacturing vital medical supplies, brands are stepping up their give-back game. 

But is it enough? According to Hillary Haley, a social psychologist at Los Angeles-based agency RPA, it might not be. In a recent discussion with AdWeek, Haley noted that brands also need to mobilize their customers to do social good. “We all know about the concept of fight or flight when we’re under stress,” Haley says. “But there’s another response—tend and befriend—and it has evolutionary roots. We have an innate desire to reach out and be part of the solution. When we do that, it alleviates our stress.”

That’s where brands come in. Haley says they’ll see the most benefits long-term “if they can play the connector role” between worthy causes and home-bound, frustrated, and anxious consumers.

How your brand can get involved

As the impact of COVID stretches into the coming months, it might be time for your brand to get involved in the give-back efforts. And we’ve got some tips and tricks to go about it in a way that supports your brand identity. 

Get creative

The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have fundamentally changed how many of us work, play, learn, and live. Brands across every sector and industry are scrambling to keep their doors open. As such, financial contributions might not be in your wheelhouse right now. When it comes to giving back during a crisis, you’ll think outside the box. Consider the example of alcohol brands manufacturing hand sanitizer. Or automotive brands transforming their assembly lines to build respirators and ventilators. What’s a need that your product, service, or brand could address? 

Be authentic

Make sure that your coronavirus response aligns with your brand’s brand’slues and supports your brand mission. Whether that means donating products or services, promoting a particular charity or organization, or reaching out to your customers on a personal level. For example, Joann Fabrics has mobilized its customer-base of crafters by providing free mask-making supply kits. They’re over halfway to their goal of making 100,000,000 cloth masks and have become a go-to resource for folks interested in learning more about making, cleaning, and caring for personal protection masks. 

Involve your customers

Another thing Joann Fabrics did right? Enlisting their customers to help support their coronavirus relief efforts. Another industry that’s perfectly poised in this arena? Food delivery apps. By spotlighting local restaurants, they’re help customers feel good about where their money is going. As you strategize your give-back response, consider how you can get customers involved. Do you try a 1-for-1 model, like Warby Parker, TOMs, and food brand Northerly? Or do you enlist your audience for a more hands-on approach? 

Keep it simple

Whatever approach you take, be sure to keep it simple. When people feel stressed, their ability to focus and problem solve is severely impacted. If your proposal is too complicated, they’ll likely keep scrolling. To maximize engagement, keep your outreach fail-proof and straightforward. Ultimately, it’s about helping people feel empowered and connected to something bigger than themselves. 

Build your brand on giving back

Although there’s plenty of uncertainty around COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, one thing has remained true: we all have the power, individually and collectively, to make a difference. During times of crisis, give-back brands connect with an essential human need. The need for connection, unity, and cooperation. 

Continuing to give after COVID-19

But give-backs and brand activism were trending long before we ever heard the words “novel coronavirus.” In fact, research by Cone Communications found that over 60% of Americans hope businesses will drive social and environmental change, even when government regulation can’t. And 90% reported that they’d buy a product if they believed the company supported an issue they care about. While working give-backs into your long term brand strategy might take a little extra planning, it’ll pay off in the end.

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