Run the Talk

Corporate Messages During Crisis: Responding to Historical Moments

“Make it simple, but significant.”

                                                                                                                                                                     – Don Draper, Mad Men

Corporate brand and messaging experts have been busy. First came the COVID-19 pandemic, then the Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd. What stance should businesses take in response to a significant or global crisis?

This can be a fine line. Corporations are in business to make profits and gain and keep customers. But, as I argued in my book, The Gift of Crisis, they are also galvanized by a higher sense of purpose. During a crisis, a clarified purpose can bring people together, connect the organization to something its customers also care deeply about and catalyze innovation that can help solve or meet a global need.

So how are corporations doing?

COVID-19: Sharing Isolation

COVID-19 has been an existential crisis for many businesses. The combination of social isolation, unemployment and uncertainty, and lack of access to stores, restaurants, travel destinations, etc., has been crippling for many organizations. Employees are as affected as consumers.

Many organizations took the opportunity to reinforce their brands through ads that go soft on selling products or services but big on recognizing the uncertainty and struggle of life under COVID.

On their own, these ads might have been poignant or touching, but examined together they show surprising group thinks. Take a look at this video compiling around a dozen strikingly similar ads.

The music is always somber but slightly hopeful, implying resilience during tough times.

The narrator talks about how long the organization has “been there” for the customer. Then the message turns to the importance of the company’s own people, and how they are more like family.

The note of urgency gets hit again — “even now” “more than ever” — during this time of uncertainty, trouble, and a great challenge. Then the narrator acknowledges the predicament of maintaining social distance (staying apart) while also somehow staying close.

Each ad then talks about the importance of home (that place most people are stuck in) as a source of refuge and safety and offers that the company is here to help, implying that the business of the organization was always more than transactional.

Finally, it states that “together” the company and the customer will make it, ending on applause.

What are consumers supposed to take from these ads? That we’re all humans getting through this hard situation together? That there’s a connection between people (employees and customers) that is unbreakable? That the company has been there for the customer before and will be there for them again?

Despite the emotion and the quality of production, it all feels kind of hollow and false.

Black Lives Matter: This Time it’s Different

Without a pause from the COVID crisis, we suddenly faced the BLM crisis. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has brought issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and social injustice to new levels of consciousness.

The corporate response has been noticeably different. Rather than create a compelling narrative message, most have responded with an unvarnished statement declaring their support for Black Lives Matter protesters and issues. Often these messages come directly from the CEO.

This implies the recognition that the issues and challenges are so systemic that they must be treated with the utmost seriousness. But it also comes with the acknowledgment that the corporation can do more and may even be (inadvertently) part of the problem.

Again, the groupthink aspect of this response is notable.

Consumers and employees don’t seem to think it’s enough. There has been a lot of “pointing out” historic behaviors counter to BLM principles, and calls for companies to do something meaningful to change internally and improve the lives of Black people.

Some corporations have had their racist or colonialist past exposed. Colgate’s racist toothpaste “Darlie” which was “Darkie” until 1989 is under review. PepsiCo is changing its racially-charged Aunt Jemima brand image. In Britain, banks have been apologizing for profiteering over slavery, hundreds of years ago.

To that end, some of the biggest companies in America, including GooglePayPal, and Amazon, have pledged billions to racial and social justice causes.

Live Your Truth

The corporate response to the BLM crisis seems appropriate yet insufficient. Maybe that’s a sign and an acknowledgment of how much more needs to be done. Most were silent or indifferent when the BLM movement first began in 2013.

One of the few companies that weren’t is Nike. The company has a lot riding on its relationships with notable Black athletes but also its partnerships with major sports leagues like the NFL. It took some amount of corporate courage then for Nike to align itself with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick after the athlete was effectively ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem in support of BLM / racial justice and against police brutality.


Political and social pressure was not on Kaepernick’s side when Nike announced he would lead their campaign for social justice. But Nike did it anyway.

Notably, Nike is one of the few companies to come out with an actual BLM ad today. Though simple, the ad is powerful because it plays on Nike’s famous slogan Just Do It. In this case, the ad tells viewers Just Don’t Do It, and lists a host of things that can mean, involving racism and injustice.

Nike has a leg to stand on because its ad is relatively consistent with past stances. Ads and brands have to be authentic and true to communicate meaningfully with employees and customers.

But the bigger opportunity right now is to do something about the problems of systemic racism and injustice. This is probably best accomplished through deeds, not words. In other words, not through an ad but through innovative products, services, employee programs, leadership make-up, and investments.

That can mean bringing on new talent, elevating new leaders, developing new products, entering new markets — all driven by a sense of purpose… the understanding that social injustice and racism must be fought and overcome.

That’s the gift of this crisis, and it’s one that any organization could profit from.

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