Launching a brand in the COVID-19 era: Five tips for success


By now, we’ve all read many an article about the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on life—and business—as we knew it. Many brand, product and service launches have been postponed. However, given the uncertainty over how long the crisis will last and what shape it will take next, it is difficult to delay. Indeed, launches or relaunches intended to respond to our changed reality cannot be delayed without defeating the purpose of the launch.

Customers’ lives have been upended and, with it, so have cultural norms. Brands thrive on cultural relevance, so when culture suddenly changes, brands need to consider how to shift content, channels and maybe even the fundamentals of their offer. This applies as much—if not more—to a launch or relaunch.

Revisit that launch marketing plan you had and if you hadn’t got this far, question your own assumptions. Starting with maybe your biggest one of all – that this is no time to launch. This could be a very good time to launch—a moment in which you can build trust and lay the path to loyalty (provided what you’re offering is really relevant, timely and useful). Here’s how.

1. Define your role
What can your brand bring that will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives now? Make sure your launch will get that across by connecting to the context. This doesn’t necessarily mean making Covid-19 a theme of your launch, rather it’s about defining a clear role that your target customer will intuitively appreciate has value, both now and in the future. This role should be based what you’re good at, rather than being grafted on.

When Disney launched its new streaming service in Europe as the pandemic picked up pace, it didn’t need to say ‘why now’ – the relevance of the timing and its role was immediate and obvious. Not every launch has a value proposition so rooted in culture, so consider whether to address the pandemic head-on or rely on your target audience to make the connection for themselves.

To recap:

  • Focus on what you’re really good at and connect that to the role you can play in the here and now.
  • Based on that, define the impact you can credibly create on day one.
  • Create guidance for your team on the tone you want to strike, and stick to it unless there’s a reason to twist.

2. Demonstrate your purpose
Purpose in branding is nothing new, and now it’s more important than ever. But articulating your purpose is nowhere near enough. It’s imperative to demonstrably deliver on it, right from the get-go.

We’ve spoken to scores of CMOs and brand leaders since the onset of the crisis, and the thing they almost universally agreed on is how purpose serves as a guide in unprecedented times. It follows then that it’s critically important to launch with purpose.

So, with that in mind:

  • Articulate a thoughtful, authentic brand purpose before launch
  • You won’t and shouldn’t – if the purpose is sufficiently ambitious – be able to deliver on it fully right away. But you do need to start enacting your purpose at launch or, better still, pre-launch. And remember: actions speak louder than words!
  • Post-launch, use your purpose to inspire how you respond in a context that will inevitably change.

3. Experience your experience
Thinking about how your launch will be experienced by your customers is good practice at the best of times. Right now, it’s essential. Putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and walking through their journey might reveal challenges or opportunities that are not necessarily obvious, especially if they’ve arisen due to the Covid-19 context.

The team at UK challenger Starling Bank must have put themselves in the shoes of at-risk customers to come up with the Starling Connected card that launched in April. The card allows someone shopping on your behalf to spend up to £200 from a designated space in your bank account – a simple solution to a new Covid-related complexity.

In summary:

  • Before launching, create or revisit key customer journeys to see how they might now be different, thinking in particular of groups that are most likely to have had their routines impacted, such as parents, key workers, and at-risk groups
  • Look for opportunities to be helpful and useful in ways both big and small, and match these opportunities to your innovation pipeline so you can prioritise what to accelerate
  • If an aspect of the experience at launch doesn’t play out as intended, change or drop it.

4. Lead with empathy
Be attuned to what your customers want and need in the run-up to launch. It’s never been more important. People are sensitised right now, they’re also consuming brands more intensively in quieter spaces, so they may notice more, and there’s more cultural commentary in social media too, meaning tonal misses can be amplified.

Before you launch, benchmark your intended tone through social media listening. This way you can reflect aspirations or concerns while delivering on your unique value proposition. Learn from the missteps and successes of other brands too. Nike’s ‘Play Inside, Play for the World’ launch projected Nike’s affirmative, motivating tone into a space that feels really relevant, taking Nike Training Club’s premium capabilities and make them available for free, so people could get help and instruction working out from home.

Consider the following:

  • Demonstrate understanding of your audiences
  • Be thoughtful, recognising the need for some care and caution in how you land your messages in a sensitive time
  • Don’t suddenly change a well-established tone. It will feel inauthentic. Your brand should have the same personality, it’s just that this persona is operating in a different context, so may need to flex its body language accordingly

5. Listen and learn
‘Fail fast’ was a popular adage for launches pre-Covid. It’s truer than ever now. If we’re all in unprecedented times together, then of course no-one will get it right all of the time, so there is likely to be forgiveness for missteps at launch, provided you can identify them fast by listening and acting.

When UK supermarket brands launched a new and well-meaning early doors initiative for key workers and older people so they could shop before a busy day, they quickly realised that mixing workers with a higher than average chance of being exposed to Covid-19 with older people was an unnecessary risk. They quickly changed the policy. That’s listening and learning in practice.

Here are some principles:

  • Don’t do a ‘big bang’ launch of the brand, product or service if it doesn’t feel value-adding. A soft launch, introducing it more gradually over time, is always an option
  • Don’t be afraid to change course with the best information you have available
  • If you’ve got it wrong, be honest about it – and make it right

Failure to launch is no longer an option

The good news, especially since indefinite postponement is simply not an option for many brand owners, is that brands, products and services can be successfully launched even now. Our five simple rules of thumb will hopefully help you make a start.



 Liz Olsen is Senior Strategy Director + James Withey is Executive Director, EMEA

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