Branding and Communication in the times of global crisis

These stories of branding and communication in the time of global crisis will, hopefully, leave you feeling as amazed as they have left me.

The year: 1918. Spanish Flu had ravaged most of the world, including India. In many ways, the world eerily resembled our current situation. Governments shut down everything, from offices to saloons. People were quarantined and had no way to meet friends and family. The words ‘social distancing’ did not exist in the dictionary, but people social distanced to escape the flu.

Two brands came out with flying colours.

Vicks Vaporub, the ubiquitous brand which is a large part of our lives today, had launched just a few years prior to the flu epidemic.

Vicks vaporub advertisement - branding and communication

Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson, the founder of the brand, was desperately looking for ways to stay top-of-mind in an era when there was no television.  He hit upon an idea: to create a newspaper campaign about how Vicks Vaporub could be used to keep the flu epidemic at bay, with detailed descriptions of how its medicated vapours opened our air passages and helped throw off germs.

Today, the Vicks Vaporub campaign during the Spanish flu outbreak is quoted as classic brand strategy when dealing with a crisis. According to the company’s history timeline, Vaporub sales skyrocketed, from $900,000 to $2.9 million, in a single year. There were a slew of articles and ads on ‘How to use Vicks Vaporub in treating Spanish influenza’, and very soon, druggists were informed that the brand was oversold due to the epidemic.

The campaign was so successful that, even today, the brand is synonymous with the cure for common cold and our desire to “feel better” when we get the flu.

It was also during the Spanish flu outbreak that telephones— which had been invented 40 years earlier and were considered an indulgence by the rich—was marketed as a way by which people can stay in touch with families and friends. An AT&T newspaper ad, which ran right through 1918, said, “People who are in quarantine are not isolated if they have a Bell Telephone.” In January 1918, a soldier quarantined at Louisiana’s Camp Beauregard, John B. Caldwell, married his sweetheart, Lorene Smith, via a telephone.

The bell telephone company of missouri - advertisement - branding

The rest is history and this campaign led to the widespread popularity of the telephone, with its penetration jumping from 35% to almost 80%.

This, then, is the power of seizing the moment.

Brand narratives are never linear stories. They are about an ongoing dialogue during times of normalcy, but also during times of crisis when, more than ever, brands need to interact with their customers and potential customers and create an atmosphere of trust. This becomes far more imperative when it involves travel brands and tourism boards, who are up against a global health crisis and the fear of travel.

A good example right now is the Scottish Government’s plan for reopening Scotland to tourists. It has drawn up a detailed plan on how it can create trust among travellers using digital, newspaper and television platforms. Its advice to hotels and tour companies: use campaigns to communicate the timelines by which the destination will welcome tourists again; send out messages of support, compassion and community spirit that might resonate best with the audience; and showcase destinations that travellers might like to visit once the world opens up.

Scotland campaign

That is intelligent investment. In a world saturated by competition, particularly after a crisis such as a pandemic when everyone is looking to make a statement about “safety, security, hygiene”, there are few things more valuable than the real estate at the front of your customer’s mind.

Marzban patel - founder and ceo, mediascope, india
Marzban patel, founder & ceo, mediascope, india

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