Brand promotion may be seen as encompassing (at least) three distinct but overlapping modes:

(i)  Advertising for the moment—the message is meant to drive immediate sales;

(ii)  Advertising for post-sale burnishment—the message does more than sell products today, it builds the image or reputation of the brand; and

(iii)  Advertising for posterity—a commercial communication that creates or sustains the brand’s legacy by contemplating that those viewing the ad in the future will appreciate its historical importance.

With these processes in mind, we briefly explore the importance of branding and brand promotion during the current pandemic, and examine the emerging messages to history.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a global health crisis unparalleled since the Spanish Flu a century ago. The themes of disease, death, enormous economic contractions, and a changed way of life—as well as the interplay of global commerce, national politics, and disparate models of health care—will undoubtedly be studied and discussed for years to come. With the prevalence of social media and diverse but rapid communications circling the globe, our progeny will learn about the great actors, the bad actors, and at least some of those in between. It is easy to imagine that people who today are anonymous will become, in due course, as laudable as Salk[1] or as infamous as Wakefield,[2] while others will settle into relative obscurity, similar to Melnick, O’Conner, Morgan or Francis.[3]

Brands and brand promotions may well follow the same dynamic: laudable, infamous, and obscure. But exactly what will determine each appears to be uncertain. What seems clear however, at least according to a recent survey of 12,000 respondents in 12 countries, is that brands will play a prominent role in the post-crisis, Covid-19 inflected society. As Richard Edelman, the study’s author, noted:

If you were ever in doubt that brands matter, this new data reveals the power and necessity of brand as well as their urgent need to act. Brands should find solutions instead of selling passion or image. They need to be tangible and fast, not impressionistic and conceptual.[4]

Some of the data that support his assessment include:

  • 71% of respondents agree that if they perceive a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever.
  • Brands must focus their messaging on solutions, not selling. 84% of respondents said they want brand advertising to focus on how brands help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges.
  • 77% said they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives.
  • There is deep desire for expertise, with 78% rating medical doctors as credible spokespeople for the brand’s virus-related actions, with celebrities (26%) and influencers (28%) deeply discounted.
  • More than half of the respondents (57%) want brands to stop any advertising or marketing that is humorous or lighthearted.

During this crisis, it appears American brand marketers are following one of six thematic approaches with only partial fidelity to the worldwide consumer opinion survey:

  1. Advertisements in the mold of PSAs;
  2. Advertisements focusing on operational changes to benefit customers in the Covid-19 environment;
  3. Advertisements offering discounts or other product sale relief;
  4. Advertisements expressing appreciation to others, including medical professionals on the front lines and first responders;
  5. Advertisements offering donations;
  6. Advertisements unchanged from the pre-Covid-19 era.

Within each thematic category there are of course large variations. For example, in the donative arena, some companies offer the beneficence of a Salk, like the local auto repair business that offers to pay for (and deliver) bags of groceries for customers who need but cannot afford basic necessities. Others, operating in the “infamous” mode, promise unproven and potentially dangerous Coronavirus “cures” and preventative therapies. (The FDA has targeted a growing list of such companies, with the Agency issuing dozens of Warning Letters in the past few weeks.[5]) And still others stand in a middle ground; promoting “donations to Covid-19 relief,” that actually constitute marginal discounts on their own, non-essential products or services. These last promotions are not, of course, per se harmful, but they may reflect poorly on companies caught in such dubious efforts.

Two weeks after the worldwide survey, one marketer began by offering a PSA of sorts. Steak-umm, a brand associated with the (admittedly delicious and easy to prepare) principal meat ingredient for homemade Philly Cheesesteaks, posted a long thread on Twitter cautioning readers to get their news of the pandemic from reliable sources, and to be very careful about what they read in the media or upon whom they rely for information.[6]

The thread has gone—no pun intended—viral. The Wall Street Journal reports that even Columbia University’s department of surgery re-tweeted it as an important message.[7] Steak-umm apparently was surprised by the accolades, and in defiance of consumer opinion to avoid humor, posted these self-deprecating tweets:

The company’s refreshingly honest, humorous, but important (and timely) message, may well do more for the long-term value of the Steak-umm brand than any TV or radio spot.

For most companies, the strength and reputation of their brands remains one of their most valuable assets. Customers and potential customers may or may not have long memories about advertising during this time of crisis. But given the mood of the country, and how much time those sheltering in place spend viewing advertising content across a range of platforms, companies interested in their long-term reputation should both carefully weigh the short term gains with more distant consequences and focus on the advertising appropriate to our collective circumstances. As Steak-umm has demonstrated, at least some brand owners may reach higher with a timely and important message that resonates all the more because it is delivered with a soft and reassuring smile.

[1] Dr. Jonas Salk developed the Salk vaccine for polio, the preventative therapeutic with the greatest efficacy against the disease and the least risk because it departed from the technology of live virus strain immunology. Instead, he added formaldehyde to the virus to prevent its ability to replicate but still retain its ability to trigger immunological titers. Dr. Salk refused to patent his vaccine because he believed that the many millions of people who donated to fund his research owned the development, and thus any attempt by a single person or institution to patent the vaccine would be like trying to patent the sun.

[2] Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study in The Lancet, a highly respected British medical journal that purported to establish a direct link between a vaccine and autism. With diagnosed cases of autism on the rise, the predictable effect upon parents established a segment of the population whose refusal to vaccinate children contributed to the re-birth of polio and other infectious diseases.

[3] With Dr. Salk and FDR, Joseph L. Melnick, Basil O’Conner, Isabel Morgan, and Thomas Francis, Jr. are honored on the Polio Wall of Fame in Warm Springs, Georgia, heralding these and other heroes in the fight against polio. See


[5] FDA has sent out 23 Warning Letters to a variety of purveyors in just the past 30 days.