Having a deeper understanding of the role brand plays in our lives and perception will help you strategize for this era and the post-pandemic future. Stay relevant with consumers and ensure you keep the most important thing as the most important thing: communication.
Why branding isn’t just a marketing technique, but a part of human perception and understanding.
How and why we brand diseases, including COVID-19.
Why the heart of any crisis, including a pandemic, is the same as branding: communication.
The phenomenon of “COVID branding,” and why brands have to evolve beyond it quickly.
Full Podcast Transcript
Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.
Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.
Over the next 2 episodes, we’re going to take a closer look at the dramatic shifts happening in eCommerce due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how to prepare yourself for the post-COVID era.
Today, we’re going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture,
including the heightened importance of branding right now, especially the power of brand names,
and a few of the core challenges the pandemic presents for entrepreneurs.
This will also set us up for episode 2, where we’ll drill down into the specific guidance for either growing your brand, or building your brand, in this new world.
But first, let’s take a step back from branding as a business practice.
It’s important to understand branding isn’t limited to advertising.
Branding is a human reflex, it’s something our minds do naturally, because our brains love patterns.
That’s essentially what a brand is: a meaningful pattern.
And patterns are how we make sense of the world.
We couldn’t navigate our lives without them.
One of the earliest hunting techniques used by humans is called “persistence hunting.”
It’s basically a method of stalking an animal over a long period of time.
These early human recognized that although they’re much slower than most of their prey over a short distance – but when hunting is turned into an endurance event, humans have several distinct advantages.
For instance, unlike most animals, humans sweat to regulate our body temperature.
And our lack of fur means our bodies are extremely efficient at staying cool even in midday heat.
On the other hand, Animals who pant to regulate their temperature, need to slow down and remain mostly still in order to recover.
This gives humans a huge advantage.
These early humans recognized their prey wasn’t as adept at staying cool in midday heat
So they would chase them down continually during the hottest time of the day.
Eventually, the prey would be too exhausted to run.
This hunting method is also often coupled with an understanding of weather and seasonal patterns.
For instance, hunter/gatherer tribes that still exist today, target different prey based on the advantages the season gives them.
In particular, Persistence hunting, is best used near the end of the “dry season”.
This is when animals are more likely to be poorly nourished, and so have a lot less endurance, giving humans an extra edge.
Along the same lines, pattern recognition like this would have also been critical to early farmers
Which allowed them to know what crops to plant during what times of the year, for example.
Recognizing patterns today might have fewer dire consequences,
but everything from deciphering the intention behind someone’s actions, words, and tone of voice, to choosing what to eat for lunch depends on this ability.
But then, research is now being done on the potential new applications of better pattern recognition, through algorithms on modern farms.
All of this to say that our brains have evolved to be hard-wired pattern seekers – and creators.
Another thing to keep in mind, is that part of the reason why pattern recognition is so important to our survival,
and so highly correlated with intelligence, is that we’re also hard-wired to be lazy.
Laziness may have a negative connotation in our world, but it’s why we’re alive.
Expending as little energy as possible on our daily, habitual tasks and hoarding it for emergencies is not only true physically
– which is what makes losing weight so difficult – but mentally as well.
Pattern recognition frees up our awareness.
If we can look at a situation and understand it quickly because of a pattern, we can make an optimal choice, and conserve energy.
Imagine if when you when grocery shopping and the store layout was totally different, and you had to re-read every label to make a single decision.
What does this have to do with branding during the COVID pandemic?
Just like our stubborn fat stores, which our body clings to incase we suddenly have to starve for 2 weeks,
We also psychologically cling to the mental patterns that help us quickly make decisions on a daily basis.
This is what we mean when we describe brands as “sticky.”
It’s a stubborn idea or pattern, and because they’re so useful at streamlining our lives, these ideas are as difficult to let go of as those last 10 pounds.
And if that pattern is positive, comforting, or exciting, that sticky brand can be a tremendous asset in the business world.
But it can also be helpful, when you hear the word “brand,” to think of it literally.
Burning a permanent mark.
That as much as a brand can be a positive sign, it’s also a scar.
When you think back to our ability to recognize the patterns that ensured our survival, there is no doubt a few of them were created after earning a few scars and narrow escapes from death.
Certain patterns are associated with danger, injury, and death, and so are “stigmatized” by our minds.
We learn to avoid or demonize them.
Luckily, we don’t live in a world that’s so casually dangerous, but our bodies and minds have quite gotten the message yet.
Just ask any weight-loss brand.
It’s also why back in 2015, the World Health Organization issued new guidance for journalists, governments, and scientists on how to name new diseases.
Because the only things our brains love more than a pattern, is a shortcut.
And symbols, like names, are shortcuts for patterns.
So never underestimate the power of a brand name, for one.
Back in 2015, WHO warned against giving diseases non-scientific names, precisely because of the potential negative consequences of branding.
At the time, the Assistant Director-General for Health Security, Dr Fukuda warned that while this “may seem like a trivial issue… disease names really do matter… [they] can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihood.”
For instance, following the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, nicknamed the “Swine Flu,” the pork industry lost an estimated $1.1 billion…
And even though the virus is not transmitted through food, and pork was perfectly safe to eat.
But because the “swine flu” brand stigmatized pork products, the branding told people to stay away.
Even though it was false.
And once a brand sticks… for better or worse it’s extremely difficult to change.
We’re all now seeing this phenomenon play out in real-time, as one of the more contested conversations about COVID-19, has been what to name it.
The two most common terms, coronavirus and COVID-19 are careful to be strictly descriptive.
Corona is the Latin word for “crown,” or “wealth,” hence the beer, but it’s used to describe the appearance of proteins on the virus’s surface that look like little crowns.
COVID-19, meanwhile, is just an acronym of the phrase “coronavirus disease of 2019.”
As a side note, although COVID is technically a SARS virus, with SARS standing for “severe acute respiratory syndrome,”
but because of the SARS outbreak in 2003,
the WHO counsels against using the term SARS in order to avoid inciting fear in the communities that were the most effected.
Again, we can see the emotional power of naming at work here.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention at all during the current COVID19 crisis, you’ll know that other names have floated around to describe this pandemic and are used in some circles, names like the China-virus, and the Wuhan-flu.
These nicknames have received a lot of pushback for being racist, especially in light of increased aggression and violence towards the Asian community.
In an April 2020 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher,
Maher argued that scientists have been naming diseases after their place of origin for years,
and so what we call COVID isn’t something to get upset over.
Not that I want to dismiss the profound consequences of stigmatizing a region or people,
but there are other, more insidious effects to these brand names.
Remember, a brand is a pattern.
So a name doesn’t just stand for few isolated facts, it’s a constellation of facts, rumors, beliefs, emotions, experiences, and yes, prejudices.
One of the most well-known pandemics is the Spanish Flu of 1918,
which is an example Bill Maher quotes in his argument that naming a virus after a place shouldn’t be such a taboo.
The only problem is, like the Swine Flu, the Spanish Flu was named as the result of a false impression.
When the outbreak started in 1918, World War I was still being fought.
At the time, then, the countries actively fighting still had strict censorship controls over the press.
Even though the virus was spreading like wildfire among the troops, the decision was made to shield the general public from this.
And the government’s reasoning was they were in the middle of fighting the most expensive war in human history.
A war that was fundamentally changing the nature of warfare.
They just didn’t want to create more panic, risk losing support, or impact troop morale, which was already on edge.
The fear that the war would never end was already an all-too familiar sentiment, especially in the trenches.
So the press in most countries either downplayed the virus, or didn’t report on it at all.
Even though some 200,000 allied soldiers were too sick to fight.
But Spain was neutral during World War I, and their press corps were free to report on the outbreak.
In May of 1918, the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII became ill, which only increased attention to the coverage worldwide.
Because people outside of Spain weren’t hearing about the flu in their own countries, the coverage gave the impression it was a Spanish problem and had originated there.
At the same time, the Spanish were under the impression the flu had been imported from France, and called it the French Flu.
We still don’t know exactly where or how the 1918 pandemic started, but the earliest recorded case was an army training camp in Kansas among new recruits.
Recruits that took the virus with them once they landed in Europe… and it marched with them everywhere the war was fought.
After a relatively quiet summer where the flu seemed to die out, the fall outbreak devastated an unsuspecting population.
Globally, more than 50 million people died, more than twice the number of people killed during the war.
Of course, by the fall of 1918 governments couldn’t deny the seriousness of the outbreak.
The public health measures they put in place are eerily familiar to what we’re told today.
But the branding as the “Spanish” flu has stuck for over 100 years.
Something the Spanish resented, because by the fall of 1918 the virus was better controlled in Spain that most other countries.
This little history lesson brings up an important lesson in branding, especially in light of the ongoing COVID pandemic.
It’s that branding influences our behavior.
How a disease is named impacts how we assess the level of threat it poses to us personally.
This is one of the dangers of labelling the coronavirus as the Wuhan-flu.
First of all, it has strong racial undertones and makes the virus feel foreign.
So when the world closed its borders to China, initially, and eventually to other countries, it gave us a false sense of security.
Did this limit our exposure to the virus? No doubt.
But countries can’t stop their own citizens from re-entry.
And tens of thousands of citizens returned from virus hotspots in China and across Europe, bringing the virus with them.
So the virus wasn’t brought home by visitors, but by our neighbors.
Even today, the lingering impression that coronavirus is a foreign threat, creates a false sense of security having social contact with friends and family.
Although it’s these familiar gatherings and celebrations, like weddings, holidays, parties, and dinners, that are driving the virus’s spread.
Unfortunately, in our case, naming the virus as a way to assign political blame also influences whether individuals take the risk seriously at all.
So even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, one of the main psychological hurdles to health, is really a branding problem.
Not that this comes down to a name.
But the importance and impact of naming, and branding generally, underlines that the key to navigating a crisis is communication.
And communication is the heart of branding.
2 factors contributed to why the 1918 pandemic spiraled out of control.
First, a lack of clear information about the outbreak in most countries,
And second, the mass movement of people during the war before the importance of social distancing was widely understood.
Communication is what shapes the patterns we perceive, and in turn, shapes our choices and response.
And remember, our brains are such good pattern recognition machines, they will create patterns naturally in order to quickly categorize what we experience.
So it’s not just the quality of the communication, but also it’s speed that counts.
The longer it takes for health authorities to come up with a scientific name, the faster a layman will “brand” a disease.
Probably in a way that creates a problematic or harmful pattern.
WHO published guidelines for naming new diseases because they understood this, and wanted to discourage the rush to publicly brand a crisis.
And this is where business branding, and specifically eCommerce, really comes into the story.
Because COVID-19 isn’t happening in a vacuum.
The downstream effects of the health crisis are having a huge impact on the economy, people’s buying habits, and how consumers relate to brands.
Businesses of all kinds, even those that have no links to healthcare, were forced to respond and figure out how to engage with consumers without putting anyone’s well-being at risk.
As workplaces and points of social contact with the public, businesses played a huge role in shaping our early understanding of the pandemic.
A lot of weight was carried by the business world.
They were the ones to close brick-and-mortar locations, limit contact, send employees home to work remotely, and communicate these measures to the public.
And although businesses are communication machines, the pandemic requires quick thinking, and the stakes for getting the communications right are high.
Typically, marketing campaigns and other branded messages are planned well in advance of launching to the public.
In the case of more traditional marketing, like TV ads, campaigns are filmed, edited, prepared, and planned months in advance.
But the COVID impacts on our lives happened rapidly.
Many brands were left with marketing campaigns that were now irrelevant, either because they had to close their doors, or the campaigns weren’t appropriate to our new reality.
Overnight, brands had to re-calculate their communication strategies.
This was where the tools of eComm came into play.
Social media and email were quickly leveraged to reach consumers in real-time and update them on changes and new policies.
Now this seems obvious, but this wave of communication was quite new in terms of scope and tone.
First, real-time communication through social media has been the bread and butter of eComm brands for years now.
And brands often piggy-back on relevant or viral news stories to drive views, traffic, and hopefully conversions.
But typically, brands stick to neutral or positive stories in order to avoid stepping into unwanted controversy.
So it was a new phenomenon when we all found our email inboxes flooded with messages from every brand we’d ever heard of, all addressing the same unfolding situation.
The other difference was one of tone.
Because the lockdowns and restrictions put in place suddenly in March of 2020 impacted everyone, the only certainty we had was a lot of uncertainty.
Most brands defaulted to communicating with the same serious tone.
Although there were a few that decided the best way forward was denial and kept pushing sales.
So a lot of those “COVID Updates” started to blend into one another.
In fact, in one of the first studies of how brands responded in the earliest days of the pandemic, researchers at the Copenhagen Business School referred to this phenomenon as “COVID-branding.”
Though I think it’s best immortalized by Jessica Salfia, a Twitter user who created a poem called “First lines of emails I’ve received while quarantining.”
Here it is:
In these uncertain times / as we navigate the new normal, / are you willing to share your ideas and solutions? / As you know, many people are struggling.
I know you are up against it: / the digital landscape. / We share your concerns. / As you know, many people are struggling.
We hope this note finds you and your family safe. / We’ve never seen anything like this before. / Here are 25 social distance learning tips! / As you know, many people are struggling.
Feeling Fiesta today? Happy Taco Tuesday! / Calories don’t count during a pandemic. / Grocers report flour shortages as more people are baking than ever! / As you know, many people are struggling.
Count your blessings. Share your blessings. / Get free curb-side pickup or ship to your house! / Chicken! Lemon! Artichokes! / As you know, many people are struggling.
How are you inspiring greatness today? / We have a cure for your cabin fever. / Pandemic dial-in town hall tonight! / As you know, many people are struggling.
Mother’s Day looks a little different this year. / You’re invited to shop all jeans for 50% off! / Yes, buy 1, get 1 free! / As you know, many people are struggling.
Call us to discuss a loan extension without penalty. / Act now: tell Congress Charters should not line their pockets during the COVID crisis. / Now shipping facemasks as recommended by the CDC. / As you know, many people are struggling.
This is not normal.”
I’m willing to bet this all sounds familiar.
The fact that COVID-branding could actually be satirized tells you how universal this tone of messaging was.
Though I’m sure you all remember your own stuffed inboxes.
I think we can forgive most brands for these early, bland messages.
It was a sudden and dramatic change in all of our lives, and moving quickly to respond was more important than getting it perfect.
But as the COVID-crisis has turned into the COVID-era for brands, adapting to the new expectations for messaging is going to be key to not only surviving, but setting a foundation for the future.
As for the big picture, if nothing else, the importance of communication is what you need to understand.
Leadership in all crises centres on communication, and the impact of what you do and say right now, will be felt long-term.
More than 100 years later, we’re still referring to the 1918 pandemic as the Spanish Flu because of how that crisis was originally communicated.
How we respond to COVID now and in the coming months isn’t just a product of the pandemic’s name.
Early on, we got mixed messages from experts which led to confusion and the erosion of trust.
Like the debate over whether wearing a mask was helpful or not.
And as the emotional intensity of the pandemic wanes, the importance of clear, consistent communication actually increases.
Not to mention, the heightened emotions we’re all experiencing means that the impression you make on consumers today, is going to “brand” you forever.
There are 2 key takeaways here.
First, the seriousness of the pandemic has rapidly reshuffled everyone’s priorities.
Companies that downplay the situation, or continue to put profits in front of people, are going to suffer.
People’s tolerance for this is at an all-time low.
The Happy Planner, for instance, had to apologize after they sent out an email with a subject line that read “COVID19 is giving you a gift.”
So it has never been more important to have a real brand, which for us at eBB means you have an inside-out, purpose-led identity.
You have values that go beyond profits.
And second, consumers are only going to trust brands whose purpose and values are genuine.
You’re going to have a hard time regaining goodwill if there’s any hint that your brand is exploiting the crisis, denying it, or otherwise revealing profit really is your only value.
COVID-branding is satire worthy precisely because its blandness brings up questions of intent.
Again, as a real-time reaction to a crisis none of us has experienced in our lifetimes, it can be forgiven.
But it does show the importance of having a clear, unique brand that’s communicated to customers clearly.
Because a consistent pattern is what builds trust.
Consider the case of Virgin Atlantic, the airline owned by billionaire Richard Branson.
He has a net worth of over $4 billion and is famous for extolling the virtues of creating an employee centric business.
But when the pandemic hit, the company asked their entire workforce to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave to keep the airline afloat… it didn’t sit right.
Branson could easily have covered these costs out of his own pocket and reinforced the brand he spent decades building in the process.
But instead it left the impression that in the end Virgin is just another profit-hungry, human-effacing corporation filled with platitudes about their people.
And this is a key, you need to remember:
Consumers are always ready to believe businesses are all about money and that people are a distant 5th or 6th on the list of priorities.
If they make the list at all.
Because our survival instincts are inherently defensive.
The business world has that underlying branding you need to keep in mind.
It’s why building an authentic brand is quickly becoming the only way to retain customers.
Crises always heighten our sensitivity to patterns.
The uncertainty prompts us to look for the familiar, the patterns we can count on to comfort us, and bring us a sense of security.
So in this emotionally-intense time, branding is a core phenomenon because our minds want to brand what we don’t understand in order to start making sense of it.
It’s why we brand diseases.
And why those names endure for decades, even if they’re misleading.
Psychologically, our livelihoods – both literal and economic – depend on brands.
Which means, whether you’re growing or building your business, the most important change COVID is creating in eCommerce is that it’s moving us into the era of brands.
Your business will need one to survive.
If you’d like more guidance on how to build a brand – a business brand that is – we offer a free book, Checkout, which will walk you through the entire branding process, and it’s available at ebrandbook.com if you’re interested.
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