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Your Brand And COVID-19: Racing Under Yellow

There are two emergencies going on now – the health crisis and the economic crisis. When COVID-19 emerged as a real danger to the US, there was not much that the authorities could do about it. Disbanded first-response pandemic team, not enough tests, masks, ventilators, etc. You’ve read all about it. The only thing that could be done would have to be done by people themselves. In China, that’s pretty easy. The government tells the people what to do and they have to do it. New hospitals built in 14 days. Entire cities quarantined. It was impressive, if a little scary, to see what a totalitarian government can get done. It’s a little different in a democracy. The government can’t make us self-quarantine. It can’t make us all stand six feet apart. It can’t make us stop hoarding toilet paper. It can close down bars and restaurants but it can’t stop us from throwing house parties. In a democracy, the people have to all agree to take precautions. And I can’t express just how proud I am that we’re all getting with the program. Sure, some are a little slow to get on board but Americans, mostly, are coming together, helping one another to beat this thing. We’re taking care of each other the way we always do in an emergency. It’s a hard truth that some of us will suffer more than others. But, with a little patience, a little charity and a hefty dose of good humor, we’ll “flatten the curve” and the country will get through another tough time. And, in spite of the terrifying nose dive on Wall Street, there’s good reason to believe the economy will bounce back quickly once COVID-19 is mostly in the rear view. Last week, a new friend made a believer of me.

I’ve been speaking to quite a few business leaders in the past couple of weeks. Needless to say, they’re all in emergency mode right now. Their employees are concerned (some are terrified) about the virus and about their employment status. Business operations have to be rebuilt to allow working from home. Supply chains re-engineered. Painful staffing decisions need to be made. For instance, a few days ago, I heard from a regional manager at Kiehl’s, a skin and haircare retailer. Kiehl’s had survived the internet-induced downturn in retail by developing very popular in-store customer experiences: skin testing, facials and the like. But these experiences required staffers to touch the customers. That’s no longer possible. So Kiehl’s, a brand that got started when Abraham Lincoln was still a congressman, has suspended operations. And you can’t just shut down. You have to make a plan for shutting down gracefully and with fairness to everyone. Staffers know they will be paid through the end of April. What happens next depends on the virus. Kiehl’s is not alone. Every business is facing a variation of this story.

The economy is now like a race that’s under yellow flag,
deliberately slowed down in order to safely eliminate an unacceptable danger.

Last week I had the good fortune to share a phone call with Stephen Moss, President of Executive Springboard, in Minnesota. Steve has a storied career and has worked client-side, and as a consultant, on a number of legendary brands. I’ll just list a few of them: Kool, Capri, Deagio, Black Velvet, Jose Cuervo, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Old El Paso, Haagen Daz, Memorex, TDK, etc. You get the idea. Steve really knows his stuff and we had a great conversation sharing insights about branding. At one point, Steve made an incredibly keen observation about this economic crisis. Allow me to share it with you.

First of all, it’s nobody’s fault. People are pointing fingers in every direction about who “caused” the virus. That’s a waste of breath. It doesn’t matter where it came from. Scientists have told us, for years, that a pandemic of some sort was coming. They just couldn’t tell us when or from where it would originate. So if it didn’t come from China, it would eventually have come from somewhere else. Next, maybe we could fault governments around the world for not responding to the emergency more quickly or more effectively. But no government, no evil corporation, no brutal dictator, no sworn enemy actually caused this virus. It’s just something that happened, an “act of God” like a hurricane or an earthquake.

Steve made the metaphor of racing under a yellow flag. For those not familiar with auto sports, top race cars routinely reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour. To do that safely, they have to drive on a perfect track with no obstacles or other dangers. You can’t race all-out if, for instance, there’s a sudden shower and the track is too wet to safely race. When that happens, race monitors “wave the yellow flag”. When drivers see the yellow flag, they know conditions are too dangerous and race rules compel them to slow down to a safe speed. Very often an official pace car comes out and, with no passing allowed, all the drivers form a single file and follow the pace car safely around the track until the surface dries off. Once it does, the race restarts and it’s back up to top speed.

In Steve’s metaphor – you’re probably way ahead of me – the virus is like that sudden shower. The economy is now like a race that’s under yellow flag, deliberately slowed down in order to safely eliminate an unacceptable danger. But the thing to remember, the thing that should keep us all optimistic, is that there is nothing wrong with any of the cars (businesses and brands, to hammer the metaphor home) on the track. They’re all still in top form, ready to burn on all cylinders. So as soon as the yellow flag is lifted, the cars will waste no time going pedal to the metal again. The recovery should be relatively quick.

We’re all doing our part to slow the virus with our social distancing and our self-quarantining. Soon our testing will be up to speed and we’ll start to get a handle on just how bad the situation is and what we can do about it. Then we’ll start to beat this monster down. It will get worse before it gets better but it will get better. And, once the health crisis is resolved, the yellow flag will get lifted and the economic crisis should disappear in a roar and a cloud of dust. Here’s hoping your brand wins the race.


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