By Anna Sophie Hauge, Marie Haadem and Meike Janssen
◦ 4 min read◦
Innovation fosters creativity and generates growth – especially in times of crisis. The foodservice industry has been hit extremely hard by COVID-19 and the corresponding restrictions and lock-down measures. While many businesses in the foodservice industry struggled to survive, some took the opportunity to innovate.The question is then, what drove businesses to innovate in the middle of the crisis?
Drivers of firm innovation and the outcomes differ from case to case, however all can be connected to overarching themes. The external shock of the COVID-19 crisis is undoubtedly one such theme which has created new environments for supply and demand within the foodservice industry.
…times of crisis may provide an opportunity to develop dynamic capabilities more quickly than good financial times. A possible explanation is that ‘dynamic environments’ are needed to deploy dynamic capabilities
Alonso-Almeida et al., 2014
In the spring of 2021, we interviewed five courageous food-entrepreneurs, all using innovation as a survival mechanism throughout the crisis. We used John Bessant and Joe Tidd’s 13 drivers of innovation as the starting point to have a closer look into five small- to medium-sized innovative companies from Copenhagen and Oslo: a gourmet pizza takeaway, an online grocery delivery, an online fruit and vegetable delivery, a vegetarian takeaway, and a café takeaway.
Besides the crisis itself being the most powerful driver of innovation, the need for change in the way people consume and offer food services proved to inspire numerous innovative measures (See Table 1). The trends and environments created by COVID-19 inspired new processes within our pre-existing case firms. For the three firms established pre-COVID-19, a large focus was put into the implementation of contactless home deliveries.
Additionally, we found that the crisis even triggered the innovation of completely new businesses. The two we interviewed exploited the rapidly changing environment to meet new needs, employing pandemic-friendly formats to deliver their services. An example is the highly integrated use of Instagram as a food ordering and communication platform. Innovation of business processes and products became survival means for our firms within the foodservice industry, as it helped them keep up with new consumer needs in the context of the pandemic. At the same time, these changes elevated the firms’ value propositions due to the new operating circumstances imposed by COVID-19. Products and processes were adapted to the COVID-19 trend of ‘support your locals’ throughout lockdown, through the integration of local suppliers and products. Innovations in relation to such trends helped target important social values during the pandemic.
Many of the innovations within the case companies originated from the necessity of minimizing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Changes to the physical spaces of the foodservice firms and higher focus on contact through digital channels are examples of measures taken.
Characteristics of Success
Four out of the five firms were small in size. Each firm utilized collaborative relationships in the development of their products and services during the pandemic. Congruently, these firms explored new market opportunities; both in the expansion and adaptation of product lines and services, but also starting completely new businesses. Another characteristic was the integration of technology, such as online ordering and social media communication. We also found that the firms innovating during crises did not compromise on costs in their innovations. Ultimately, these characteristics developed and supported the firms’ crisis-driven innovation. It was also recognized that the pre-existing firms were innovative also before the crisis, which helped facilitate their innovation in times of distress. These characteristics are identical to those found in companies that innovated during the financial crisis in 2008.
Two additional characteristics were identified in the firms; firm flexibility and targeting niche segments. High flexibility was identified within the case firms, introducing options for pre-ordering, and thereby allowing for efficient and sustainable use of resources. Firm flexibility was also created through the use of digital modes of operations like online communication platforms and ordering systems. Lastly, four of the case firms have niche and urban customer segments. They target a trendsetting, educated urban-elite, all living in central Copenhagen or the West End of Oslo. Both the firms’ business models and unique selling propositions are non-typical for the given industry. Having such target groups and trend-setting concepts is seen to have enabled successful innovations. These two firm characteristics arguably provide the necessary infrastructure for the innovations’ success and are recognized to be essential for firm survival in times of crisis.
In the end
It is inspiring to see that times of crises can inspire people, and that courageous steps are being rewarded in a dynamic environment with open-minded customers. However, not all cafés and restaurants were as lucky as the ones in our study. Now that restrictions are no longer in place, the foodservice industry deserves our support, and you deserve to regularly treat yourself to a nice dinner or lunch.
About the Authors
Anna Sophie Hauge is studying her master’s in Finance and Strategic Management at Copenhagen Business School. Outside of her studies, she is currently working as a commercial student analytic at Løgismose, a Danish food brand, focused on quality and ecology.
Marie Haadem is currently finishing her Master’s in Management at IE Business School in Madrid, specialising within Finance and Investment. She will be joining Citigroup this July as a Banking Analyst for the EMEA Banking Analytics Group in Spain.
Meike Janssen is Associate Professor for Sustainable Consumption and Behavioural Studies, CBS Sustainability, CBS. Her research focuses on consumer behaviour in the field of sustainable consumption, in particular on consumers’ decision-making processes related to sustainable products and the drivers of and barriers to sustainable product choices.
Despite an unprecedented worldwide decline in mortality over the last century, a substantial income gradient in life expectancy persists within most countries. In the US for instance, the 1% richest men have a life expectancy at the age of 40 that is 15 years larger than the poorest 1% (difference of 10 years for women) and this spread is currently increasing. In France (on which this blog post is based), the income gradient is of a similar size despite a more egalitarian access to health care.
Pandemics likely amplify this spread because they reveal latent inequalities in individual health capital and because they spread differently across living environments. Our recent study reveals that the COVID-19 crisis, which epitomizes such massive mortality shock on a worldwide scale, is not an outlier in this respect.
A few definitions
We analyse the impact of COVID-19 on mortality inequalities over the whole year 2020 in France, one of the most severely hit country in the world. We use comprehensive registered data, allowing us to study the evolution of mortality as well as the income level of each municipality of metropolitan France. Given the unreliability of public data on deaths attributed to COVID, we focus on excess mortality occurring in each municipality, defined as the deviation in 2020 all-cause mortality with respect to the average of 2019 and 2018. The link between poverty and morality related to the epidemic is thus analysed by comparing excess mortality between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ municipalities, where ‘poor’ is defined as belonging to the poorest 25% of municipalities (‘Q1’ hereafter).
Two waves that have affected more the poor municipalities
Figure 1 below shows that, as in many European countries in 2020, France has been hit by two distinct waves that peaked in April (17,000 extra-deaths) and November (15,100 deaths), respectively. Each time, a lockdown was implemented at the national level to reduce the spread of the disease (March, 17 to May, 11 & October 30 to December 15). The first lockdown was the most stringent and has seemingly worked best to reduce casualties to COVID-19.
Figure 2 shows the distribution of excess mortality across municipalities according to their income. Each month, the figure shows the average number of abnormal deaths that occurred since the beginning of the year in each group of municipalities (per 10k. inhabitants). While no specific pattern can be seen over the first three months of 2020, a marked difference between the two groups of municipalities appears in April (wave 1), that further grows as the second wave takes place (October-December).
In-depth analyses tell us that excess mortality in poor municipalities was 30% larger than in non-poor municipalities in 2020 (2.6 more extra-deaths per 10k. inhabitants). Our research shows that this spread directly relates to COVID-19 and is not explained by differences in the geographical localisation, in the share of old-age inhabitants or in the life conditions under the lockdown between rich and poor municipalities.
The fact that the income gradient uncovered during the first wave is not compensated during the second wave, but rather reappears with regularity every time the epidemic returns must be emphasized. One can indeed show that the income gradient is the strongest in areas that got most affected by COVID-19 in 2020. If further epidemic waves occurred – and some signs suggest that it has already started in France as well as in several other countries – our result suggest that, once again, the poorest municipalities will suffer greater losses.
Worse housing conditions and higher exposure through employment
What are the main differences between poor and non-poor municipalities that explain the income gradient in Covid-19 mortality? Our analysis highlights the key mediating role of labour market and housing conditions, in line with the idea that local factors are important determinants of the spread of epidemics. More specifically, the larger share of essential workers and of overcrowding housing almost fully explain the income gradient in COVID-19 related mortality. Interestingly, labor-market exposure remains an important determinant of COVID-19 mortality across both waves, while the role of housing conditions decreases over time, probably because the second lockdown was less stringent.
Our work shows that the current health crisis amplifies already existing socio-economic inequalities. It also suggests that public policies aiming at limiting its effects should primarily focus on the poorest municipalities, notably by protecting workers as much as possible in the short term and by improving housing conditions in the medium term.
Clément Brébion joined CBS in September 2020 as a postdoctoral researcher. He received his PhD in economics in November 2019 from the Paris School of Economics. His main research interests are labour economics, economics of education and industrial relations. He has a particular interest into comparative research. More recently, he started working on the EU H2020 project HECAT that aims at developing and piloting an ethical algorithm and platform for use by PES and jobseekers.
As Bowie almost made a prediction when he sang in his lyrics from 1981: ‘It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friends screaming “Let me out!”/’, 2020 proved to be a year of challenges, which however took us to higher grounds of learning and collaboration in many unexpected ways.
The sudden changes and lockdowns across the world led by Covid-19 sparked many initiatives and innovation in various fields. As presented in a previous blog post, it created opportunities for urban spaces to be rethought, experimenting with expanding and further developing various mobility formats.
Beyond urban spaces, the pandemic also became a fuel to push initiatives in other fronts, such as social and local manufacturing.
Makerspaces and local production initiatives were well described in a recent blog post by my colleague Efthymios Altsitsiadis. During the pandemic, makerspaces became more than a niche, through shared content and distributed leadership, these spaces became relevant production resources. Makers collaborated and engaged in locally producing personal protective equipment (PPE), helping cities and countries better cope with the shortages and international supply chain issues during the first lockdown.
CBS has followed this process closely as it is currently a partner in the EU-funded iPRODUCE project. The project started in January 2020 focusing on developing a novel social manufacturing platform that embraces manufacturing companies in the consumer goods sector. In short, the project is committed to bringing closer manufacturers, makers and consumer communities (MMCs) at the local level; to engage them into joint co-creation challenges for the manufacturing of new consumer products and the introduction of novel engineering and production (eco)systems; to fuse practices, methods and tools that both makers and manufacturing companies (SMEs specifically) are employing.
The project, as an innovation action (IA), has formed clusters in six locations, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain composed of Fablabs, makerspaces and research institutions. These clusters are defined as Collaborative Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities (cMDFs). In Denmark, CBS is the research institution working closely together with betaFACTORY forming the DK-cMDF.
In the context of this project, social manufacturing can be described as a primary ground to democratise innovation.
The ‘Do it yourself’ (DIY) movement, assisted by makerspaces and fablabs, offers opportunities for real exchange towards solutions to inform the development of many products through an open platform, to not only support, but also to expand these processes and broaden their reach across society.
During the onset of the pandemic, when the project was only in its third month, while project activities required adjustments and re-planning, the fablabs and makerspaces in the distinct locations became important resources for local manufacturing facilities, closing a gap of problems related to international supply chain production and distribution regarding protective medical gear.
The open source community’s umbrella became a key local asset in bridging various groups and bringing makers together towards one goal – manufacturing products that would help save lives.
Spain, which was hit hard by the pandemic early on, spearheaded this movement in Europe. Already in March 2020, DIY groups organised themselves online (primarily WhatsApp and Telegram), sharing questions and designs through these social media platforms. Doctors and other types of stakeholders also joined some of these groups, providing expert information. They shared requests, talked together and developed designs and models, which were then 3D printed widely across in various makerspaces, sparking a local production and distribution supply chain. The distribution, which was initially done by volunteers, was carried out by taxi drivers and local police in an extraordinary mode of collaboration during the most extreme lockdown phases. By June 2020, over one million face shields had been produced and distributed across Spain .
The Spanish face shield design, under the creative commons licence, was picked up by makers everywhere, including in Denmark, where the Facebook group ‘DK Makers mod Corona’ (DK Makers against Corona) was quick to adapt the design to specific Danish regulations and started locally producing the face shields during the first Danish lockdown. Over 63000 face shields were produced and distributed across the country by July 2020 and the Facebook group grew from 50 to over 2500 members during the same period.
In both cases, what stands out is the fact that the expertise, manufacturing capability and human resources are without doubt available everywhere and when a common and purposeful goal is set, fast and impactful results can be achieved.
These civic responses also bring forward questions on how society could make better use of these valuable resources for other distinct local challenges, and how we can positively disrupt mass global manufacturing towards distributed local manufacturing. As the pandemic initiatives have shown, by reorganising and setting common goals, makers and industry can bridge gaps, creating wider societal benefit that challenge the status quo and push new manufacturing opportunities that can define ‘new normals’ also for local production – taking all of it to higher and more sustainable levels in the 21st century.
iPRODUCE – “A Social Manufacturing Framework for Streamlined Multi- stakeholder Open Innovation Missions in Consumer Goods Sectors” (2020-2022) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement no. 870037. This publication reflects only the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
Isabel Fróes is a postdoc at MSC Department at Copenhagen Business School working in three EU projects (Cities-4-People, iPRODUCE and BECOOP). Isabel also has wide industry experience and has worked both as a user researcher and service design consultant for various companies in Denmark and internationally. For more detail please see her Linkedin profile.
Over the last decade, the term ‘precarity’ has become ubiquitous in studies of work and labor, as jobs are increasingly characterized by temporary and insecure contracts; lack of basic welfare provisions such as paid leave; and low pay. The informalization of work has gained pace in a post-Fordist world. And we can expect to see more precarity. The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing employers the world over to think of new ways to reduce labor costs as economies flounder.
Anthropologist of work Kathleen Millar has argued that we need to be careful about how we think about ‘precarity’ when we talk about insecure work. The term can inadvertently “smuggle in a conservative politics”, valorizing and romanticizing a Fordist past of full-time wage labor. This employment past is not universal. In the majority of the world, economies have historically been characterized by informality. Here, formal secure work has been more of an idea, a promise tied up in teleological ideals of modernization and development, than a reality. Furthermore, in former settler colonies such as Kenya and South Africa, formal wage employment has roots in colonial capitalism, coercion and exploitation.
I’ve been thinking about precarity through the case of changing employment conditions on Kenyan tea plantations, where I’ve been researching the production of certified sustainable tea as part of the SUSTEIN project. I carried out my latest fieldwork between January and March this year, right up until the majority of European countries went into lockdown. A few weeks later, Kenya followed suit. In Kericho, the heart of Kenya’s tea production and where I spent most of my stay, there was little sense that the world was on the brink of an impending global pandemic, let alone reflection on what that could mean for the tea industry. And yet, in conversations with diverse actors in the sector, there was a shared narrative that the industry, responsible for one of Kenya’s biggest export commodities and foreign exchange earners, was struggling.
Enduring low prices of tea on the global market and rising costs of production have led multinational companies owning large tea plantations to look for ways to cut labor costs.
Tea is a labor intensive crop, and companies have historically depended on large resident workforces to pluck tea, plant and prune tea bushes and operate factories, among a multitude of other tasks required to maintain vast tea plantations. Biannual collective bargaining agreements led by the workers’ union have seen wages increase at a rate companies say is unsustainable for business. Citing high wages relative to other agricultural sectors in Kenya and the additional costs of employee benefits such as free housing and water, payment of retirement funds, and contributions to health insurance, along with the costs of maintaining infrastructures used by workers and their dependents such as schools and dispensaries, companies argue for the need to reduce labor forces.
The gradual reduction of company-employed low-level or ‘general’ workers has been taking place through parallel processes of mechanizing tea harvesting and outsourcing tasks outside of companies’ core activities of tea harvesting and factory processing. While workers carrying out core tasks continue to be employed directly by the company, thus receiving a union-negotiated wage and the package of employment privileges described above, outsourced workers are hired on insecure terms by external service providers who hold contracts with tea plantation companies. Outsourced workers are typically employed on short contracts, sometimes for as little as a few days. This renders them ineligible for union membership, and most earn less than half the daily salary of a company employee. If they are unable to work due to sickness, they will not be paid. The contractors who employ them are required by the company to make deductions from their salaries to national health insurance and social security schemes, but low wages and short-term employment mean that contributions are meagre.
Kenya has a large work-seeking population, and people are prepared to take outsourced jobs because of few employment opportunities.
In spite of the striking unsustainability of labor outsourcing for these workers, international sustainability standards say surprisingly little about this category and establish few mechanisms to safeguard them.
In the context of decreasing opportunities for employment in permanent company jobs on tea plantations, current and former workers talk with nostalgia about a time when company jobs and their related securities were a plenty. This nostalgia echoes the valorization of stable, full-time wage labor that Millar identifies as lurking in the notion of precarity. But, without dismissing workers’ nostalgia, we should be careful not to romanticize plantation jobs of the past which were, in spite of their securities relative to outsourced work, inherently precarious.
During the early twentieth century, the colonial administration sought to disrupt and undermine subsistence economies so that people would be forced to seek work on infrastructure projects and in settler industry and agriculture, including tea plantations. For decades, the industry struggled with labor shortage which undermined its growth and expansion. During the 1940s and 50s, efforts were made to create permanent resident labor forces through welfare provisions such as housing, kitchen gardens and retirement funds. Yet workers could never own the houses they lived in, nor the land they were given to cultivate, which remained the property of the company.
In seeking to create a stable workforce that could make Kenya’s tea industry sustainable, the colonial administration destabilized rural economies and created a class of people who would be forced, for generations, to seek wage labor.
If, in these uncertain times, we shouldn’t wish for a whole-sale return to permanent, full-time wage labor, what might we hope for instead? Millar argues for a critical politics of precarity that problematizes the centrality of economically productive work and its promise in contemporary capitalism rather than calling for a return to stable full-time work. Campaigns that propose alternatives to work include Universal Basic Income – where governments makes regular unconditional payments to every individual – and Universal Basic Services. A 2017 study by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity proposing Universal Basic Services in the UK argues that government provision of basic services such as food, shelter and transport has the potential to reduce dramatically the cost of living for those on the lowest incomes, making participation, belonging and cohesion possible in the face of increasingly precarious work. These initiatives are becoming more compelling as the world reels from the pandemic and we try to imagine a recovery that prioritizes social and environmental justice.
Hannah Elliott is a postdoc at MSC focusing broadly on the political and economic anthropology, in particular in eastern Africa where she has been conducting research since 2009. Her current research examines the production of certified sustainable tea in Kenya as part of the SUSTEIN project.
As the global Covid-19 pandemic spread through Europe and North America, companies raced to communicate how they were responding to the crisis. Advertising that focuses on a company’s response to humanitarian crises is hardly new. Every holiday season features a parade of brands touting their seasonal partnerships with charitable causes. Yet these exercises in “Covid-branding” struck a particular nerve with both consumers and media commentators because so many of the brands stuck to the same script. Quickly that script even became the subject of satire.
‘The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle.’
Amanda Hess, The New York Times, May 22, 2020
These patterns are important. In the uncertain early weeks of the pandemic, as governments were still crafting their responses, the stories brands told played a role in shaping how the public made sense of the crisis. What kind of a crisis was it? What sort of solutions did it need? What role should business play in delivering them? Covid-branding offered answers to those questions.
In this briefing note, we present a preliminary analysis of Covid-branding by companies in Europe and North America during March and April 2020. Our analysis finds that messaging clustered clearly into two ways could engage: ‘Covid-helping’ and ‘Covid-coping.’ These messages of ‘managing the pandemic’ and ‘managing yourself’ frame the consumption of goods and services as a way that consumers can show they care, presenting shopping as a form of everyday heroism. In this way, they make the case that private sector has a role to play in humanitarian response.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on the global economy. Measures to combat the spread of the virus, including border closures, and national lockdowns affecting one-third of the world’s population, shut down much industrial production and pushed white-collar professionals to remote work. These measures, coupled with a fall in consumers’ own confidence in response to the health crisis, contributed to rising unemployment, falling consumer activity, and the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
This context, with consumer activity declining overall and shifting from closed stores to online retailers, placed pressure on brands to compete for a share of the smaller e-commerce pie. At the same time, the recession placed pressure on marketing professionals to demonstrate their relevance at a time of overall corporate retrenchment.
We focus our analysis on online communications, especially social media output. Social media marketing is often informal in tone and crafted quickly to respond to real-time events, so that brands can ride the waves of attention paid to viral news stories, from royal babies to sporting events.4 Most research about this practice has suggested brands choose to focus on positive or neutral stories to avoid mistakes, as humorous tweets about a serious event can backfire. That makes Covid-branding in the early weeks of the pandemic, when infection and death rates were rising, unusual.
We also examine promotional emails and newsletters, a form of content marketing. Content marketers have begun to develop more journalistic skills, including as storytellers and explainers of complex phenomena, and indeed many former journalists are employed as content marketers. Covid-branding, in which brands help consumers make sense of the emerging crisis, is an example of this phenomenon.
These online forms have not received much attention from researchers of corporate humanitarianism, which has focused on more traditional forms of print and broadcast advertising. We hope that this brief typology of how marketers used these newer forms in the Covid-19 pandemic encourages further research into these formats.
Covid-branding as Covid-helping
Brands that emphasized their role in helping to manage the pandemic did so in distinct ways. To understand this, we considered two aspects of each marketing message: First, whether companies are making an engaged or disengaged intervention. Companies which are engaged use their own business capacities toward the Covid-19 cause. Second, we consider whether companies are claiming to directly or indirectly impact the Covid-19 crisis itself. We investigate whether the brand claims to address the medical situation (direct) or indirect societal outcomes of the pandemic, including economic impacts.
The four modes of engagement
Direct Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into directly fighting Covid
Some companies with core operations in the fields directly linked to fighting the pandemic (i.e. health care or logistics companies) quickly began communications around their role.
This Novo Nordisk Facebook advertisement shows healthcare workers holding up a sign reading “Thanks” in Danish. Novo Nordisk is a leading pharmaceutical company. Photographs of healthcare professionals at work in Novo Nordisk-made protective gear signaled company’s direct engagement.
Examples of countries where these products are in use underscores that the company serves a modern, global, and racially and gender-diverse group of professionals. Other direct engagement included shipping company Mærsk tweeting about “Mærsk Bridge,’ an air bridge and supply chain operation to transport PPE to healthcare workers.
Indirect Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into indirectly managing Covid
Since direct business engagement was only possible for companies whose core business was in medical or logistical operations, many companies emphasised managing indirect societal impacts of the pandemic in their early response.
As a food and drinks business with a national supply chain, Starbucks was able to use its core capacities to address indirect economic impact of pandemic on food supply. Promotional email highlights corporate donations of 700,000 meals to food banks and use of company logistics network to assist foodbanks with transport.
Makes the case that hunger “is part of the crisis” to underscore relevance of this indirect engagement.
Other indirect engagement included Draper James, the American actress Reese Witherspoon’s fashion brand, announced on its Instagram account on April 2, donations of dresses for teachers (deemed essential workers during pandemic); campaign backfired when dress supplies ran out.
Direct Disengaged: Business helps others directly fight Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to medical needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the Cover crisis.
A promotional email from Camper highlights the use of 3D printers from its manufacturing operation to produce medical visors. The Email also highlights donations of shoes and slippers to staff and patients in hospitals.
Camper does not claim that they are themselves engaged in work to combat the medical crisis, but rather that they are making resources and equipment available to others who can do so.
Other direct disengaged examples included fashion brand Armedangels making cloth masks while explicitly stating on Facebook that they could not protect the wearer – “we can’t produce medical masks” – but that 2 euro from the sales of each mask would be donated to Doctors Without Borders, or gas company Crusoe Energy Systems announcing that they were donating computing power to Stanford University coronavirus research.
Indirect disengaged: Business helps others indirectly manage Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to urgent economic or societal needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the impact of the Covid crisis.
Instagram post by crowd-funding platform GoFundMe promoting that its platform can be used by consumers to identify causes to support. Following the link to “learn more” shows company also offering free consulting to nonprofits on how to raise additional funds.
The company is not mobilizing its own resources to support Covid-related causes, but rather facilitating donations to other organizations through information sharing. Such consulting activity is not an ordinary part of the company’s core business.
Other indirect disengaged examples included Facebook offering grants for small businesses in the United States and using its network to promote the existing loan program from the US government.
Covid-branding as Covid-coping
Many brand engagements we examined did not make any claims to be helping combat the crisis, or its social impact, at all. Rather they focused on helping individual consumers to cope with the circumstances surrounding the crisis and its personal impact on themselves.
Because these “Covid-coping” messages focused on helping individuals, rather than society or the economy, our analysis focused on the demographics of what kind of consumers each type of “coping” message addressed, as well as what the messages said. We identified three coping mechanisms brands sold to consumers in these Covid-coping messages: coping-through-practicality, coping-through-pleasure and coping-through-denial.
Like indirect Covid-helping, it portrays shopping as way to address consequences of the pandemic, but instead of focusing on consequences for society, it targets how consumers can address their own needs.
An Instagram post by Zoku, a real estate company managing coworking spaces, offered private office rooms for professionals needing a socially distant office away from their household. Emphasis is put on a spare and clean layout of the office and “peace and quiet” for workers.
It suggests appeal to professionals with children struggling with disruption to work practices in shared family homes. Coping-through-practicality engagements largely addressed themselves to consumers in their identities as professionals and parents.
Other coping-through-practicality examples included laptop manufacturers advertising tools for working from home; home furnishings brands advertising tools for cooking at home; and phone, internet and electricity providers advertising their services as essential infrastructure for remote working and home-schooling. Marketing of this type emphasizes how brands could help families and businesses carry on “as normal” during a period of crisis.
Exclusively comprised of brands in the fashion, fitness and lifestyle industries, with messages targeted to young and predominantly white women; present luxury goods as means of coping with pandemic through ‘self-care’.
A promotional newsletter for the “athleisure” brand Jolyn depicts a slim and muscular white woman on an inflatable pool float wearing sunglasses and painted toenails. Sunlight appears to reflect off the body of water in which she floats, with a caption advertising a “Bikini for staycation.” The Image and caption present the lockdown, which compelled individuals to stay home from their usual recreational activities, as a “staycation,” an unexpected source of free time at home.
Other coping-through-pleasure messages included advertisements from fashion brands including Anthropologie and Nicole Miller advertising loungewear as “self-care style” and clothing for “virtual dates or happy hours,” as well as make-up brands offering online tutorials for those with “more time (inside) on our hands.”
These messages present the health crisis as an opportunity for women to take a “break” from work outside the home and relax with home-bound versions of their usual recreational activities. They draw on influencer culture, which depicts recreation as a full-time occupation. Coping-through-pleasure offers the chance to purchase some of the influencer lifestyle, where the pandemic is not a stressor, and one can escape at a moment’s notice to a sunlit pool.
Targeted widely to all consumers, these messages suggested that consumers shop as though the pandemic were not taking place, or advertised products which made light of the pandemic.
A full page newspaper advertisement in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s mostread newspaper, on 7 March, by two Italian ski resorts, Bormio and Livigno, captioned “Live the mountain with full lungs: There’s a snowy place where feeling great is contagious!”
At the time of advertisement running, lockdown was dissuading tourists from traveling to Italy, putting pressure on ski resorts, while deaths from the respiratory virus – which kills by targeting the lungs specifically – were at their highest in northern Italy, where ski resorts are concentrated.
Other coping-through-denial advertisements included Passports, a travel rewards program, contacting members in mid-March, when concerns about virus spread were focused on cruise ships, to advertise “the best pricing and exceptional bonuses” on celebrity cruises, and online retailers of topical and humorous T-shirts advertising limited range clothing with coronavirus-related captions. Notably, these engagements came broadly from the early weeks of our sample, and brands appeared to shy away from explicitly seeking to make light of the crisis or encouraging consumers to travel in spite of it, by the end of March 2020 when more severe lockdown and suppression measures were in place across Europe.
Implications for Brands
The different types of early Covid-branding in our sample, whether they focus on helping or coping with the pandemic, offer some cautionary lessons for brands.
About Commodifying Compassion
‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ is a research project focused on understanding how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism. An international team of researchers funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (2017-2021), we examine ethical consumption intended to benefit humanitarian causes from the perspectives of consumers, businesses, NGOs and recipients. The research will produce a better understanding by humanitarian organizations and businesses leading to more ethical fundraising, donors weighing consumption-based models as part of more effective aid, and consumers making more informed choices about ‘helping’ by buying brand aid products. To learn more about our work, visit the website.
Maha Rafi Atalis a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School, where her research focuses on corporate power, corporate social responsibility and corporate influence in the media. She is a co- Investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. http://www.maha-rafi-atal.com
Lisa Ann Richey is Professor of Globalization at the Copenhagen Business School. She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes. She is the principal investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. https://www.lisaannrichey.com
Photo by Colton Vond, “Obey Consumerism,” March 3, 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.