Brand management in a crisis.

Learnings from the West Africa Ebola epidemic, and seven tips for your brand

Portrait of Kevin Brown, Co-founder & CEO of Mighty Ally

KEVIN BROWN

Six years ago, the world stood on guard as a deadly virus raged. The Western African Ebola epidemic of 2013-2016 infected 29,000 people across Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and seven other countries on three continents.

This global health crisis was the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history. And it remains the second-largest epidemic of the last decade, with only the current coronavirus pandemic being worse.

Amidst the outbreak, two social sector brands emerged on the global stage. Both organizations were working in Liberia. Both were at a growth stage, with less than $2MM in revenue. And both had charismatic founders.

But the ways in which Last Mile Health and More Than Me managed their brands during (and after) the crisis couldn’t have been more contrasting. And the two nonprofits are in radically different places today.

Last Mile Health, simply put, rose to the occasion. Its seasoned, diverse, locally-led team was in the right place at the right time, with the right skills and courage to step up in a time of need. The brand never wavered in its commitment to bring healthcare to remote communities. They doubled down on relationships within their priority audience: government health officials. And used frequent, genuine, humble communications to update stakeholders around the world. In the act, Last Mile helped stop the outbreak, won the Skoll and Audacious Project awards, went on to impact millions of lives in multiple countries, and scaled to $20MM.

More Than Me, in hindsight, aimed to capitalize on a grave situation well outside of its swimlane. Its western leadership leaped from running schools into the middle of a global health emergency. It used dramatic social media videos and language to raise money instead of mobilizing support. And it lacked the internal team or operations to back up the brand’s claims. A few years after it profited from Ebola fame, a tragic child-abuse scandal and other mismanagement led to the organization’s demise.

So what can we learn from these two contrasting brand management tales in this unprecedented time? And what advice do we give to our clients to weather COVID-19?

It has been said that nothing can create change like a crisis. The world needs brands like yours to survive and thrive through this pandemic. And after, possibly even more so. Just like Last Mile Health.

So here are seven practical tips to manage your brand during a crisis.

1. Make a plan for the new reality.

Much has been written already about how this coronavirus pandemic changes everything. Some predict the crisis will be a cultural blizzard, winter, and beginning of a little ice age. Others advise to prepare in three phases for survival, a new mid-term reality, then the new long-term reality.

Yet, we’ve watched how many organizations still don’t have a plan. And we’ve seen social ventures around the globe merely send teams to work from home without clarity on what’s next. Or issue obligatory emails about a COVID-19 response without an actual response in place. But a brand without a plan isn’t a brand.

Every leader is talking about their fears and impending effects. But more important than the talk is an action plan. What are the different scenarios for your brand, when do these contingency plans kick in, and who is doing what? Step one is meeting as a leadership team (likely the board, too) and not leaving the room until a game plan is on paper. Here are a few sample templates.

2. Reconsider the (short-term) mission.

In this time of great uncertainty, two things should be certain: why you’re doing this work in the first place, and your vision for the communities you serve. But what has now certainly changed: how you’ll achieve that vision.

Praxis recommends rethinking your pitch deck. Because every organization is practically a startup again. In our impact model framework, we’d recommend keeping ‘the need’ and ‘the results’ fixed, but rethinking ‘the work’ you do.

Explore adjacencies to your existing programs and products. And if your work is related to coronavirus, be agile to seize the need and opportunity. Like if you can authentically win a grant for fighting COVID-19 or its effects. But what you shouldn’t do – according to Mulago Foundation – is contort your organization into something it’s not, and get tangled up in stuff you’re not good at.

For another way to consider new opportunities, we like this heuristic from David C. Baker: yes, no, yes, no. When you’re a startup, you say yes to everything. Then you get the resolve to say no as you find tighter positioning. Now, to survive, you need to say yes again. But keep that second no on the horizon, as you’ll need to garner the courage again one day soon.

“You’re mostly start-ups(ish). You’re unlikely to make an outsized difference now, but there may be ways to be truly useful and set yourself up for much greater impact in the years ahead. Look for those ways.”

MULAGO FOUNDATION

3. Revisit your positioning.

As you challenge the various elements of your brand, it’s unlikely your priority audiences (or, target markets) have changed. Even if your work does shift in the short term. But the mindsets of the individuals you reach have definitely changed. Because the whole world has been rocked, from high-net-worth individuals to policymakers. So talk to your audiences (again) to learn how their needs, pains, and gains have evolved. Be empathetic. Listen first.

Coming out of that rediscovery process, your uniques (or differentiators) might now also be different, based on short-term updates to your model. And you might have to tell your story in a different way during this crisis, based on how other organizations are adapting too.

Revisit your landscape analysis to see where your competitors and collaborators are reshaping. But treat it like sands shifting during a tide: even today’s landscape will change. Make your best guess for the unique value you provide, then commit to keeping an eye on your positioning now more than ever.

4. Ensure operational alignment.

Your brand is built from the inside out. And getting the right people in the right seats on the right bus heading in the right direction is now more important than ever.

Review roles and responsibilities to identify those jobs most affected by your updates to mission and positioning. And more practically, identify the seats that are most affected by new realities, like national lockdowns. How must their roles be tweaked (or sometimes, dissolved) to fit the new landscape?

Rhythms (or ways of working) have to change too, given this work-from-home world. You may have to give your team additional flexibility. But the proper structure and direction will keep a remote team focused and engaged. We practice the accountability chart as a great tool to map your future org. But a reverse accountability chart can help you plan downsizing in a downturn.

How, too, have your priorities changed based on COVID-19? Scrap everything you had planned and just survive. Nobody knows what will happen next.

“It’s good to think about the next quarter and then reassess literally every few weeks. Either cut costs or raise money… extend the runway and live to fight another day.”

JASON GREEN, EMERGENCE CAPITAL

5. Enter into external crisis communications.

Now is not the time to adhere religiously to your typical brand strategy or long-term communications matrix. Develop and execute a crisis comms plan instead, with the timing unknown for now. Cut this crisis comms plan short or extend it out as needed, until your leadership has agreed “we’re out of crisis mode.”

Get on the same page around the big idea, key messages, channels, goals, audiences, strategies, and objectives. That way, people aren’t scrambling to distribute disjointed information. And consider good-ole-fashioned, one-on-one personal contact vs. mass media. It’s even more important during crisis comms to stay close to key stakeholders.

Do update your website with a ‘hello bar’ announcing your COVID-19 response. And write blog posts or emails often. But don’t go updating your macro messaging platform just yet, or the rest of your website or printed materials. This reality is all just too temporary and too unknown, for now.

And don’t forget: communicate – don’t sell – in the short term. Nobody is buying anything until the shock is over. And this is not the time to try new channels, like podcasts or webinars, if you’ve never done it before. For comms, stick to what you know and do best.

6. Prioritize internal comms equally.

In thinking through a crisis communications plan, the internal team matters as much as external stakeholders. As they’re your greatest brand touchpoints and ambassadors. So if they’re confused, your external audiences will be too.

Consider a daily virtual all-staff meeting via video conference or WhatsApp chat. And/or send your team daily emails from the leadership team. Overcommunicate! Assign a single person to handle all internal comms. Be clear about what is to be shared outside the walls, and what’s to be kept internal. Then open up your calendar to get feedback from staff. It’s not a one-way street.

With both internal and external communications, brand polish is not as critical right now. Typically, the style and design of your deliverables matter greatly for brand building. In a crisis, timely, frequent, authentic messaging trumps almost everything else. Even if messaging is personal text-based emails instead of creative newsletters. Or selfie-style leadership updates vs. high-production videos.

Be sure your spoken and written words match your brand voice. If you don’t have a defined brand voice, now is the time to figure it out.

“People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

MAYA ANGELOU

7. Invest in the future.

In all this talk about the crisis, it’s hard to think about your future brand. But it’s been proven in previous economic downturns: those organizations that invest in brand-building come out the other end well ahead.

In a study of previous recessions, McGraw-Hill Research analyzed 600 companies covering 16 different industries. They found the sales revenue of companies that were aggressive recession advertisers had risen 256% over those that didn’t keep up their marketing.

This seems counterintuitive. But marketing rates drop in recessions due to lower demand. You can win higher customer mindshare as competitors cut back. And organizations can achieve a better brand image since customers see activity as a sign of stability.

So part of your contingency plan should be to revisit your future brand strategy. As soon as the crisis ends, you should be primed and ready to lean into marketing and messaging. Not just coming out of your bunker, shell shocked.

“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to our eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become.”

BROOKE FOSS WESTCOTT

Need help?

See how we engage.