Megabrands like McDonald’s and Coke as well as the general public are acting oddly as the world’s shifted on its axis. Those that remain more balanced will bounce back faster and in a more positive light.
This is the extended version of an article originally written for Campaign Magazine
With the world on quite sensible (albeit in some countries, belated) lockdown due to the Coronavirus, it’s hard not to be fearful of future unknowns. From the frivolity of planning holidays to the mundane of campaign planning, everything has been put in the shade rather suddenly and unequivocally.
The only things of importance are the wellbeing of you, your family, friends and colleagues — and as much as the marketing world will keep spinning its intricate webs and talented professionals will track KPIs from home, it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.
Rather sadly, albeit predictably, the fact that we’re facing a life-threatening global pandemic hasn’t stopped an influx of ill-judged and tone-deaf efforts to jump on the Coronavirus bandwagon.
Quite the contrary.
Some brands have seen fit to capitalise on the incapacity, uncertainty and fear sweeping every household from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Back in 1347, twelve ships docking at the Sicilian port of Messina unloaded their cargo and, as an afterthought, plague-infected fleas interrailing across Europe on the backs of black rats.
The fleas migrated an infectious pneumonic fever to humans and the first world-famous pandemic was born. It was so bad it earned the hellish sobriquet ‘The Black Death’, so called because a victim’s lymph nodes became blackened and swollen.
Twenty-six years before the Black Death landed, author Dante Alighieri died. Dante’s early demise did at least mean he missed out on one of the most excruciating exits imaginable:-
“Your body kills itself. Your blood vessels begin leaking, decreasing blood volume. This leads to abnormal clotting and multiple organ failure” (Salyers and Whitt 2002). Twenty-five million people in Europe died from plague during the Black Death and Europe’s population didn’t recover until the start of the 16th century. Luckily, medicine has become less about witchcraft and more about science in the intervening nine hundred and seventy-three years, making it even more dumfounding that people needed a national TV campaign to explain how to properly wash their hands…
Leeches and bloodletting are out while paracetamol and penicillin are trending so with sensible heads, the majority of us should muddle through this OK. In the meantime, some businesses have decided, somewhat misguidedly, that now is the appropriate time to polish their brand halos.
Dante obviously wasn’t a jolly man (The Divine Comedy is anything but) — he was more of a pragmatic pessimist. But even he might want to reimagine the nine circles of hell he described in ‘Inferno’ (the first segment of ‘Divine Comedy’) in light of some of the codswallop being farted out into the ether, either by brands seeking to polish their godly credentials or by the general public, some of whom seem to have decided a collective lobotomy was an essential medical procedure they should demand of an already overstretched NHS.
In Dante’s world, the first Circle of Hell is Limbo where the unbaptized and virtuous pagans reside. It’s kind of ‘Hell Lite’, and as such a fitting home for panic shoppers. As the excellent pop-up website ‘How Much Toilet Paper’ so eloquently demonstrates, the average hoarder is going to be offloading triple ply until the end of time, and that’s without the consideration of why bog roll has become the most in-demand grocery item. The virus has absolutely nothing to do with bowel movements.
To their credit, Kimberly-Clark, which makes Kleenex and Andrex, hasn’t taken the opportunistic PR route and has simply reassured the public via the media that there’s plenty of quilted to go around.
The second circle of Hell is where the lusty make their bed, or in this case, their kitchen. For in the great Covid pasta shortage of 2020, it was the sex toy retailer Ann Summers that proved to be an unlikely saviour, selling its famous penis-shaped pasta not for an ‘inflated’ price, as you might expect, but as part of a threesome for two offer. One can only imagine the uncomfortable silences around dinner tables across Britain as families tucked into their meaty ragu…
Glutton’ is the third Circle. Covid-19’s virulent capability to spread to all corners of the globe has only been exceeded by the speed with which celebrities and social ‘influencers’ have jumped on the bandwagon. From tearful videos shot in glistening neo-Georgian mansions to faux-sentimental sales pitches flogging whatever nic nac is put in front of them, each hash tagged to the hilt with #StaySafe messages.
The holy grail for these oxygen thieves is, one suspects, catching a cold at the opportune time so as to masquerade as genuine victims. A whole series of Insta stories can then be milked, fluffing their recovery story and thanking their Patreon fans for keeping them #Blessed.
If we ever need guinea pigs for experimental (and, hopefully, deeply uncomfortable) vaccine trials, this is where the queue ought to start.
In the fourth Circle of Hell are the Greedy. Very few people would consider Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley as modest in either self-esteem nor appetite, and yet his brass balls must be his most flagrant asset. Sports Direct (one assumes with Ashley’s blessing — nobody gets that rich without a domineering passion for control) tried to persuade the government that its stores should remain open. In an all staff email CFO Chris Wootton suggested “…Sports Direct and Evans Cycles are essential in the fight against coronavirus and that its staff were therefore key workers”. This was roundly dismissed by the Government and Ashley was left to skulk back to his lair to angrily dive, one would hope, into a pool of gold bullion, McDuck-style.
In Dante’s fifth Circle of Hell, the angry are meant to wage eternal, unfulfilled battle on the River of Styx. Less far afield, nothing has made me angrier in recent history than seeing the crowds of pissed up tossers outside local pubs last Friday, enjoying one last hurrah with carefree joie de vivre, casually discarding any concerns about catching a highly contagious virus before syndicating it to every unfortunate who crosses their paths in the next couple of months.
Tommy Lee Jones summed it up best in Men in Black:-
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals”.
Heresy, being any theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs, is the sixth Circle and its strong supply right now. At the top of the tree was Billionaire PR fountain, Sir Richard Branson whose Virgin Atlantic airline insisted all employees take an eight-week unpaid leave of absence.
Missing the general feeling amongst literally everyone by a country mile, Branson and his Virgin Group relented this week with a $250 million support package, showing that errors of judgement aren’t necessarily irreversible, however any genuinely ‘good’ business wouldn’t have to be prompted by public outcry.
‘Violence’ is the seventh Circle. Fortunately, it seems that mass rioting and looting have been all but avoided as the severity of Coronavirus has been established but there remains a special place in hell (one hopefully populated by extremely violent individuals) where those scammers seeking to profit from the current lock down will eventually slither towards. As a recent Which? Report demonstrated, there are a significant number of Phishing scams, exploitative sales techniques and price gouging on face masks, loo roll and hand sanitiser.
However the real shoeing should be held in reserve for the bottom-feeding assholes who have been mugging NHS staff for their IDs to claim free food for themselves. This crowd will, in a fair world, die a death of a thousand shaving cuts whilst bathing in lemon juice.
The next Circle could easily be renamed for ‘vanity’, for within the eighth ring, ‘Fraud’, we can place any and all companies that decided, in their misguided wisdom, to represent social distancing by putting gaps in their logos. McDonalds even went so far as to *gasp* segregate their famed Golden Arches.
Well, one Golden Arch.
In Brazil. For the photo call.
It takes thermonuclear levels of chutzpah to perceive of one’s brand so highly that you portray it as Jesus incarnate, saving the world one typographical millimetre of k e r n i n g at a time, but they went ahead all the same. Whilst in many cases shafting their workforces out of pay whilst they shut up shop.
Dante’s final and most hardcore Circle of Hell was Treachery. Many brands, both big and small, fully deserve to be shoved in here, prioritising self-enriching to the detriment of the very people that keep them afloat in the first place — their employees.
McDonald’s was a likely candidate but as they already feature, I’ll go for Wetherspoons — a family friendly pubco and seller of a brand vision that’s all about looking out for the best interests of customers and its staff. Led by mercurial founder, Chairman and poor man’s Hagrid Tim Martin, JD Wetherspoon have deigned to suspend all pay cheques until they get their government grant at the end of April, leaving thirty seven thousand low wage staff wondering how to pay for rent and food.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, whenever that may be, the marketing landscape is going to look very different and the brand autopsy will leave some hollow carcases. Some, as mentioned above, will be reaping what they sow but sadly the majority of businesses that go under will simply be victims of hugely unfortunate circumstances.
As consumers, we get to vote with our wallets and as marketing professionals and media owners, you may be able to help support hospitality, retail, freelancers and other struggling UK industries with pro bono, voluntary work, jobs and extra briefs.
While the NHS and its staff deservedly receive the headline applause, a pandemic on this scale needs us all to dig in across the board so we can rise to greater collaborative glory on the other side.
Brands that try and score points at a time like this will hopefully pay the penalty in customer attrition when the dust settles. The majority of brands will, appropriately, keep their hands clean and try to maintain business as usual, albeit in a highly disrupted fashion.
And those heroic brands that are doing acting altruistically, quietly and without fanfare? You’ll never hear about their good deeds because they’re likely to be those same unassuming brands you have warm, loyal feelings about even when the world doesn’t feel like it’s going to hell.
They don’t do the right thing not because they have to — just because they want to.
Harry is the founder of Brand Architects, a brand and marketing consultancy. Currently bunkered down like everyone else, he’s available to take on copy, brand, channel marketing and strategy briefs.
You can contact him at Harry@BrandArchitects.co.uk