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How Businesses Can Help Society Navigate COVID-19


Are you a dating app, fast fashion business, or car company? Every business can help address society’s needs during the COVID-19 crisis.

Steve Walls is a strategic planner at the ServicePlan Group. Judith Walls is a Professor and Chair for Sustainability Management at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.

To date, many companies’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to email their entire database, telling consumers and other stakeholders to “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” The default of companies seems to be creating awareness of the need for social distancing. Very few messages sent describe practical, concrete actions that companies are taking to help navigate the storm of COVID-19. Much of corporate action has therefore seemed symbolic.

And yet, times of crisis are precisely when companies should step up and live up to their purpose statements — offering real commitment to social and environmental causes. This urgency holds especially for influential companies who are rich in resources. 

Society is facing at least six challenges related to COVID-19. Our families and communities need to Keep Calm, Keep Working, Keep Going, Stay Solvent, Stay Supplied, and Stay Safe. Companies can help address each of these challenges (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Wheel of Corporate Purpose during Times of Crisis

Help people keep calm under lockdown

Can companies help keep stress levels low? Could they provide entertainment to people? Fact check the stories spreading on social media? Or, bring people together through interactive sessions aimed at exercising, blowing off steam, or just breathing deeper?

So far, the “keep calm” strategy has been left to individuals who set up Facebook help groups, art institutions offering virtual museum tours, or stunt offers like free premium Pornhub. But Amazon could stream entertainment from artists who lack stages to perform on and have lost all their income. Mental health apps could provide balance to off-kilter parents and kids during home schooling. Social media companies could also help people to find existing help groups or help these groups organize more effectively. 

As misinformation about the virus proliferates, corporate voices can provide needed corrections. For example, Mucinex has a campaign to “Spread Facts. Not Fear.”

Help people keep working

By now, many people are using tools to connect virtually that they had not downloaded only a week or two ago. But many are also in crisis management mode, balancing life and work demands, and not making the most of digital tools. How can companies help the world make the switch to digital working and learning without an IT department at hand? Three areas need action:

IT support. Companies can increase the number of help lines and waive fees. Software companies can expand their assistance to competitors’ product offerings. 

Home schooling. As of April 2, UNESCO reports that school closures affect nearly 90 per cent of students worldwide. Many teachers had to invent digital activities literally overnight. Companies like Zoom have provided free platforms for K-12 education, but there are more opportunities. Companies could provide teacher- and kid-friendly guides to connection online, or apps that help parents know what their kids are doing. They could offer instant ‘teacher training’ to parents who are struggling to recall trigonometry. And, they can increase safeguards as many young children are suddenly online and more vulnerable to predators.

Data and bandwidth. Not everyone can afford the data demanded by this new way of operating, and companies can facilitate access. Loyalty points could be traded for data. Companies can offer locations for free WiFi. Bandwidth constraints are also growing as literally billions of people boot up their computers. Netflix has reduced its streaming quality to help out. Other content companies could suspend their 4k streaming to relieve the strain on virtual networks.

Help those on the frontlines keep going

Many people put themselves in danger every day to look after the sick, provide for the well, and keep essential services going. Companies can offer them support in two ways: 

Provide exclusive/ extended hours and services. Supermarkets such as Tesco have been quick to offer extended or exclusive shopping hours to those working in essential services. Can other companies offer similar services, such as a helpline that frontline warriors get through to faster, banking services that stay open longer, and direct delivery to hospital carparks or staff rooms? For example, Chipotle is giving out free burritos for medical staff.

Safer commutes. Daily travel to and from work, especially on public transport, puts essential workers at risk. Companies can lower that risk. Personal mobility companies that produce e-bikes and e-scooters can offer them up for commutes. Car rental companies could offer cheaper rental vehicles. Companies could sanitize public transport and offer basic Personal Protective Equipment to workers for their commute.

Help people stay solvent

The next mass wave coming in will be financial ruin, as economies nosedive, unemployment skyrockets, and savings run out. The implications of a 20 – 25 per cent decline in economic output are dire. Can companies help people stay financially afloat while they weather the storm? 

Business could give people a temporary break in their cash crunch. Companies can provide refunds on lost holidays, waive fees, offer payment holidays, and extend credit access. Small and medium enterprises, in particular, will suffer. Unilever is making speed payments to SME suppliers and providing credit to small-scale retailers.

We hear about price gouging, but there’s a great opportunity for companies to make the basics as cheap as possible, e.g. with their own label brands. This action can help lower the cost of living in the tough times ahead.

Let’s strengthen the safety net. Financial support for NGOs dedicated to feeding the poor hasn’t really started to pour in, but these organizations will be flooded with demand. Supermarkets can offer them produce and transport companies can offer logistics. Danone is putting $1.5 million into foodbanks. Anheuser-Busch is redirecting its $5 million sponsorship budget to the American Red Cross, converting empty sports arenas into temporary blood drive centers. Could finance companies offer them money to keep NGOs going?

Help people stay supplied

Can companies ensure that the old and vulnerable isolated at home get food and medication? Business has the necessary skills in logistics, transport, and digital technology for connection. Companies can:

Connect neighbours. Many of us don’t know our neighbours or their needs. Yet news stories keep showing that people are willing to help if they know how. Companies could make that link. For example, Tinder could switch its app from providing hook-ups between strangers towards providing connection between neighbours, to pick up a prescription?

Connect differently with customers. Large sales forces suddenly find themselves with company cars and nowhere to go. Could they become the new delivery drivers? Could Pharma reps switch from taking samples to doctors into taking prescriptions to patients? Could insurance employees get shopping lists from customers and drop off groceries? 

Help people stay safe

Can companies provide the essentials to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19? Companies can ask: How much of our production can be switched to make essential items like soaps, masks and ventilators needed to stop the spread of the virus? Should we abandon our key business lines temporarily? 

This is the most obvious, immediate way that some companies can help, so it’s heartening to see those who can manufacture at scale stepping into the fray. Tesla is providing masks and plans to manufacture ventilators. Ford is also onboard. LVMH is making hand sanitizers. Zara has committed to sewing masks and scrubs as protective gear for hospital workers. Crocs is donating easy-to-clean shoes to medical staff.

Provide Material Aid, not Memes

The world needs help to navigate this crisis. So far, too many companies are responding with clever brand or logo treatments.

Businesses are creative, powerful forces in our society. By addressing their skills to our shared challenge, they can close the gap between symbolic and substantive action and live up to their full purpose.

About the Authors

Steve Walls is a strategic planner at the ServicePlan Group. He specializes in Brand Reputation & the translation of Brand Purpose into Brand Action. He is currently based in Zurich.

Judith Walls is a Professor and Chair for Sustainability Management at the Institute of Economy and the Environment, University of St Gallen in Switzerland. Her research focuses on governance and sustainability. She’s currently the Chair of the ONE division at the Academy of Management.

This article is part of an initiative by multiple academic networks focused on organizations and sustainability to provide research-based insights into COVID-19. More information here.

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